Interview March 2006
Dr. Sarah Symmons

Sarah 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 2004 interview with Dr. Symmons is here. Our general page on Dr. Symmons is here, and Dr. Symmon's professional site is here.

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Question: What are your views on the issue of Goya using "Micro-signatures" or sometimes called "Goya graphisms"? I know that Italian Professor Paolo Erasmo Mangiante supports the existence of them, as does Professor Perales in Spain. I also just saw an interview with Monsieur Didier Pouech in France who said he initially had doubts but now supports the idea. (On the other hand, Manuela Mena has called the assertions 'madness.' )

The use of micro-signatures is an ingenious idea and obviously some highly intelligent people take it seriously. What worries me about micro signatures is partly the fashionable influence of a ‘ da Vinci code’ style of analysis. It’s true that a handful of old masters did insert rebuses, riddles and messages in their work. Holbein, I believe, did it, among others. Micro signatures, however, are a bit different. To start with, I don’t know how Goya could have evolved his micro signatures if, as the theory states, they are not visible to the naked eye, although he did wear spectacles and may have used magnification lenses for close line etching. What worries me even more about the micro signatures is something rather different. Having spent several years examining Goya’s handwriting, mainly from original manuscripts, and looking particularly closely at the numerous different styles of his signature while preparing my edition of Goya’s letters, I am not convinced that any of the enlarged reproductions I have seen as examples of  micro-signatures are written by Goya. One or two look like someone trying to copy the ‘Goya’ from plate 69 of ‘Los Caprichos’ , the only plate in the series to have a signature. That, presumably, was written backwards before printing, so it’s scarcely typical.

So my answer to your question is : I don’t know whether or not Goya inserted micro-signatures into his paintings, but he certainly didn’t write the signatures so far reproduced as examples.

Question: Do you have a view on Siri Hustved finding the "hidden" Goya self-portrait in 3rd of May - - There certainly seems to be a well-hidden face peering from the shadows of the left side.

I haven’t read Siri Hustved’s book but I can well believe that anything the curious and imaginative spectator might claim to find in the background of The Third of May isn’t there by chance. Unlike the micro-signature theory, the perception of background shadows, darkness, faces and figures coming out of the murky light, the evoking of dreams and mysterious self-imagery, are all positive forces in Goya’s mature paintings and prints. After the publication in England of Edmund Burke’s “Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful” in 1757, artists and spectators throughout Europe became more aware of the psychological properties of images and artistic illusion. Burke writes of ‘vastness’ and ‘ obscurity’ as particular elements of the Sublime  and his book became one of the greatest best sellers of the 18th century. It was particularly well known among Spanish Enlightenment figures like Goya’s patrons Jovellanos and Cean Bermudez. I don’t know if Goya himself ever read the book but I’m fairly certain that he would have had a good idea of its contents. His use of aquatint in the Caprichos and lavis and aquatint in the Disparates points to an artist obsessed with putting more into a background than may meet the eye at first. I think he was fascinated by the perceptive power of art, the strength of visual suggestion, the concealing of new images in obscurity and peopling his strange nocturnal landscapes with evocative shapes.

By the way, did you know that a new film is being made entitled Goya’s Ghosts?

Question: Could you talk about any of the translation challenges you faced with working with Goya's letters for your book about his correspondence? And what have you seen as the biggest changes in the common view of Goya in regards to having his letters available to a larger audience of Goya scholars and students?

Well, the first challenge was that the translator died in 1999 so I couldn’t query any of his translations when I was editing them!

Also, although he made a very good job of his translations he didn’t quite finish all of them, and one or two letters arrived after his death. My command of 18th century Spanish needed a lot of help and I was offered it unstintingly by some very fine scholars in England and Spain, so I was very lucky. Sometimes a problem could be solved by going back to the manuscript or a facsimile because it was a problem of transcription.

There were two most difficult areas to translate. One was Goya’s writing of formal, legalistic - styled language in letters to the court, petitions for money and when he had to defend himself during the political ‘ purification’ process which took place after the restoration of Fernando VII. The second area of difficulty centred on the obscene and slangy letters he wrote to his best friend, Martin Zapater. These had never been properly translated before and several are very explicit sexually. My knowledge of 18th-century obscene Spanish slang is, I’m afraid, rather limited. Luckily, I met a couple of distinguished scholars who have devoted their lives to unravelling such things and were only to willing to help! The result has been really magnificent series of revelations about the kind of person Goya was. Some readers have been a little bit shocked by some of the letters, but most find Goya surprisingly witty, funny and even endearing.

