Visíon fantástica o Asmodea - Scale of Space / Scale of Time
Thinking of history as the backstory.
The really difficult thing about copying Goya’s Visíon Fantástica o Asmodea was not technical. It was coming to feel it’s emotional impact, as I came to a fuller realization of what the painting is about.
The composition of Visíon Fantástica is like a twist screw. It’s a vast roller coaster of a landscape with breathtaking shifts of scale. My first impression of it at the Prado was of contrasts; darks, lights, mass, gravity, closeness and distance within the spectacular scale-play of the painting. It’s with that impression that I began my painting.
Of course, I knew from Visíon Fantástica’s context as a “Pinturas Negras- Black Painting” that it was ‘dark’. But I found that the significance of the imagery only slowly dawns on you as you figure out what exactly those marks mean that you are trying to copy.
As you are painting, the story gradually comes into focus. The terrifying plot unfolds.
It seemed obvious to consider this painting in 4 parts: the floating couple, the mountain, the soldiers, the trail of people. Each element seems to have its own scale, to follow its own perspective. In some ways each seems to inhabit its own world. But they fit together, in a particular (Goya) way, with no hint of ‘surrealism’.
In this element a man and woman cling together, hovering above the land, isolated in their own ‘perspective’ their own scale, own law of gravity. She is looking off to the left, behind. He, with agonized looks, points to the right, towards the distant mountain. The woman is cloaked and veiled and seems to have pantaloons. Because they are the largest figures, they seem to be the main protagonists. Because they are in ’close-up’ we can relate to them as individuals. I can easily see an escape towards somewhere else. They are fleeing, perhaps into danger, maybe safety, but leaving a lot behind.
The painting got it’s name “Visíon Fantástica o Asmodea” from Antonio Brugada, Goya’s friend, colleague and his cataloguer. The name ‘Asmodea’ contains allusions to Hebraic literature, the Book of Tobias, “El Diablo Cojuelo”, a seventeenth-century literary work by Vélez de Guevara, and Classical Greek mythology. In the first Prado catalogue in 1900 it was titled “El Aquelarre” or Witches Sabbath. This is said to be because of some connection between other floating figures and witches in Goya’s work. The work is a state treasure.
Are these titles a distraction from a more straightforward interpretation?
I don’t know exactly what Goya was thinking, intending, what his personal frame of reference was, and there is a layer of almost 200 years of interpretations through which my personal understanding is coloured. But certainly more straightforward contemporaneous connections can be made.
Goya knew refugees. Twelve years earlier the town of his youth, Zaragoza, was besieged and invaded. “It was particularly noted for its brutality”, (wiki) (compared to regular rape/pillage/burn?). Napoleon himself, as well as his armies, invaded Madrid, Goya’s home. I remember the shock of seeing military troops in the streets of Montreal, helicopters landing on the roof of police headquarters across from my school during the War Measures Act of 1970. Compared to Goya’s experience, this was a drop in the ocean.
On the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the ‘Route Napoleon’ signifies the steep, challenging hiking trail over the Pyrenees from St-Jean to the albergue (hostal) in the monastery at Roncesvalles. We forget it’s literally Napoleon’s army’s route for invasion (and retreat) through Spain on its way to beat the United Kingdom in Portugal.
In contemporary terms, it’s not unexpected that an artist would express the traumatic events of their life through their art.
In terms of European art / history a parallel could be drawn between the structured formations, and splendidly choreographed armies of ‘traditional’ warfare and the court paintings by Goya of royalty in regalia.
I could also draw a parallel between the war waged by Spanish soldiers against the French in ‘guerrilla’ fashion, and the personal, emotional and unconventional “Black Paintings’ in Goya’s home.
The ‘events’ of the years 1808 to 1814 when Goya was in his 60’s have many titles, in various foreign and Iberian languages:
The more I research the more complicated it gets. To get to the bottom of the contradictions, discrepancies, simplifications, mistaken facts, is a lifetime's work.
