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Goya and the Fable (1)

The fable, short story in verse or in prose to illustrate a precept, is all a literary genre whose characteristics would be defined and profiled by the Greeks, people which, in the opinion of H. Taine, have thought that much, have its spirit so well done, that their guesses have been found many times with the truth. However the origin of the fable goes back to Mesopotamian fables arrived in Greece around 2,500 b.C. and later in India. Both routes, Greco-Roman and Indian, constitute traditions that will subsequently contact the middle ages through Arab translations.

While Aesop passes as the promoter of the first collection of fables, has not reached us nothing of him -even his existence is controversial- and we know his fables by subsequent collections. In any case Aesop, whom tradition attributes the condition of slave of Phrygian origin, is known author since long time ago and is the first model known and reported. (Julián Gállego says that) was first a slave, then freed and dead by the residents of Delphi. Herodotus places his life between 570-526 b.C. and Aristophanes quotes him as a usual reference in his comedies.

Fictitious and allegorical nature, the fable is a resource of speakers to achieve persuasion and not intend to both provide an unreal incident and not credible, usually in the animal world, as show it to us by what this event means in way of meditation about men’s world. Sandwiched between genres as comedy, as opposed to the epic literature, for example, with the pass of time the fable, by its format and its easy, its high moralizing and persuasive value will serve the different philosophical schools -stoical, cynical- for the education of young people, due to its high moralizing and persuasive value. In any case, Aesop’s fables are characterized by brevity and simplicity and will be used, along with the Phaedrus ones, in education within a moral lay that essentially aims to emphasize vigilant attitude towards life.

Thus Phaedrus, in the 1st century, speaks of teaching to delight:

Duplex libelli dos est: quod risum mouet
et quod prudenti uitam consilio monet

So that they will be presented to fulfilling perfectly the Horacian utile dulci maxim, as testifies the Latin grammarian and rhetorician Quintiliano (1st century), and already in the European middle ages, shows a pleased Petrarca when remembering his early school experiences.

For F. Rodríguez Adrados, in fables “the mighty is imposed, are any of the reasons for the weak (…) But the weak may be superior in wit and succeed with deception or cunning. And there is criticism and mockery of vanity, stupidity, greed.” According to this thesis, is best understood why fable awakens more or less interest in certain historical periods and groups such as the cynics in the classical Greece, and, as we will see ahead, the enlightened and liberal Spanish of the 18th and 19th centuries. Especially taking into account that the fable, for its specific characteristics, in spite of being used to designate shortly human vices and also as a method of first school indoctrination, does not necessarily have in children its best public, because in many cases will be via of profanity and cynicism and consequently much more suitable for an adult audience.


Velázquez and Aesop

“In the middle ages… collections of aesopic fables (…) were increasing gradually. Romance literature in the Iberian peninsula offers good field for this fabulous spirit, and thus can be seen, to give just an example, at the multiple apologies inserts in the book of the Good Humour by Juan Ruiz”

However, the fable as a genre had been despised, when not ignored, by literary scholars until deep into the 17th century. But it is worth remembering that Velázquez had lived in the Baroque, a period in which the art is theatrical and artificial, in which nothing was what it seemed.

According to López Rey “the use of Greek fables along the life of Velázquez, until the very end of his life, is so repeated that, whatever the part corresponding to the whim of the King was, cannot be supposed was animated primarily by a sense of irony and critical shredder, as not few times has been claimed”.

Felipe IV had gathered at the Torre de la Parada a series of great artists, agree in essence with the belief that the people of talent have never more talent than when they are together. And for this purpose, as well as Rubens with his Saturn, Vulcan, and Ganymede adorned some of the rooms, the Flemish painter Paul de Vos -brother-in-law of Snyders- also had participated in the decoration of the Torre, precisely illustrating several fables of Aesop, and proving once more that the fable, as advice or admonishment, serves both for literature and for any other artistic activity.

For J. Brown, it is equally possible that the Aesop and Menippus were Velázquez response to another couple of paintings by Rubens, Democritus and Heraclitus, hanging in the same building. Because in classical literature, Aesop was a place also as a critic of the Apollonian or cultivated life and not only as a storyteller. And in the context of the hunting residence at montes del Pardo, the portrait of Aesop along with the one of the cynic Menippus, at the same time exalting the wisdom and crackle of philosophical gravity of the common man, they would be as the patron saints of the simple life.

