Dr. Sarah Symmons
Symmons-Goubert is a lecturer at the University of Essex.
She has had five books published (three on Goya) and organized
two international exhibitions on British Romantic Painting
and the art of the sculptor John Flaxman. Her book of GOYA:
A LIFE IN LETTERS, appeared from Pimlico Press in April, 2004. Our 2006 interview with Dr. Symmons is here.
to the book from Pimlico Press
Question: I noticed in your 1998 book that you firmly back Milkmaid
of Bordeaux as a true Goya painting. How have you viewed efforts to have
it's authorship changed to Rosario, or to some unknown person
The problem with the Milkmaid of Bordeaux is basically
the problem of Goya's very late style, as I see it. Many of
the compositional and stylistic anomalies, observed by Juliet
Wilson Bareau in her essay about the Milkmaid, can be found
in the late etching of 'The Blind Guitarist,' which
is a very odd work but its authenticity is rarely if ever
Many artists like Goya who have long working lives produce
apparently new styles in their later years (e.g. Titian, Raphael,
Daumier) and these can become controversial.
Question: With the proliferation of accusations against various Goya
works (e.g., The Black Paintings) as being by some other hand,
do you have any opinion on what is the driving force for this
trend, and the validity of the efforts?
I think it's valuable to have such major re-assessments of
an artist's work and it has happened to many other major masters
in recent years (Poussin and Rembrandt, for example) but the
re-authentication of an artist's catalogue raisonne does need
to be done sensibly. The question with Goya is that if he
didn't paint works like The Colossus, the New York Majas, or the Black Paintings, then we have
to find a new artist as their author. If there were such an
anonymous artist who for various reasons wanted to keep their
identity a secret, then it's a challenge to find out who they
were. I know some people have suggested Javier Goya, but I
don't believe that. IF he were so talented he would have wanted
to claim the credit for such works. If he thought he'd make
more money pretending his work was his father's, then he must
have been disappointed. The same argument applies to Rosario,
although she was obviously not born early enough to have painted
most of the disputed pictures. Otherwise there is a very talented
forger around and he has been alive for a long time.
The argument about the Black Paintings relies rather too heavily,
as far as I can gather, on the linguistic history of a particular
piece of furniture mentioned in one of the documents.
It's all fascinating and ingenious stuff, and doesn't seem
to harm Goya's present day popularity, but no-one seems to
have thought the details of these re-attributions through
Question: Your 1998 book demonstrated a deep level of research into
the events that happened around Goya, as well as the events
in the mans own life. Since the time you wrote that volume,
has there been any change in your evaluation of his work?
I think I've come to see the 'Caprichos' as even more peculiarly
personal to Goya's concept of what art means than I did before.
So many of the satirical themes he explores have occurred
in his letters and take form in his prints and drawings. I've
also come to admire his amazing memory, particularly in drawings
made of things that had happened 40 or 50 years earlier, and
he makes them look so fresh and new. If I were to write such
a book again I's certainly include more drawings.
Question: I note that you were not shy about describing Goya as a genius
in your book. The term "genius" seems as much an
easy marketing term (in the publishing world) as it is an
actual description. What do you think it means to call Goya
Yes, and I got told off for using the word 'genius' by reviewers!
Genius is a controversial term, and always was. It has changed
meanings a lot over the last 3 centuries. My understanding
of Goya's type of genius is rooted in the 18th century when the term changed even more than it has today.
Diderot's definition of struggle and controversy relating
to creative genius seems very appropriate to Goya, although
Diderot is talking about poetic genius: "What does a
poet need? Poetry wants something tremendous, barbaric and
wild. It is when the fury of civil war or fanaticism puts
swords into men's hands, and blood flows in great waves on
the ground, that the laurels of Apollo are shaken and become
green... They fade away in times of peace and leisure",
from an essay on dramatic poetry 1758.
