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Disturbing Images in Western Art: Goya and Daumier
Sometimes it's hard not to look...
at disturbing images. Take the one above, "Saturn Devouring His Children", by Francisco Goya. One of a dark-themed series done by Goya in his later years, the painting actually adorned a wall of the artist's dining room. Although experts are not in complete agreement as to the exact theme and subject matter of the picture, interpreting it as a portrayal of the myth of the God Saturn seems to fit with the horror the image depicts.
Saturn was the Romanized version of the name for the Greek god Chronus, and as the name suggests, Chronus, or Chronos, was the personified god of time. We are used to seeing rather grandfatherly depictions of Father Time, but the Roman myth told of a Saturn obsessed by a prophecy that one of his children would sieze from him the throne from which the universe was ruled. Accordingly, Saturn would eat each of his children right after they were born (note that newborn gods looked a bit different from newborn humans, if the Saturn myth really was Goya's intent). Finally, one child, Jupiter, was hidden by the mother, and escaped being eaten. In the same self-fulfilling prophecy mode epitomized in the story of Oedipus, Jupiter did grow up and eventually overthrow his own father, Saturn.
I believe that one reason this image has the power to touch a nerve very deep down, deeper than the initial thrill of revulsion felt when seeing it for the first time, is that it seems to vibrate in a lower register the underlying theme of the original Roman myth of Saturn: the theme that Saturn, or Chronos, or Time will eventually devour all things-- you, me, perhaps the universe itself. It would make an appropriate cover design for H. G. Wells "The Time Machine", and its bleak forecast of the last days of humanity, and the waning ages of the Earth and solar system entire.
While the visceral horror of Goya's painting would be seared into our retinas and stamped on our brains with even a fleeting glance, we have to look for a space of time before registering the full import of Daumier's "Rue Transnonain". Almost we seem to be seeing merely the calm of sleep, repose written in the face and limbs of the brightly lit, sharply delineated figure of the man who occupies the central portion of the composition. But as we absorb and interpret other, smaller details, and less brightly lit areas of the image-- as our eyes adjust to the dark, so to speak-- we see that this sleep is the sleep of death.
We probably tend to more commonly think of Daumier as a maker of razor sharp, intensely funny caricatures. Here he turns all of his skill as a draughtsman of superlative precision, and lithographer of remarkable subtlety and graphic control, to rendering pitch perfect this image that engrains itself, though by slower degrees, upon our senses and psyches no less indelibly than did Goya's Saturn.
Daumier transcends any mere irony in his unblinking, yet understated presentation of a tragedy that had occurred recently in his neighborhood. Below I have quoted more specific information about the image and its subject matter from the website of the Yale University Art Gallery; their two paragraphs summarized so much so succinctly that I thought it better to quote than to paraphrase:
"Violence erupted in the streets of Paris in 1834 in response to a new wave of laws issued by King Louis Philippe to limit freedoms of association and expression. Barricades were hastily thrown up in working-class quarters of the capital and smashed by government troops the next day. On the rue Transnonain in the Marais, a riot squad entered a building believed to be the source of shots that had killed an officer, and the troops gunned down a dozen occupants.
"In this monumental lithograph, Daumier memorialized this event, which had occurred just three blocks from his home. By portraying the carnage of a family in their bedroom, the artist heightened the sense of outrage, creating a picture of ultimate trespass. Daumier's figures are clearly innocent victims: a young male in a nightshirt, a baby, an elderly man. Daumier chose to depict the moment of eerie calm after the violence; terror exists only in traces, in the bloodstains and the overturned chair. Baudelaire said of the image, 'Only silence and death reign.' "