In conclusion, Julián Gállego says that seems plausible that in a leisure Pavilion –as much as hunting was a royal art prepared for the war-, was admitted a miscellaneous decoration in which satire of ancient culture, so evident in the Golden Century in literature as in painting, had a right place. Because “If Democritus, who laughs at everything, and Heraclitus, which takes everything as a cause of crying, is often provided to the Spanish satire, Aesop, who instructs humans because of their similarity with beasts, or Menippus, in his cynical position, that worth the effort”.

Menipo y Esopo de Velázquez

Menipous Diego Velázquez, 1639 – 1640 Oil on canvas 179 x 94 cm. Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

Aesop Diego Velázquez, 1639 – 1640 Oil on canvas 179 x 94 cm. Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

The Velázquez Menippus and Aesop constitute, on the other hand, characteristic pictorial types of 17th century in which, as José de Ribera will do with his Democritus, employ venerable figures of Antiquity dressed in tattered clothes of the 17th, in order to find a clever way to summarize their themes and essential ideas.

But he (the seller) could not dress him nor present him as required, because was a kind of corpulent and completely deformed guy, so she dressed him in a burlap robe, tied a strip of fabric at the waist and placed him between two beautiful slaves

(From the biographical legend of Aesop where is putted on sale with other slaves).

  1. Brown ends his file of the portrait stating that no one has exceeded results that Velázquez scored when he came to this special genre. Aesop, man in advanced age and soft and tired face, carries a damaged book in one hand and introduces the other at the waist of the broad cloth that serves as a little flattering dress.

A cube with a piece of leather that hangs on the outside of the container appears on the left side of the canvas, discreet reference to the fable in which a man neighbour of a tannery just finish learning to tolerate noxious odours from leather.

In front of an imaginary affair as the one of this canvas, the brush of Velázquez back flies and conveys a sense of solid structure, but does so by dim and hazy effects of light, with an extraordinary delicacy. Facial features are achieved with very light strokes, and then the lights are irregular fragments of filling of white lead. In Aesop hair can be seen short brush strokes and paint specks that give this aspect of curled and stiff.

In conclusion, Velázquez fails finally a work of the overexcited imagination, but the lucid reason. Is built to last by itself and without help, as so cool and rightly know to capture Francisco de Goya when, long after, make wonderful cuts of the paintings of Velázquez owned by the Royal Aragonese Economic Society of Friends of the Country.


To be continued….

Gonzalo de Diego

Great news

It is, without any doubt, the announcement that the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston that next October 12th -national day of Spain- will open at its facilities an exceptional exhibition of Goya entitled: ‘Goya, Order and Disorder’. The exhibition will close on 19th January 2015 and is the largest retrospective of Goya in the USA for the last 25 years.

Indeed, as I mentioned in this blog in July 2013, exactly 26 years ago was presented publicly what we could call a -glorious- history of the exhibition that now has been announced to us.

In 1984, Eleanor A. Sayre initiated and organized the preparatory work for the shows in spirit of exemplary cooperation, and already in 1988 co-directed with Professor Pérez Sánchez, who was then Director of the Prado Museum, the magnificent exhibition of ‘Goya and the Spirit of the Illustration’, a reference exhibition and catalogue, which took place at the Prado Museum, Madrid (October-December), at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (January-March 1989) and at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York (May-July 1989).  Success was more than remarkable and its impact unforgettable.

Well, it is now another curator from the Boston Museum, Mrs. Stephanie Loeb Stepanek, who, ahead of a brilliant team of collaborators, has been working in the exhibition we will see from October, if you have the fortune of being able to travel to Boston. Great news that from the city of Goya, almost 6,000 km. away, we look with admiration and enthusiasm; only for the chosen title, about the order and disorder creativity of our countryman, we taste a museum event are sensed with clarity as intelligent, attractive, interesting and challenger at the same time. Only this mention, and supplementary information, stimulates more than ever our pre-emption aesthetic ability, the capacity of the imagination: the great virtue, or vice, which André Breton had learned from the pages of Sade: “Beloved imagination, what I love above all in you is that you not forgive“.


