Goya by Sarah Symmons
By Sarah Symmons
Published by Phaidon Press, 1998
Printed in Singapore
Symmon's writing in this book has a tour guide feel to it; sometimes I felt as if I was walking from one painting to another, cut off from what went before as a new image was described. Yet Symmons is comfortable with her subject and seems to take pains to be thorough without being wordy. The amount of information is perhaps overwhelming, and I have found that this is a book that I can open at just about any place and begin reading, since an evolution of an idea is not being carried from paragraph to paragraph before breaking off into a new idea. This is an art history book in the true sense of the word.
Symmons makes short work of many of the Goya legends, and she brings up the usual debates (the Duchess of Alba) with a succinct explanation of the background. Her attitude seems to be one of some sympathy for Goya, although she attempts a neutral position while still declaring Goya a genius: maybe that is the neutral position. The Spanish painter is a touchstone for so much of modern art that when Symmons takes us on her fascinating "Tribute of Posterity" near the end of this volume, she handles it without bogging down into existentialism while all the same describing the existential concerns that modern artists (and art critics & historians) find to be such a magnet with in Goya.
"The disturbing enigma of Goya's vision, the hint of threats from an unknown source and the conjuring up of indefinable states of mind made him the inspiration for nineteenth-century masterpieces depicting anxiety and fear." (page 319)
She is explaining an existential image without existentializing her text, in fact someone need not even be familiar with existential ideas to understand what she is saying. This seems very fitting since Goya comes to us from an age when the ideas he is now so often celebrated for did not even exist in a categorical way. One need only to be human to absorb the pathos of, say, The Third of May. And Symmon's book often presents Goya in just that manner.
Her page on her book Goya: A Life in letters is here.
The Amazon page for ordering her book Goya: A Life in Letters
Guardian Unlimited brief review Sarah Symmons Goya: Life in Letters
You can hear an audio lecture (mp3 format) on Goya at Dr. Symmon's web site here
"From this headlong seizure of life we should not expect a calm and refined art, nor a reflective one. Yet Goya was more than a Nietzschean egoist riding roughshod over the world to assert his supermanhood. He was receptive to all shades of feeling, and it was his extreme sensitivity as well as his muscular temerity that actuated his assaults on the outrageous society of Spain." From Thomas Craven's essay on Goya from MEN OF ART (1931).
"...Loneliness has its limits, for Goya was not a prophet but a painter. If he had not been a painter his attitude to life would have found expression only in preaching or suicide." From Andre Malroux's essay in SATURN: AN ESSAY ON GOYA (1957).
"Goya is always a great artist, often a frightening one...light and shade play upon atrocious horrors." From Charles Baudelaire's essay on Goya from CURIOSITES ESTRANGERS (1842).
"[An] extraordinary mingling of hatred and compassion, despair and sardonic humour, realism and fantasy." From the foreword by Aldous Huxley to THE COMPLETE ETCHINGS OF GOYA (1962).
"His analysis in paint, chalk and ink of mass disaster and human frailty pointed to someone obsessed with the chaos of existence..." From the book on Goya by Sarah Symmons (1998).
"I cannot forgive you for admiring Goya...I find nothing in the least pleasing about his paintings or his etchings..." From a letter to (spanish) Duchess Colonna from the French writer Prosper Merimee (1869).