Saturday, December 13th, 2014...11:34 am

Goya’s Corral de Locos – A Tiny Painting with Tons of Meaning

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A paper written for my Art History Research Methods course, and my accompanying presentation
On both assignments, paper and presentation, I received an A+

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes is one of the most renowned Spanish painters in art history alongside masters such as El Greco, Velazquez, Dalí, and Picasso. With a long career as a court painter and part of the Spanish Academy, this great artist displays a wide variety of styles and subjects ranging from Tapestry Cartoons and Court Portraits to graphic images of the Spanish War for Independence and his series of Black Paintings. His most notable works, often grandiose in scale and heavily commissioned or part of an extensive print series, fall into strict epoch and stylistic categorizations such as these. Those works that don’t fit snuggly under a proper heading are often left unacknowledged, or at most marginalized as unimportant, unspectacular, or occasional.[1][2] Corral de Locos, translated in English as Yard of the Lunatics, is one such painting that is not part of a larger heading, but the difficulty in labeling or classifying this image as belonging to a specific style or genre in Goya’s overall repertoire does not limit the amount of analysis that is to be had.

Goya’s Corral de Locos contains a lot of information in its modest 43.8 by 32.7 centimeter[3] borders. Painted between 1793 and 1794, it belongs to a group of paintings, all painted around the same size on tinplate, which is now referred to as the Cabinet Pictures.[4] The artist depicts a scene of violence occurring in an open courtyard of an insane asylum. Various characters grace the painted stage: aggressive brawlers, quiet onlookers, and isolated individuals. But what appears to be at first just a depiction of unruly members of society, Corral de Locos reveals even more. Social history and autobiographical methods can both be used to glean meaning from the painting’s surface. The differing and perhaps contradictory interpretations imposed on Corral de Locos make one thing clear: Goya’s portrayal of the underbelly of society is most importantly seen as a timely snapshot of when it was painted.

In order to best understand Corral de Locos, it is most beneficial to place it in an historical context. The scene is primarily understood to take place at the Saragossa Asylum due to correspondence between the artist and his close friend Bernardo de Iriarte in which he describes the setting as one “which I witnessed in Saragossa.” Peter K. Klein goes beyond this assumption of location and looks deeper into the painting for evidence. The Saragossa Asylum was considered an exemplary facility in its time, showing a wealth of progress in the field of mental health.[5] The setting, a courtyard enclosed by four large and imposing walls, is one that has been accounted for in several accounts of the Saragossa Asylum around the time of Goya’s work.[6] Another element that aids in pinpointing the location of the action is the fact that none of the inmates seem to be chained. Whereas many depictions of asylums feature individuals shackled to beds, walls, and floors, as the protagonist is in Bernard Lens the Elder’s illustration Bedlam,[7] Goya leaves this detail out. This disregard of the popular symbol of imprisonment is not omitted out of laziness or ignorance, however, but actually represents a revolutionary practice at the model Spanish asylum. Patients at the institution were never restrained with chains or shackles, and at most were simply forced to wear straightjackets, as depicted by the lunatic in the left foreground.[8] The last prominent piece of evidence placing Corral de Locos at the Saragossa Asylum is the costume worn by one of the inmates. The man who faces away from the spectator is dressed in a different manner than the majority of the figures that are clothed in sacks or in nothing at all. Under close inspection, the uniform worn by this individual can be recognized, through cut and color, as the librea, an outfit that identified the less dangerous and saner members of the Saragossa Asylum.[9] Despite the praise received by the Saragossa Asylum as innovative and progressive, Goya depicts it in a dark, dank, and negative light. With the factual information about the painting set aside, it is now important to focus on its meaning.

Because Corral de Locos contradicts contemporary commentary on the Saragossa Asylum, some scholars believe that Goya simply chooses this setting to portray a greater and more universal message about the violence of society. Through theatrical emphasis, the painting serves as a satire of human self-destruction and war. It is known that in the 18th and 19th centuries, asylums and mental illness were important characters in various dramatic stage depictions. The Saragossa Asylum, in particular, is the setting of a contemporary play in which the playwright “points up the folly of everyday types, and… the proximity of normalcy and insanity.”[10] She describes each of the figures in the image as characters on a stage, specifically the two men in the foreground, who, as she explains, represent fear and folly.[11][12] Though Tomlinson’s description of the play more closely describes Goya’s later painting entitled The Madhouse (1815-19), it may be interesting to consider where in the city of Saragossa Goya witnessed the depicted event – in the asylum, or at the theatre?[13] In addition to the vagueness already highlighted, there is no reason to question Goya’s visit to the actual asylum. Contemporary audiences who would have visited staged productions featuring lunatics also participated in visits to asylums. Like visiting a zoo or a circus sideshow, asylums were a place for the public to view strange and unfortunate creatures, to exert their gaze on “the other.” It is also important to note the dual usage of the Spanish word “corral,” which can be used to refer to both an ordinary courtyard as well as a courtyard theatre. Perhaps Goya uses his title to instill this confusion and ambiguity within the viewer.

