The Christian Hell is full of perfect specimens. Mens sana in corpore sano is a requirement for eternal torment. The bodies of the damned need an ideal sensitivity and resilience, because their pains must in no way be dulled or diminished. Their minds too must be in peak condition, always completely conscious of their punishment. It's a difficult state to imagine coherently, though artists have pictured it. Luca Signorelli's frescos show the lost with superb physiques. Everyone Dante meets is intelligent and rather high-minded. But there are other hells that imagine the worst quite otherwise. Goya's Hell, for example.
Goya's last print series, the "Disparates", is a posthumous, unauthorised and perhaps unfinished work. The plates were engraved in his seventies. On his death, in 1828, at 82, they hadn't been published, and the editions made later are speculative. The overall title is taken from the word "disparate" - folly or absurdity - with which Goya captioned some of his proofs. The sequence is arbitrary. Even what's to be included is uncertain. The South Bank touring exhibition, now at the Brighton Museum, shows the 18 images of the 1864 edition. Later sets have four more, and there may be others that were never engraved.
What they're about, as a group or singly, is no clearer. Going from scene to scene, in no particular order, it's the lack of continuity, the distinctness of each idea, that's most apparent. Disorderly Folly shows a humanoid creature with two bodies joined siamese-twin-wise back-to-back, where the one can't act without giving the other torment. Merry Folly has six figures with castanets caught up in an unstoppable St Vitus dance. In Ridiculous Folly, a huddle of heavily clothed figures are perched along a giant and barren tree-branch, brooding. In A Way of Flying, there is a dark sky full of dragon-winged hang-gliders flown by naked men. From what sort of life are these scenes?
The problem is not unique to the "Disparates". With Goya, steady interpretation is usually baffled. The constructive tendency in Goya studies is to treat him, not as a dark fantasist, but as an enlightened moralist who uses fantastic imagery to satirise "Dark Spain", a society hag-ridden by irrational forces, by priest-craft, aristocracy and popular superstition. And it's true that in the "Caprichos", for instance - the earlier print-series whose imagery the "Disparates" sometimes echo - the cast of witches and donkeys can often be spelt out as satirical allegories. But this approach only goes so far.
Goya's energy, intimacy and irony always exceed his moral purposes. Oppositions break down. The same grinning face can be read as good humour, malevolence or fatuity. Monsters may be real terrors or delusory spooks. The most bestial creatures can wear the wisest, calmest expressions. Innocence looks corrupt, victimhood dumbly helpless or self-inflicted, cruelty like hearty mischief.
Goya gives the impression of knowing some awful secret about human life, and then not telling it. The viewer, looking for a lead, can never catch his tone. Sympathy and derision are continually being hinted at just in the wrong places. You find your own responses turned upside down or turned back on you - and it is this sheer knowingness on Goya's part that makes him such a disturbing artist. Disturbing: I don't want to use that word, as it often is, as an automatic term of praise. It would be quite possible to find Goya a hateful artist, not for being disillusioned or desperate, but for making this a matter of knowingness. Still, just for that reason, it's very hard to shrug him off.
In these terms, the"Disparates" are both more elusive and more plain. Here, there's no initial moral foothold (however deceptive), no sense that something is going on that is wrong, something you should be against. Quite simply, there are very few clear signs of somebody doing harm to somebody else (there's only one scene of actual violence). And what you're left with is a kind of moral weightlessness in which Goya's ironies have free-play.
A huge hooded spectre terrifies a group of fallen soldiers: the question of whether it's a fiend or a large empty sheet is left in the air. A young giant with castanets and a silly grin looms up before a cowering man and woman (he uses her body to hide behind): is the giant menacing or playful? A ring of women toss manikins in a blanket: is this a game or are they out of control?
The difficulty of knowing what's going on becomes the action. Nobody knows what's happening or what's happening to them. They don't have motives, only compulsions. What is painful about that figure with two bodies is that they don't seem to understand how they cause each other pain. The cry of pain is dumb, and the crowd of creatures who provide their audience look on, gaping or frowning gormlessly. The crazy dancers dance. The tree- dwellers just sit there. The airmen fly around. People stand stock still in their tracks, or half fall over. They shout into each other's faces without hearing. If you had to diagnose this parade of mystification and compulsive behaviour, you could call it a state of universal stupidity.
This is Goya's Hell. Unlike the Christian Hell, no one is being punished or tormented. No one is conscious enough for that, and that's what makes it hellish. (And it's not the sort of exciting madness that promises heightened insight or energy.) It's a fate you could fear but, the worst is, you wouldn't have a clue. It's not an experience. It can only exist as a spectacle. So the question of Goya's own attitude to this spectacle, and where he leaves the viewer, returns in force.
You can never be sure what makes other ages, other countries or other people laugh. But if you think these scenes could be funny, then you are, in effect, joining in with them. So many of their figures are smirking, grinning or grimacing, and you can't be sure who the laugh is on. Man Being Mocked has a man sitting in the middle, praying hard, one of Goya's hapless victims, with a crowd of characters around him, pointing and jeering and poking him, and they look no less hapless, quite possessed by their idiotic derision. But if you think these scenes should be frightening, a nightmare vision, there's plenty of fear going on in them too, and it always looks foolish. To be scared is part of the stupidity. There's no secure outsider's view on offer.
Sometimes, the spectacle itself is almost indescribable, like General Folly, with its blurred mass of figures, in which you make out a baby, an old philosopher at his book, an armful of cats held by a harlequin and a priest gesturing at him, or Indecision, which represents some sort of round-dance in which almost everyone has more than one face and somebody is lecturing somebody who isn't joining in. Merely to try to work out what's occurring feels like getting too involved. Goya compels you to draw a blank or be drawn in.
It goes beyond any knowingness. The "Disparates" are a statement of not having a clue, to be viewed with the mouth hanging vacantly open. The last print in this edition is Old Man Confronting Demons. It might as well be the frontispiece. The old man in question, who looks like Goya, hovers above a body on the ground, as if he were its departing spirit, and is met by a welcoming committee of other hovering creatures who throng the surrounding shades. They simply present themselves to him. He has an intent, bewildered, can't-quite-see-what's-out-there look. One hand is clenched. The other extends an uncertain finger. Uh?.
Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, to 13 April. Part of a National Touring Exhibition from the Hayward Gallery. Tour details: 0171-921 0837
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