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The Distant Origins of Modern Art: Reason, Madness and Reversal in Goya’s Paintings and Works on Paper

A public lecture by Richard Read (The University of Western Australia) online via Zoom


Image: Goya, Plate D from the 'Disparates': Fools-'or Little Bulls' - folly
ca. 1816–23 (published before 1877), The Met Museum

Date: Wednesday 16 September 2020
Time: 6:30–7:30pm (AWST)
Venue: Online via Zoom. Email james.youd@research.uwa.edu.au for the Zoom link and password.

Much of the best literature on Goya draws on Michel Foucault’s thesis in Madness and Civilization that, just as Enlightenment medicine and philosophy divided madness and reason into mutually defining opposites, so opposites came to half-resemble each other in creating the Romantic stereotype of the mad genius, whom Goya, William Blake, Henry Fuseli and others came to embody.

This lecture looks at the confluence of public turmoil and private illness that prompted Goya to embody a new kind of art whose strangeness energized the spectator’s projections through the conspicuous artifice of the artist’s imagination. Just as Goya’s self-portraits follow Velázquez’s Las Meninas in adopting the trope of the reversed canvas, so etching itself entails a literal reversal not only of the design but also of black, white and intervening tones, a strategy amplified in depictions of figures flipping, spinning, and dropping. These effects consort with a paradox of values derived from the traditional cycle of the European Carnivalesque in which, after the French Revolution, social protest against repressive hierarchies was no longer an annual safety valve for revolutionary ferment, but a state of perpetual reversal. Hence the ‘End of Art’ does not begin with Hegel’s philosophical negation of art or Marcel Duchamp’s ‘anti-art’, but with Goya’s post-Enlightenment, post-revolutionary vision of the artist out of control, the victim of inner and outer compulsions, but also as facilitator of the viewers’ imagination rather than the agent of his patrons’ power, a tension Goya knew first hand through a career in which he stood in the crossfire between monarchs on whom his livelihood depended and the liberal intelligentsia from whom he drew his friends and ideas.

Emeritus Professor Richard Read is a full term Associate Investigator, and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia. Having been Winthrop Professor in Art History in the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Art, he has published in major journals on the relationship between literature and the visual arts, nineteenth and twentieth-century European and Australian art history, contemporary film, popular culture and complex images in global contexts.

This lecture is supported by the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions, the Medieval and Early Modern Studies at UWA, and the Perth Medieval and Renaissance Group.