old man goya

   My mother was a painter. One room in the houses of my childhood was always permeated with the smell of turpentine and oil paint, a smell that would swim in dizzy circles inside my head.

Jam jars filled with brushes like bunches of dead flowers, their petals all gone. Scraps from summer skirts and dresses torn up to be used as rags that stiffened themselves into the shape of little theatrical mountains. Tubes of paint, twisted and contorted in some private agony. Palet knives and palets made ancient by the splattering of layers of dried colour. A tray jostling with bottles of rainbow inks, next to a human skull stained a yellow brown by the earth in which it had been buried, next to a horse's skull that was as huge and clean and white as an angel's wing.

I was sure that when the door of this room was closed, then everything that lived here would begin to chatter and fidget in a cacophany of mysterious sounds, a blur of movement. I would creep in as quietly as I could in order to catch them unawares. I would stand as still as a statue in that crowded space and wait for the brushes to dance, the tubes to pulsate, the skulls to blink their empty eyes at me. And they held their breath and kept still for as long as I was watching them.

My mother at that time wanted to let her paintings make themselves. She would cover an empty canvas with a wild soup of colours and broken shapes and then she would search for what might be hidden there. Suddenly a man with a single eye and a mouth full of teeth would begin to hatch from one corner while a second man emerged out of nowhere and divided his body in half like an amoeba. Two naked figures sat side by side in a yellow desert and howled. A woman with a headdress made of horns did not notice the rat climbing out of the box just behind her, its whiskers twitching with curiosity. A child who might have been a boy or a girl sat on a swing in a clearing in a jungle and the sky above the trees was a wonderful milky blue.

There was always one painting being worked at on the easel, while the others had their faces to the wall, as if they were being punished for some crime. I would think I could hear their voices, begging me to set them free by turning them round into the light. But I left them alone. I knew how dangerous they could be. How they might bark and snap, or tower above me into the air like a genie set free from his glass prison.

A few paintings were put on display on the walls of the house. I remember one in particular that I had to pass every night on my way to bed and how I would try not to pause, not to look at it.

Even when I see it all those years later, it still makes my heart stumble, as if I was seeing it for the first time.

But now Goya is making his way back to his studio and his home on the Street of Disenchantment. He has been more or less absent for one year. He has his painting equipment with him, his easel and his brushes, coiled-up canvases and two notebooks of drawings, the one complete and the other only recently started.

He leaves Cadis during Carnival week, his carriage harnessed to a team of four mules that have to thread their way against a swirling tide of men and women as bright as fish. The people dance and sing. They wear huge masks that hang heavy on their shoulders. Some of the men dress up as women with big breasts like melons and some of the women are as brazen as any man and full of obscenities. At the end of the week they will bury a papier-machée figure of a sardine in a hole as deep as a grave and with that they will hope that the new year will not be too cruel.

They follow the battered cart tracks of the south towards Cordoba. The orange trees are already in bloom and the little tips of grass and the spikes of new barley can be seen as a vague blur of green on the red soil. Goya is not afraid of robbers because he knows he has nothing to steal, he is a poor man carrying the tools of his trade and some of the goods which he hopes he might sell once he has reached Madrid.

These are hard times. The harvests have been worse than usual since the revolution in France almost five years ago. Everyone has noticed how the sunsets have become more bloody than before, as if the skies were bearing witness to the human chaos that is spreading across the land. Napoleon's armies are busy and soon he is going to turn his attention to Spain and Portugal. He does not understand how poor these countries are, how there is never enough food for those who live here. He cannot imagine the freezing devastatiom of winter in the high sierras when people travel like migrating birds to the cities, to sit exhausted on the side of the roads displaying their poverty, their deformity and their disease in the hope that someone might take pity on them.

The track follows the valley of the Guadalquivir River. Women are washing clothes by the river bank, their bodies made almost naked by the rhythmic movement of their arms and backs as they work in the cold air.

Then up into the Sierra Nevarra where they pass a funeral procession in which the body of a dead girl is carried in an open coffin on an ox cart. A crowd of mourners, priests and nuns, follow behind like birds after the plough. With his eyes Goya can hear the grinding noise of the metal wheels of the cart, the heavy breathing of the oxen, the screeching cries of the mourners, the chanting of the priests.