Wendy Bird postulates that the French Revolution, a tumultuous event in political history, is what prompted the ferocity in Goya’s image.[14] In associating Corral de Locos with The Strolling Players (1793), another of the Cabinet Pictures, Wendy Bird shows evidence for the paintings’ satirical natures. The subject of the latter work, as put forth by Bird, is the failed dealing between France and Spain during a time of crisis. The characters, more prominently acting on a stage than in Corral, can be seen as representations of the Spanish royal family and aristocracy. Through the use of symbols, Goya is able to depict the impotency of the monarchical power.[15][16] Through an association with this satirical image, Corral de Locos can then be seen through the same lens, therefore representing the senselessness of the violence of the war. Bird goes even further to state that Goya may have alluded to the French by depicting the straight-jacketed lunatic in the foreground with what seems to be a bicorn hat, the fashion in France at the time.[17] To emphasize the violence of the war, Goya creates what looks like said hat by placing the guard’s whip above the lunatic’s head, connecting imagery of the French and the idea of violence in one symbol.

An autobiographical lens can likewise be applied to Corral de Locos, as Goya had just been experiencing major life-changing events during its creation. Every source is sure to include the fact that Goya produced his Cabinet Pictures soon after becoming inflicted with a serious illness, which would later render the artist deaf. Though the illness is unknown, most postulate that despite the illness – whether some sort of mental disorder, or sexually transmitted infection – Goya did indeed exhibit manic behavior.[18] It perhaps is for this reason that he painted Corral de Locos and the rest of the Cabinet Pictures, as he writes to his friend Iriarte that he needed to occupy his afflicted mind after the illness that he experienced.[19]

Juliet Wilson-Bareau looks to one of the figures in the painting for possible autobiographical meaning. The man in the background with his back facing the viewer, as mentioned above as an object to specify location, may also carry symbolic meaning. He is a representation of the artist, surrounded by the silence of an empty wall.[20] The separation can represent Goya’s proximity yet distinction from the maniacs inhabiting the foreground, a separation Klein has mentioned as this figure is not part of the dangerous furiosos (manic patients) but of the harmless librea.[21] With his illness and the maniacal behavior that he exhibited, Goya is representing how frighteningly close he came to being one of the asylum’s inmates. The blank wall may also represent the silence which Goya is nearing has he grows deaf.[22]

The theme of insanity can also take on a more symbolic, yet still autobiographical, role in describing the artist as creative genius. Enlightenment thinkers had already been discussing the relationship between mania and imagination, and Goya seems to agree with this line of thought.[23] Especially after his illness, many of his images, specifically his Capricho print series, focus on the theme of imagination, intellect, and insanity. Having been painted directly after his internal, physical battle Corral de Locos can be seen as the first in a line of autobiographical portraits in which Goya perhaps speaks to his maniacal yet creatively fertile experience.

The isolation and divorce between the man and the maniacs, who again, can be seen as representing a chaotic society, can also be read as the growing gap between artist and patron. In 1792, a year before the creation of the Cabinet Paintings, Goya is known to have spoken at the Royal Academy of San Fernando about improving and modernizing the education given to its art students. In his Memorandum he boldly states that there are “no rules in painting” and that everyone should be permitted to acquire his talents and techniques freely and in an individualistic manner.[24] He goes on to speak about the satisfaction an artist feels about his artwork, and how this contentment is related to quality. He claims that the artist receives more gratification from spontaneous, free sketches than from final, polished paintings produced for the purpose of commissions.[25] Corral de Locos, a small, frenzied painting, created for seemingly no other purpose but to clear Goya’s mind, is one such work that fits perfectly within Goya’s statements in his Memorandum. In a letter to his friend Iriarte, he describes the subject of the painting as one “which would not normally fall within the scope of commissioned work,”[26] and the amount of detail in the brush stroke is much less than in other works commissioned for the royal family and aristocrats.

Though Corral de Locos contains many characteristics of a work that rejects the desires of patrons in favor of artistic prowess, there are several elements that can be used as evidence to show the artist’s ultimate dependence on commissioned works. The painting of the lunatics in the Saragossa Asylum accompanies eleven other images, featuring bullfights and other disastrous scenes. Excluding the Corral, the Cabinet Pictures were referred to as images of “national pastimes.”[27] Though regarded as paintings purely created for his own benefit, Goya purposely chose popular, or at least well-known, subject matter for his small works. The accessible themes can easily be seen as translating into promising market prices. As an aside in one of his frequent letters to Irairte he also includes the hint that he had monetary gains in mind when working on these paintings.[28][29]

