What does this painting do for you (click on it for a larger view)? It’s the Pilgriage of St Isidore by my favourite painter, Francisco Goya. It is one of Goya’s ‘black paintings’; painted on the wall of his country house west of Madrid in 1821. Painstakingly peeled off that wall, this work was eventually transferred to canvas and placed in the Prado Museum in Madrid where today, you too can sit under it and contemplate the mental imagery it so furiously invokes.
There are Goya paintings all through the Prado. But none, in my view, match this. It’s wall fillingly huge. It’s breathtakingly mesmerising. It tells stories.
The story this work speaks to me is the march of our race to self-imposed destruction. A self-imposed, self-deserved march to hell… It is a black painting, after all! Do you expect that a work coloured by all the shades of hell could invoke anything else?
There are a few components of this picture that add up to the picture of misery the image portrays to me. The long chain of followers, following one-by-one in the almost dark depths of a gloom blanketed blasted landscape is the central story element. The faces of those you can see at the front of this queue tell all without the need for words. It’s not a happy picture! Nor should it be.
The mental movie this picture invokes is of a directionless, pointless march from the place we once might have called home to the homelessness of a world gone universally bad via the accumulative destruction each and every one of us has inflicted on an environment we all knew was at its limit. This is the panorama of the end-of-days to follow our hedonistic orgy of oil-burning, greenhouse emitting overindulgence in planetary exploitation. An orgy of the abject pursuit of consumerism unconstrained by even the concept of self-responsibility. This tragic parade of misery is a column of recognition that the things we each do add up, add together and come down on us like a torrent of universal pain. The folk in this plodding directionless pilgrimage to nowhere probably all, now, realise what it is that they have done. Now, at last, they are connected in their sharing of the circumstances to which they have each contributed. I see harmony in this crowd. They all share the misery that’s now their collective reward. No one is more to blame; their fate is shared.
One wonders what this crowd might then do if it could be directed backwards in time to adjust the contributions each and every one of them have deposited to their unpleasant collective fate. How would they have done things differently to preclude the inevitability of this march to hell?
Is this an inevitable fate? Is this meandering pointless parade our ultimate journey? What’s Goya trying to say? What’s this painting telling you? I believe there is a clue embedded here. Notice that this crowd is both amorphous in endless anonymity while, at the same time, is personalised via an uncensored expressive focus on the faces of those in front. This tells us that this meandering line of misery is a line of individuals, each contributing to the whole we see spread so widely across this wall. The whole is a sum of its parts. The whole is a place we don’t want to be. You can see that in the face of the few faces highlighted at the front; despite the brave display at least one of them is trying to invoke (that tragic guitarist singing a tune I suspect is as black as the scene). We can imagine that every face in the line might be of equally agonised demeanour. This reinforces the reality that the totality of any crowd is simply the accumulation of individuals. It’s what each individual does, one influencing the other via socially constructed cultures of interaction, that accumulates to the panoramic wide-screen of misery that this painting so breathtakingly presents. These pilgrims each share membership of a whole gone very wrong.
They could, conceivably, also be members of a collective with an entirely different fate. If each and every person in this conga line of shared depression could have a second chance, do you think their ultimate fate would be the same?
It’s a sobering blockbuster of a painting, this. It’s a powerful siren through which to wake us from our individual contributions to an intolerable collective destruction. This crowd needs reconfiguration. The story needs to be re-blended from scratch. If you ever get to the Prado, make sure you spend some time to hear the story it might invoke in you. I found it hard to drag myself away. I can’t recall any work of art that has produced such an impact as this. It’s worth the trip to Madrid…