In his seventies, widowed, and out of favor with the monarchy, Goya relocated to Bordeaux, France. It was here that he completed his final great series: the 14 “Black Paintings.” Unlike the bulk of his earlier works, these were never meant for public viewing. Examining the massive Saturn Devouring His Son (1819–23), it’s not hard to see why. Goya chose as his subject one of the bleakest episodes from Greek mythology, in which the god of time ensures his survival by eating his offspring. Often interpreted as an allegory for the decay of the Spanish state, Saturn twists expectations by showing time as a babyish brute, as pathetic as he is terrifying.
Across Goya’s hundreds of prints and paintings, the same type of face keeps reappearing: goggle-eyed, mindless, and uncontrollably greedy. Sometimes this face belongs to an animal, sometimes it belongs to a human being, and sometimes, it’s hard to tell. It skulks in the background of Red Boy, emerges from the shadows in The Sleep of Reason—and in Saturn, completed just a few years before Goya’s death, it finally shows itself without shame.
Might this face symbolize the nightmare of modernity as Goya experienced it? Over the course of his 82 years, the Spanish state collapsed and Europe waged a brutal war with itself—enough greed and stupidity for 10 lifetimes. In response, Goya offered a deceptively simple artistic motto: “Yo lo vi” (“I saw it”). Those three words communicate an idea as necessary in the 21st century as it was in the 19th: In dark times, bearing witness to the truth is not for the faint of heart.