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.