From Goya’s homeland the exhibition is seen as a challenge. An issue that no doubt had to force the sharpness and the work of Mrs. Loeb Stepanek, surname with notable Czech resonances, as Frederick Ilchman and Janis A. Tomlinson, with contributions, among others, from Manuela B. Mena and Gudrun Maurer. The museum announces that the speech of the exhibition and for the catalogue will follow innovative thematic criteria, which is very thankful, and we are already impatient almost three months ahead. Premonitory impatience in some way because I have to beg the reader now that allows me to, briefly, talk about something that although it seems to have no relation, it has. And a lot. French, who know enough of this, speak of that at lunch in a restaurant in which we enter for the first time, in a simple meal house or a home, by pure intuition we know when we are going to eat well. This is what in haute cuisine is known as the threshold effect, what know and dominate the real maître d’hôtel, able to calibrate the customer from the very first moment of the entrance to the dining room and that allows them, in an instant, make an idea, and then anticipate the desires of the customer. That same threshold effect I think it also exists in the case of exhibitions, especially in the exquisite, which represent an advance and are therefore especially tasted by gourmands of the Art.

Leave the apparent digression and come back to the topic: very occasionally, because it cannot be other way, have the opportunity for some of the great museums in the world -as exemplary in terms of Goya are the Prado in Madrid and the Fine Arts in Boston- provide us exemplary exhibitions which immediately become the refurbished canon which increase all the knowledge we have about this immense artist. It is the case, luckily, for the exhibition we were announced. We are sure of it. More than 160 pieces in the exhibition, including paintings, prints and drawings dated between 1770 and 1828, and some of them never seen before in Boston, also from the Prado, Louvre, Galleria degli Uffizi, Metropolitan, National Gallery and numerous private collections.


Last communion of san José de Calasanz. Oil on canvas. 250 x 180 cms. Calasancio Museum. Madrid

For me it is also very satisfying to know that in such an excellent exhibition shall show the superb canvas of The Last communion of San José de Calasanz (La última comunión de San José de Calasanz), which I have mentioned extensively in the essay Goya’s border (Goya al Límite), which can be read for free at the Apple ibook store, as well as on the website I think that it is a capital, very important piece within the career of Goya, a true masterpiece and its choice is one of the landmarks of this exhibition and a major success of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston requesting its loan to the Calasancio Museum in Madrid. A piece that will allow visitors to the exhibition see the prodigious pictorial power of Goya in a key year of his life, 1819, where he also would paint the very famous black paintings with a completely different register. Prodigy’s conceptual versatility and impeccable pedagogically show of what Goya was and how was expressed to himself and the world. This exhibition makes all this with generosity.
Great news.

Gonzalo de Diego

Festive Goya

Was Goya an enjoyer of life? It seems that yes, that he actually enjoyed hunting, bullfighting, life and its pleasures in general as sometime takes a courtly conduct quite dissipated, is true, but neither more nor less frivolous, in principle, than usual in a public social position such as his. Therefore, if his character was also this, will have to agree that Robert Hugues is right when he says that Goya “was also a convinced epicurean, since we know that he loved all the sensory: the smell of an orange or the armpit of a girl, the aroma of tobacco and the aftertaste of wine, the pulsating rhythm of a street dance, the play of light on the taffeta, the moiré, the simple cotton; the glow to expand on a summer evening sky or the pale glow of the finely carved walnut butt of a shotgun.”
And that as such enjoyer in his Epicureanism practiced a doctrine of a typically secular and Mediterranean paganism, practical but light, that sought above all to ensure the necessary calm for a happy and pleasant life in which fears of fate, the gods or death were definitely eliminated. In the end Epicurus proposed the realization of good and happy life and the friendly relations between their co-religionists, which theoretically is a perfect balance between mind and body that provides serenity or ataraxia.

comicos ambulantes Goya

The touring comedians, 1794 (detalle)  Madrid, Prado Museum

But Goya was not always like this, although certainly he states quite clearly in very specific moments of his life, as when already in his fifties sends a letter to his friend Martín Zapater between 12th and 25th December 1797, which shows effusive and graphically the gratitude of a group of friends to Martín Zapater for his invitation to drink, food and a balcony in the very distracted Plaza Mayor of Madrid, due to have been awarded in the tosses of the Real Loan.