So many points of view – the only unifying factor - horror!
The poetic ‘big picture’ composition of Visíon Fantástica o Asmodea is easier to face... at first!
So exhausting writing about it. This is where Art will take you!
I’ll just keep going, slowly, on track, like walking the Camino when it gets hard. Thankfully, no army is chasing me.
It’s time to add another Goya painting to Painted Steps.I’m thinking about the 14 Pinturas Negras, the so-called Black Paintings that hang together in the Museo del Prado.
Goya had originally painted these images on the walls of his own house on the outskirts of Madrid. He painted them between 1820-23, after a sickness had left him deaf, and before he fled to Bordeaux. (Coincidently this house had previously been named Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man). Fifty years later the murals were transposed onto canvas, ‘restored’, and given to the Prado Museum. I got to spend time in the Black Paintings room in the Prado on three separate days.
I’m considering choosing one of the 3 big “landscapes” from the room. These are horizontal canvases about 4ft x 12 ft. (1500cm x 400cm).
The choices are: Two giant men, seen from the knees up, whacking each other in turn, a dance of gods?
The one with the castle on the hill, the two floating figures and the French soldiers tucked into the right bottom corner,
the Four Fates? Impossibly floating, thick, ugly, relentlessly brown, each holding an apparently symbolic object; scissors, a manikin, a magnifying loop?
What to choose? All three are vivid in my mind.
The first two stand out because of their lovely colours -blues and golds. I want the blue colour. It’s a bit of relief and hope in that room.
It’s possible that the colour was actually added as a touch-up in the reconstruction process, after the paintings were peeled off the walls in 1874. I can understand why.
Visión fantástica o Asmodea
I‘m choosing “Visión Fantástica o Asmodea” the one with the big blue hill and what reminds me of my favourite magical element, a flying carpet.
I will place it in the space to the left of the “Royal Family of Charles IV’ (still unfinished). It will not be fitted into the height of the space, but will be "floating" or ‘pinned’ into the space available.
I paint from a reproduction in an art book and from a digital reproduction on the Prado website.
I did a couple of pen sketches to get a handle on the basic scale, shape and values.
Gouache is a surprisingly plastic medium. It dries quite quickly like water-colour, but because it is water soluble, it can be blended on site. It can be layered in washes and also painted on opaquely in blocks. I can make tiny strokes, or feather over textured layers in an effect reminiscent to intaglio printing.
After a painting session, the unused gouache can be left on the pallet, waiting for next time. It needs only to be briefly re-wetted. So rather than starting from scratch, with a pallet of pure colour fresh from the cake,(tube), I re-enter the process each session with a range of ready-mixed colours and tones.
I love it! It’s so direct! (compared with etching).
The place on Painted Steps where Fantástica is painted has bare paper as well as strokes of yellow, gold & blue gouache, the structural gestures I painted on the first day. These pigments were mixed with white glue and so are fixed- water-fast-won’t blend into the over painting. You can faintly see the marks through the picture. In contrast to the opaque quality of gouache, they give a slight ephemeral quality to the image.
Rather than starting with pencil sketch as I did with the Royal Family, I’ll work with a version of imprimatura method, the composition first blocked out in terms of tone as a scaffolding for the specific representations/details.
I put on the timer and paint in 30 minute blocks.
I struggle to capture the qualities of the Goya painting and win some/ lose some. – I achieve clarity and detail at the expense of the ephemeral quality of the mountain. Best I can do but of course I miss the emotional impact of the painting …the fragility of hope, perhaps.
So I have to think about what I am trying to achieve with this painting? First, it’s painting as a noun. A painting. It’s a souvenir -“See what I saw”- like a post card. It’s not a copy in the sense of faithful reproduction, but certainly close enough to be a reminder of the actual painting.
