SEPTEMBER 5, 2017
Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819–1823
Museo Nacional del Prado
1. CALL THE COLOR scheme fairy tale grim: black, white, red, in descending order of abundance. A father, Saturn, devours his son. The pale body lacks an arm and head, the other arm is elbow-deep in the Titan’s mouth. A prophecy foretold of an offspring’s coup.
2. Cannibalism is Saturn’s solution. Look at his blank-eyed ferocity. There is uncomprehending madness, yes, but beneath that fear. When an underclass threatens your status, destroy.
3. We don’t know which son it is and it doesn’t matter, I guess. Beyond the frame of the painting, his wife Ops will get wise and feed Saturn a stone instead of Jupiter, hide him in a cave until he is grown. He will inevitably conquer his father. Saturn knows this will happen; he eats his sons regardless.
4. Saturno devorando a su hijo is different from Francisco Goya’s other works, such as early portraits of royalty or even later etchings sharply critical of the atrocities of war. It is one of the Black Paintings affixed to the walls of his home, Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man), which he bought in 1819 at age 72. These paintings were not commissioned. They were not for sale. No one saw them until after his death. The artist’s fear is in Saturn’s eyes.
5. Juan José Junquera, in researching his book The Black Paintings of Goya, found evidence in archives that the work may not actually be his. None of Goya’s contemporaries ever mentioned the Black Paintings. (The counterargument is that his contemporaries were old men who died along with him.) When pressed, Junquera supposed it was the work of Goya’s son Javier, for the profit of his own son, Mariano. Goya’s grandson was constantly in need of money and to sell his grandfather’s house with the paintings attributed to him was a boon.
6. Another fantasist of the grotesque, Hieronymus Bosch, a precursor also famous for depicting hell, like Goya keyed in to human impulses toward evil, and was also much copied and misattributed for profit.
7. E. H. Gombrich, considered Goya more effective than Bosch in depicting the fantastic, citing Goya’s The Giant (1818). Of course, there’d been 300 years worth of artistic developments between them.
8. That giant, lit by the moon, looks over his shoulder somewhat upward, lonesome.
9. Frida Kahlo, no stranger to pain, admired Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Goya. They all share a lineage.
10. Do artists devour artists? We feed off each other, and, I think, it is mostly nutritious. Take in art before you make art. I can’t think of particular artists who seek to destroy their younger counterparts, but I’m sure they exist, because artists are human.
11. We all share the cannibalistic impulse, to put cute things into our mouths. I could just eat you up!
12. I don’t think that was what Saturn was going for. The biological urge to nip is evolution’s way of building trust: baby, I won’t really bite your sweet, pudgy foot. No, that wasn’t Saturn’s aim.
13. For years I worked on a novel set during Argentina’s Dirty War (1976–1983), when an older right-wing generation tried to stay in power by arresting, kidnapping, torturing, and murdering a younger generation who had other ideals — along with anyone who was in any way suspected of opposing the dictatorship. An estimated 30,000 people “disappeared.” Embodied by Saturn’s bloodied anonymous son?
14. Saturn’s cannibalism had been on my mind then, spurred, in part, by a worry of how far Bush’s post-9/11 policies would go. “Terrorism” and “national security” were used as an excuse for clamping down on civil liberties, as an excuse, elsewhere, for torture. Who was eating whom?
15. In 1994, in a meditation on Goya’s series The Disasters of War (made from 1810 to 1820 and published in 1863), Susan Sontag wrote: “The problem is how not to avert one’s glance. […] The problem is despair. For it is not simply that this happened: Zaragoza, Chinchón, Madrid (1808–13). It is happening: Vucovar, Mostar, Srebenica, Stupni Do, Sarajevo (1991– ).” Battles, massacres.
16. Sontag lists some of the damning captions, not written in Goya’s hand but perhaps taken from his notes, which include: This always happens. He deserved it. It will be the same. All this and more. The same thing elsewhere. Perhaps they are of another breed.
17. John Berger, before Sontag, wrote:
[W]hat makes Goya’s protests so desperately relevant for us, after Buchenwald and Hiroshima, is that he knew that when corruption goes far enough, when the human possibilities are denied with sufficient ruthlessness, both ravager and victim are made bestial.
18. Goya was painting from the end of something. André Malraux, before Berger, wrote:
To Goya’s mind, the soul of Spain was no longer to be found at Court. […] If, for him, […] man’s sole purpose was to bear witness to that which surpassed him, that which surpassed him was no longer God. […] Goya was not groping towards God, but towards a power older and beyond salvation, the everlasting Saturn.
19. Cannibalism is visible today in the fear of underclasses, the numerous “minorities” whose desire for a better life is seen as a threat, as if a good life is only permissible for some, as if there’s only so much of it to go around. So take away healthcare. Take away food from hungry children in schools. Take away reproductive choice and take away safety nets. Take away the possibility of changing things for the better by taking away the right to vote. Go back to Mexico, they say. Go back to Africa. Go back to Muslim nations. Go back go back go back go back go back. Eat the poor in anger.
20. In this fear there’s also a fear of violence because of the violence inflicted by those in power. Police brutality, riots, hate crimes, riots.
21. Goya’s depictions of cruelty are reminders of what we must cyclically confront. Whenever we think we are approaching peace and a pleasurable life, we are torn back by those who don’t understand, who only seem to know greed and fear, who seem at once mindlessly driven toward death and yet uncomprehendingly calculating in their goal of destruction.
22. Some of us are like Saturn in the medieval, astrological sense: distant, cold. Some look askance at cannibalism, protecting their self-image even as they are cannibalizing.
23. Some of us are ancient Saturn on offense, gobbling as fast as we can. Or purely malicious, a Boschian monster eager to rape and skewer.
24. We have no one Ops, no one stone. Maybe, instead, we have a composite of public servants who stand up to the destruction of our democracy and the citizens who remain watchful and vocal and organized.
25. I had no idea this essay would go in this direction. All I wanted to do was write about this painting of Saturn. But his eyes, his gaping mouth, his white knuckles say it all.
26. Art provokes feeling and thought, and sometimes, hopefully, action.
Lubow, Arthur. “The Secret of the Black Paintings,” The New York Times. 27 July 2003.
Gombrich, E. H. The Story of Art. (1950) Phaidon, 2006.
Sontag, Susan. “Looking at the Unbearable.” Transforming Vision: Writers on Art. Edited by Edward Hopper. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1994. pp.91–93.
Berger, John. Portraits: John Berger on Artists. Edited by Tom Overton. Verso, 2015. p. 174.
Malraux, Andre. Saturn: An Essay on Goya. Trans. by C. W. Chilton. Phaidon, 1957. p. 78, 89.