The aesthetics of Goya’s final Cabinet Picture, as well as four others within the series, fit in with contemporary, enlightened theories on artistic subject matter: sensations composées (mixed emotions) and the sublime.[30] By playing to contemporary critical theories, the paintings would be able to receive wider acclaim. The theory of mixed emotions focuses on the viewer’s excitement and pleasure at viewing a subject that is dangerous, violent, or scary. The reason for this dichotomy of sensations is because of the distance the viewer has from the event being depicted. The theory of the sublime, as put forth by Edmund Burke, shares many similarities with sensations composées, but the main difference is that with increased proximity to danger comes greater pleasure for the viewer. The dark and murky quality of Corral de Locos speaks directly to the sublime aesthetic. Both theories relate to the idea of the increased importance and prominence of emotion in the viewing experience.[31] Those who had the money and ability to invest in Goya’s works seem to have been taken by this modern art theory. Soon after the Cabinet Pictures were shown at the Academy, court aristocrats began to commission similar sublime works, such as the witchcraft paintings ordered by the Dukes of Osuna,[32] who had a history of commissioning mixed emotion works from Goya during between 1786 and 1787.[33]

The various themes, symbols, and readings of Corral de Locos culminate in a piece that relies heavily on the events surrounding its creation. Whereas a timeless artwork speaks to universal messages that persist throughout years and generations, Goya’s small Cabinet Picture serves merely as a commentary on late 18th century Europe. Peter Klein postulates that the combination of Goya’s illness and the French Revolution was responsible for the sublime nature of his work.[34] This may be part of the picture, and definitely supports the timely argument of this essay, but doesn’t take into account the commercial benefits Goya correctly believed would result from his popular aesthetic choice. The patron-artist relationship is an important contemporary issue that clearly surfaces in Corral de Locos and makes the work an even timelier one. Goya’s paintings, whether they are commissioned by the royal household or are part of his Cabinet pictures, are most always layered with meaning. In one letter to Iriarte, he describes the series of twelve as caprichos (fantasy, whim, folly), not to be confused with his later print series, and this loose classification has been used in several texts to identify and group the works. It is through this technique, by framing a crazed scene in a theatrical setting, by showing the whim and folly of the lunatics, that Goya is able to disguise a work that contains more important, historical, and timely meaning.

[1] Fred Licht, Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1979) 196.2

[2] It may also be interesting to point out that in discussing the Cabinet Pictures, or what he calls “occasional” pictures, Licht incorrectly attributes The Madhouse, a later (1815-1820), more typical depiction of an asylum and the folly of society, as part of this earlier series. This glaring mistake only goes to show that Corral de Locos is simply often left glossed over in art books.

[3] Janis A. Tomlinson, Francisco Goya: The Tapestry Cartoons and Early Career at the Court of Madrid, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) 222.

[4] Juliet Wilson-Bareau, Goya: Truth and Fantasy, The Small Paintings, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) 189.

[5] Peter K. Klein, “Insanity and the Sublime: Aesthetics and Theories of Mental Illness in Goya’s Yard with Lunatics and Related Works,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 61 (1998), 207.

[6] Klein, “Insanity and the Sublime,” 211.

[7] Klein, “Insanity and the Sublime,” 204.

[8] Klein, “Insanity and the Sublime,” 210.

[9] Klein, “Insanity and the Sublime,” 211.

[10] Tomlinson, Tapestry Cartoons, 223.

[11] It is interesting to note that contrastingly, Peter Klein has characterized these figures through the psychoanalytical method of physiognomy, their countenances representing the medical phenomenon of manie avec fureur, rather than symbols representing society’s flaws. He compares these men with images in medical journals of the time depicting the infliction.12

[12] Klein, “Insanity and the Sublime,” 217.

[13] Wendy Bird, “Goya and the Menippus Satire: New Light on the Strolling Players, Yard with Madmen and Later Works,” Artibus et Historiae, 30.60 (2009), 264.

[14] Bird, “Goya and the Menippus.”

[15] Bird uses evidence from previous capricho works to state that the figures portrayed in The Strolling Players represent specific members of the royal entourage. He satirizes King Charles IV by representing him with a large French-style wig, presenting him as a weak and effeminate leader.16

[16] Bird, “Goya and the Menippus,” 248.

[17] Bird, “Goya and the Menippus,” 269.

[18] Klein, “insanity and the Sublime,” 221.

[19] Klein, “Insanity and the Sublime,” 214.

[20] Wilson-Bareau, Truth and Fantasy, 203.

[21] Klein, “Insanity and the Sublime,” 211.

[22] Wilson-Bareau, Truth and Fantasy, 203.

[23] Klein, “Insanity and the Sublime,” 218.

[24] Werner Hofmann, “Unending Shipwreck,” in Goya: Truth and Fantasy, The Small Paintings, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) 43.

[25] Hofmann, Unending, 44-45

[26] Nigel Glendinning, Goya and His Critics, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977) 47.

[27] Wilson-Bareau, Truth and Fantasy, 200.

[28] “…and to offset the expenditure I have inevitably incurred…”29

[29] Glendenning, Goya and Critics, 46.

[30] Klein, “Insanity and the Sublime,” 224-228.

[31] Klein, “Insanity and the Sublime,” 224-231.

[32] Glendinning, Goya and Critics, 47.

[33] Klein, “Insanity and the Sublime,” 226.

[34] Klein, “Insanity and the Sublime,” 239.

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