The letter reads as follows:

Powerful, very generous and splendid Lord Don Martín Zapater.
Dear Lord, and the greater veneration and respect:
Seized of appreciation and recognition to the kind generosity of your mercy and even more to the delicious delicacies, delicate wines, and super-soft liquors, that to your order have celebrated the congratulations, that luck has favoured your enviable happiness and fortune, cannot give your mercy (as is our obligation, that we acknowledge and confess) so fulfilled, and expressive thanks few were awarded by his panache, and sumptuously;
Who could think, or flow, that a seedy, a Caribbean as your mercy, would have surprised with such gallantry our encouragement, willing (as so interested) to celebrate and applaud your happiness; No one; and thus we have exalted ourselves to such an extent that joy almost has become immoderate! That toast! That repetition of bottles! That coffee plus coffee! Those bottles! That drinks to the air! There is no more say that the glass of the House has been renovated; and all these could only hear cheerful voices of hurrah Zapater, that excellent man, that good friend.
Hurrah, and more hurrahs. Release lots, and release more, faith that has true friends who celebrate it, and thank the Almighty because exercises with man so worthy his benefits;
We conclude our function with all happiness and joy, but what a new surprise rushes us at this moment! A servant who brings a Simon car and a memo from the same Lord who has given treat us has prevented the balcony over the town so we enjoy ourselves and rest of the fatigues of the celebrity, oh great day, happy day, they have been applauded so many congratulations, as many such and so many bounties; won’t lower that to receive your mercy, as will applaud him, as will held him! And as confession, that they are real friends and they don’t want anything other than the satisfaction of your mercy, his happiness and their joys, these are your more grateful and attentive friends and servers that kiss your hand.
Served of Ladies not Zambombos.
Merry Christmas
Pedro de Garro (signed)
Francisco de tus Glorias o de Goya (signed)
Merry Christmas
Julián Baquero (signed)
El último congregante de los Putos
Santa María (signed)
Truly Merry Christmas to your mercy, oh generous Aragones! His fine friend!
Francisco Díaz (signed)
Merry Christmas
José Zamora
Merry Christmas and health, health to found this pious deed
Antonio Ferrer (signed)
Merry Christmas. Last in the Seraglio of Musiu Signature and sign in testimony of the Truth (Drawing of a notarial cross)
Mrel Escorial (signed)
All drunks
El Rojete (signed)
Christams of Nicolasa Lazaro with her pie like a wheel (Drawing of an outline female torso with a tube in the mouth)
That rich cake of excellent eel.
Josefa Bayeu (signed)

carta a zapater Goya

Letter to Zapater, between 12th and 25th December 1797

Two drawings decorate the letter. One, of an outline female figure (Nicolasa Lázaro) that in the letter praises the cake of meat or eggs that had eaten. And the other is a figure on its back, on its fours on the floor and ostentatiously displaying its naked bottom. As it says the Prado Museum, owner of the letter, “It has always been seen as a figure of a woman, but is actually male, due to the muscular forms of the buttocks, straight thighs and, above all, sex can be seen well between the legs. Also the hairstyle implies, according to the fashion of the town at the end of the 18th century, with hair collected in the back as with a snood, or the outfit, with the white shirt lifted on the back and the panties down, described swiftly in the horizontal line that crosses the thighs, as well as in the large and coarse shoes. Zapater, the only viewer of the letter, must have understood the meaning of his friends joke, both if were referred, for example, the tract of Francisco de Quevedo, don’t know if well known then, Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Eye in the Ass. It was a period in which Goya had been especially interested in the Spanish writer, which Dreams inspired his Caprichos.”

Nothing predisposes better for good humour as a good wine cellar and a kitchen more or less delicate. Certainly, this described was not a diplomatic lunch in Vienna, but diners, free for tongue and pen as a result of wine, are people who look like non accustomed to niceties, though they have all very good discerning palate. And through the letter clearly breaths that it was also, as Julio Camba would say, a spree, a pilgrimage, a day of revelry and riot in which our protagonist was planned his day with friends willing to eat, drink, sing and dance to the limit of his endurance. This feast is also a tribute to the generous friend in which course there is not only art: there is a sincere and cordial emotion, that is the excitement of the Sun, the blood and the danger, and there are also beautiful women, with fresh and burning cheeks touched by classic mantle Just need yet, if something certainly missing, a good cigar and a nap, since is missing the bullfight, highly desirable for Goya but impossible in Madrid’s December.

Gonzalo de Diego

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