The other kind of genius I had in mind concerns the uniqueness
of the creative talent. Rousseau wrote in his Confessions:
"I am not made like anyone else I have seen. I dare to
suggest that I am not made like anyone else who exists. If
I am no better, at least I am different." Isn't that
a bit like Goya's view of himself as an absolutely original
Question: Goya is often classified and spoken of as a modern artist,
yet he also seems firmly bedded into the era and place of
his life, to the world of Majos and Majas - - is it simply
Goya's intelligence or is there some simple basis for his
vision that easily transfers to the 20th and now the 21st
Yes, it's odd isn't it? I think that for many people the grotesque
and violent side of Goya’s art seems to have summed up in
visual form so many of the preoccupations of the 20th century. It’s particularly noticeable in fiction writing.
I came across a reference in John Updike novel to someone
suddenly becoming threatening so that they become 'a Goya.'
And in a popular thriller an underground room where ritual
murders took place was decorated with Goya's Saturn. Perhaps
it's too convenient for the morbid 20th century
viewer to forget that Goya painted lots of jolly and pretty
subjects as well, but I suspect that a lot of these sentiments
about Goya came originally from the Surrealists and the way
they saw Goya's art.
Question: Do you ever get tired of seeing the efforts (Hollywood movies,
some Goya writings) made to pair Goya and the Duchess of Alba
off as lovers? And what do you think is really meant by "solo
Goya" in the sand of the 1797 black portrait?
No, I think there's no harm in the way film and fiction have
popularised Goya. If it introduces people who have never heard
of Goya to his art then these things are worth while. Nobody
really knows if Goya and the duchess of Alba loved each other.
I think it's unlikely but it’s a nice romantic story. Who
knows what the 'Solo Goya' means? It could be a sentimental
message or an inscription stating that only Goya could have
painted such a magnificent portrait.
Question: Your 1998 book has as its cover a figure from Goya's The PICNIC.
It seems most books on Goya stick to a strict iconography
of either THIRD OF MAY or MAJA (clothed or nude). Did you
make the choice of using the element from The PICNIC for your
books cover, and if so, why that particular image?
Alas, I had no say in the design of the cover, but I think
it's brilliant. Nothing like a pretty girl, and she's a bit
more graceful than the nude maja!
Question: I saw that the British Cartoonist Society awarded its top
yearly prize to a cartoon which took its imagery from Goya's
"black painting" SATURN. Also, the Chapman Bros
have generated a great deal of news over their using Goya
etchings. Do you have any reaction, or ideas why, Goya's imagery
continues to go deeper into popular usage?
Again, I approve of anything that popularises great works
of art, and I really admire the Chapman brothers. I think
Goya would definitely have approved of what they have done
to his Disasters of War. He took rather similar liberties
himself with great works of the past, and isn't it amazing
that artists of the 21st century can still find
value in someone who died more than 170 years ago?
Question: Do you think it is likely there will be further discoveries
like the "lost" Goya sketch "Hannibal the Conqueror"
which was auctioned at Sothebys in 2000?
I'm sure we will find out many more things about Goya in the
coming years. I personally will be anxious to see some of
the lost letters to Martin Zapater which may well exist somewhere.
Question: As you have been studying Goya through your books, have you
seen any major changes in Goya scholarship?
Yes, a lot of interest in reattribution, of course, a more
realistic and less 'venerable' approach.
Question: As you worked on the Goya book of his letters, has it altered
any of your previous ideas about his work?
He writes very well, is quite literary and definitely never
went mad. Even his last letters are sensible and intelligent.
With regards to his work I have become even more aware of
how greatly he prized originality and what a tough time he
had to succeed and keep going.
Question: While you have studied Goya, have you held any questions that
have yet to be satisfied from the available source material
that exists (the paintings, drawings & letters)?
As I have said above, I look forward to the discovery of more
letters and perhaps more sketchbooks. So many of his works
have disappeared I am sure many will be discovered.
Question: Have you had any sense of personal identification with Goya
while you have studied the man for your books?
general page on Dr. Symmons is here.