Why not just clip in a photo? Because, secondly it’s painting as a verb. To paint. I’m using the act of painting to really explore the original work, to look, to see, to notice and notate as best as I can what I can see. My painting is act of transposition, re-construction, like singing along… learning the words to a song. I am trying to really listen (see) to what Goya is saying, to really see what he is showing, to grasp what he is evoking.
Painting /drawing, is a great way to examine an object. To paint is to use the brush as finger, touching, and tracking with paint the accumulated knowledge. The snapshot would record what’s there, what it looks like, what the camera sees. It’s passive. To paint/ draw is to record what you found/saw. Being active.
In the years between his birth in 1746, making these paintings 1820-23 and before leaving Spain for Bordeaux in September 1823, what had Goya seen?
I’m not trying to copy the painting as artifact but to walk a little in his shoes.
It’s a walk that haunts me during the two weeks I’m working on the painting.
Laurie Anderson *
“I wanted you. And I was looking for you
But I couldn't find you
I wanted you. And I was looking for you all day
But I couldn't find you. I couldn't find you
You're walking. And you don't always realize it
But you're always falling
With each step, you fall forward slightly
And then catch yourself from falling
Over and over, you're falling
And then catching yourself from falling
And this is how you can be walking and falling
At the same time”
As with any modern journey, photography plays a big part in the making of Painted Steps.
A picture's worth a thousand words
A picture tells a thousand lies
The truth lies in perspective.
The actual painting of the Cometa Roja, red kite, is only 2 inches square, a small addition to Painted Steps, but it can activate a much larger space giving the sensation of distance and speed.
One of my basic rules for Painted Steps is that all the little pictures (icons) have to be of things I actually saw. The pictures are painted from photos, and mainly from my own photos along the Camino.
In Painted Steps, I've used photography in a number of different ways.
The photos I took along the way are snapshots. Their intent was to store and carry information, to transport ‘evidence' of being there. They are souvenirs, aide-memoires, notations, a reminder for later.
But as Painted Steps has progressed I’ve found the need to use photography to capture the stages of the painting of my pictures, to use photos as tracks in the sand. I seem to need to show the trail from where the painted image comes.
And then an unexpected development has cropped up; using photography to create new narratives, delineating relationships between the icons, and between the icons and the ground.
Photography creates another layer of mediated experience, from looking at a painting about an experience, to looking at a photograph of a painting about an experience. The photo has made decisions for you, edits your experience of seeing Painted Steps.
The camera is an intermediary, expert at creating new relationships, contexts, generating new illusions, tales, and excitement. It’s all a question of perspective, point of view.
The photo is a vehicle for showing what the photographer has seen, to encourage you to put your attention on certain things. The language around these photo technologies has become metaphorical. To focus on…To frame a topic… To contextualize… To expose…
The camera can seem to deliver, to bring things close to you, or to take things away, to distance you.
Slow Travel, Slow art, Slow down thoughts…
To think thoughts out clearly, I need the mediation of physical media. Unlike words, mediums with physical properties make demands of specific space, time and place. Things need time, things need place. Things make demands according to their inherent nature and the forces moving them.
So I etch, paint, draw, construct. The rapid shape-shifting of thoughts and words is slowed down in the mediation and transposition to the physical world. It helps me keep on track, stay focused. The Camino is the perfect metaphor.
The rules or terms of engagement of my painting are being evolved as the painting is made; the path is created by my going there, my taking the Journey.
BUT How lovely that the Camino path already exists!
Slow Travel, Slow art, Slow down thoughts…
Like the Caracol…and the Cometa….
"Telling the truth creates fiction.
The cartographer is thus constantly making judgments about what to include, what to leave out and what to show in a slightly incorrect place.”
This issue assumes importance as the scale of the map gets smaller (i.e. the map shows a larger area) The absolute positions of major roads are sometimes a scale distance of hundreds of meters away from ground truth, because of the overriding need to annotate (point out) features."