A little further on they meet another strange vision when six dwarfs, riding in pairs on three donkeys, approach them out of the mist. They are dressed as bullfighters and they are on their way to the bullring in Seville, where people enjoy the spectacle of seeing dwarfs fighting bulls. They carry godes because their legs are too short to strike at the sides of the donkeys. They wave and smile and disappear.

If a donkey or a horse or a mule dies of exhaustion then it is left to rot where it has fallen. Ravens and crows are quick to learn of a new corpse: they flap slowly into the air when the carriage rumbles towards them. There is always a great stinking pile of dead animals left in a heap near to the royal palace of Aranjuez, because the king likes to shoot the scavenging birds. He is not fussy about what he kills, it is the sheer quantity that gives him pleasure.

They stay at inns where the children and the dogs stare and scratch and beg for scraps of food. Goya makes drawings because he cannot make himself understood in conversation. He draws the beauty of the young women who gather round to watch him at work. He draws the jealous energy of the men, the decrepitude of the old. His drawings become increasingly dense with human activity and drama.

Finally they reach the vast and barren plateau on which the city of Madrid stands. Very little has grown here since Philip the Second had the trees of the forest cut down to make ships for his navy, and doors, windows and roofs for his monstrous Escorial. Goya can see the outline of that fortress palace, built on a hill and set against the looming curtains of the Guadalajara mountains. Storks have been encouraged over the generations to nest on the roof of the Pantheon where the kings and their families are buried in shining crysalis caskets, and clouds of them are floating in the air as light as feathers or the souls of the dead.

And then to the city. He enters the noise of Madrid. The cries of the water carriers, selling drinking water in earthenware beakers which they dip into a large jug. The cries of the fire sellers who carry smoldering torches with which to light a cigar. The orange sellers, the whispering of the women who want to sell their bodies, the supplications of the beggars selling their infirmities and the urgent promises made by the relic sellers who will provide you with a scrap of bone from a saint's leg to mend your broken arm, or a prayer wrapped in a ball to be swallowed at night when the deadly Madrid colic is racing from house to house.

They go down the newly-built street of the Prado with its elegant fountains and lines of trees. They pass the Armory where a wax figure of Philip II sits in a glass case surrounded by Moorish banners and instruments of war. Then the Natural History Huseum which houses the Acadmey of Art in the same building. Here you can see Japanese robes, Chinese pagodas, Egyptian gods and Islamic jewelry, as well as the skeleton of an elephant standing next to the fossilised remains of an unidentified creature with huge claws and stout legs, found in the side of a mountain near Buenos Aires. And paintings, by Zabaran and Murillo.

They go along the Street of Dangers which is so narrow a man must cower in a doorway when a carriage passes by and into the Street of Disenchantment, which earns its name because of the ghost of a young woman who haunted it and the man who loved her' not realising that her body had been buried long age.

When I went to the Street of Disenchantment recently, I found it partially demolished. Everything was covered in grime, the cafes and shops had been boarded-up and there was a half-eaten loaf of bread and a half drunk bottle of beer set out on the ledge of a smashed window. No-one was around apart from two very young prostitutes in shining black boots that reached half way up their naked thighs. Goya's house has disappeared and there is no clear idea of where it was or what it was like. But even in his time, this was a poor part of the city and the street was narrow and grey.

I wonder if his wife Josefa knew that he was coming home any day now? Is she there to hear the carriage brought to a stop, the key turned in the door and footsteps on the stairs? Does he call out her name into his own silence and does she answer him knowing he cannot hear her?

There is one portrait that might show Josefa. She has her hands folded in quiet acquiescence on her lap, a pale and querulous face, soft blond hair pulled back into a bun and she is wearing a blue dress. In the portrait you cannot see the exhaustion of all the babies she has lost in miscarriages, the pain of so many deliveries followed by the sadness of watching the little thing die after all that effort. They say that she conceived twenty times and now the only one who is left is Javier. The portrait shows the delicate uncertainty of her nature and something else which looks like tenderness.

So let her welcome her husband as well as she can, waiting for him in the first room of the house where the ten silk-backed chairs stand in a row. Let her be wearing the blue dress of the portrait, coming shyly towards him and speaking in a voice he once knew well. Their twelve year old son, Javier, can be beside her, almost as tall as his father and the three of them can embrace.

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Copyright © 2000 by Julia Blackburn.