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Goya, Francisco de: The Dog (c1820)

The Independent's Great Art series

It's a frightful picture of dream-like helplessness and despair. It's also a demonstration of the power of simplicity. Goya's The Dog is one of his so-called "Black Paintings", the sequence of murals, usually with nightmarish subjects, that the artist painted on the walls of the Quinta del Sordo, a country house outside Madrid he occupied in the early 1820's.

These murals were eventually detached, and ended up in the Prado Museum. The house itself was demolished. And the state of the "Black Paintings" remains doubtful. How much of Goya's handiwork and intentions survive, after suffering years of decay, and the shock of being dismantled, and successive restorations by other hands?

Still, these doubts do not diminish their force and mystery. Among them all, The Dog is an image of the very worst. Its paint surface is also clearly in a bad way. But that only seems to exacerbate the poor animal's misfortunes.

The picture's structure is minimal and non-specific. It is divided in two, an above and a below. The upper area is a pale golden yellow; the lower one is brown. The upper area fills most of the picture; the lower is a strip across the bottom with a slanting wavy edge. You could call the upper area sky, and the lower one earth.

You may also see another vague form in the upper area, of a slightly darker yellow, looming above the dog on the right side: it shows up more in some reproductions than others. It may possibly be part of the scene. It may be part of a previous painting that this scene was painted over. Whatever, discount it – simply because the picture is better if you discount it. There are enough uncertainties already.

Where are we? Who knows. Because the scene is so minimal and non-specific, it is highly ambiguous. What is the spatial relationship between earth and sky? You can see the earth as a foreground, a mound or ridge, with the sky beyond and behind it. Equally, you can see the earth as if in cross-section, a layer, with the sky simply above it.

But earth and sky are too definite names. The sky might be a sheer face of rock, or some kind of vapour or torrent. The earth need not be solid ground. It might be in convulsion. It might be made of a soft or fluid substance. Its wavy edge might be some kind of wave. And altogether, there is no sense of scale or orientation in this world. We are simply in the midst of it.

There are, however, two crucial pictorial facts that determine our experience of it. First, there is the shape of the whole picture, an exceptionally tall narrow upright oblong – indeed perversely tall, narrow and upright, considering that the scene is, after all, a kind of landscape. Secondly, there is the ratio of the areas within it: the upper area very deep, the lower area very shallow.

These extreme proportions have an inherent drama. Whatever finds itself in the lower area is right down at the bottom of the vertiginous scene, as if it was at the bottom of a well or a cliff. And there is a great void or a great mass of something above it. It? Time to bring in the dog.

If not for the dog, we would hardly see a landscape in these forms at all. But of course we only see the head of the dog, poking into the upper area, its body in some way obscured by the lower one. It raises a snout hopefully. It has a most pathetic, anxious look in its eye. It gazes up, in the direction of the rising wavy edge. And the uncertainties and proportions of the scene all fall upon it.

You can see the creature as submerged in the lower area, up to its neck in it, buried in the ground, or swallowed up by something more liquid, like quicksand. It is stuck there, sinking, and is unable to extricate itself.

It raises its head, trying to keep itself "above water". But the great empty gulf that towers above it only emphasises its helplessness. Not only stuck in the ground, but with nothing anywhere in reach that offers rescue, a foothold, leverage.

Alternatively, you can see the dog as cowering behind a ridge, trying to hide and protect itself. It raises its head in trepidation, looking up at the impending danger from above – which might be some kind of landfall, flood, storm, or torrent of volcanic ash. And now the depth of the upper area signifies the overwhelming volume of whatever this threat is.

Either way, it is a picture about bare survival in the face of hopeless doom. Whether the danger comes from below or from above, the picture tells us there is no escape. There is no way out of the drowning mire. There is no hiding place from the avalanche. This is the effect of its very elementary structure. The scene consists of nothing but an above and a below. Each is a source of dread, and the little dog is caught between them.

That's why the picture is better if you discount the vague looming form (which may or may not be part of it). This form would offer the dog some shelter from the above, some possible rescue from the below. Or again, if it seemed a menacing form, it would only be a partial, local source of danger, a distraction from the total, immersing world of danger of the above or the below. It would mitigate the dog's loneliness before its fate.

And the fact that we see only the dog's head, and nothing of its body and limbs, further reduces its chances of escape. It is deprived of any sense of movement or action. It is only a head, a consciousness, lost in a universe of terrors, afraid for its life.

The artist

Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) has something for everyone. If he'd died in his forties, he'd be remembered as a talented court painter. But the mysterious illness didn't kill him. It left him stone deaf and a genius. In his images of witchcraft, bull fights, nightmares, war, the Inquisition, sexual delight and sexual corruption, he became a master of fantasy and documentary. Almost every artist alive today, from the crustiest to the most cutting-edge, will have a good word for Goya.