You ask about the response to the book: well, on the whole, very good.

There were quite a few reviews in the national press and I gather that it is unusual for such books to be noticed at all by ordinary newspapers as opposed to academic periodicals. These reviews were very positive. Most of the reviewers felt that Goya really revealed himself in these letters and that a new artistic personality had emerged. The longest review to date was in the specialised art criticism magazine Modern Painters in Summer 2004.This reviewer felt that he had learned a lot about Goya’s personality and that his written words had a lot to do with his art. How touchy he was, and ‘ way ahead of his time’ when he took on the monks and priests of El Pilar in Saragossa because they didn’t like his work. How he knew that he was ‘ an alarming artist’ and how his letters show him going to a lot of trouble to make his work acceptable to his contemporaries.

Apart from reviews, a number of lectures and responses from students, especially in the USA have been very encouraging.

In September 2005 a symposium was proposed together with a Goya exhibition at the University of Kentucky and Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington USA . The intention was to focus on rather obscure editions of the Tauromaquia and Disparates owned by a rural college at Beres in Kentucky and on Goya’s letters. The Hispanic Studies Graduate school at Kentucky had used my book as the foundation for a multidisciplinary seminar course run by Dr Edward Stanton and they had found the text, as they said, “ a source of both information and inspiration for our MA and Ph.D Students. We were greatly encouraged by the themes presented in your book and the careful scholarship undertaken therein. Through our intensive investigation of both Spanish and English texts and authors, we have discovered that there is very little scholarship which actually attempts to break with the myths of Goya ( the man and the artist) in the same manner as ‘ Goya: A Life in Letters.’

Several other universities in the USA have used the book on their courses. In the UK it is being used as a central text on the AR207 ‘ From Enlightenment to Romanticism’  course run by the Open University, and I have used it as a teaching aid for my own graduate students in the Department of Art History and Theory at the University of Essex.

I think it is a shame that more people don’t read Goya’s letters now that they are available in English. That is how you get the artist speaking for himself.

In 2005 I was approached by one of the researchers for the British TV personality Rolf Harris because they wanted to use the book as source material for the ‘Rolf on Art’ Show in which Rolf Harris painted a version of The Third of May with a number of citizens of Madrid helping out! In 2003-4 another BBC TV producer, Mick Gold, also used some of the translated letters for his BBC 2 programme ‘ The Private Life of a Masterpiece: Goya’s Third of May’, a programme broadcast in 2004 in which I gave an interview.

Question: Do you have any ideas for another Goya book in the future at some point?

I’d love to write a book about Goya and his animals. His letters are full of references to his dogs and mules, nature and the countryside and all those wonderful animal images in his art, both real and fantastic. It would make a great exhibition, a Goya Bestiary : A for ass, B for Bull, C for Cat, E for the Disparate Elephant, F for the finches Goya shot and his dog retrieved, H for his high spirited horse which nearly ran over a wretched by- stander and gave Goya a sprained ankle etc etc.

Question: Is there a published record or perhaps notes from your November Goya lecture in London? The questions about Goya that were employed in announcing the lecture were very interesting. I would to see how you answered them!

I could send you the text of the lecture but it’s very long. I tried to show that I thought Goya different as an artist from say Reynolds or David partly because of the traditions he had inherited from the 17th-century , Velazquez, Ribera, Rembrandt and the tenebrists etc. and partly because of his experiments with prints which became so important to him.

The reason why Goya is still being used as a source of inspiration today was provoked by an exhibition by the two British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman held at the White Cube Gallery in Hoxton Square, East London just before Christmas. Entitled ‘ As a Dog returns to its vomit’ the main part of the exhibition consisted of a complete set of Goya’s Caprichos with Walt Disney cartoon animal heads painted over the main figures. They also used sea monsters and insects. The works looked very beautiful and decorative until you got up close and saw what they really were. I think it’s the sort of malicious, jokey satire on great art that Goya might have liked and clearly that sort of artistic satire comes from him and still attracts like-minded artists.

The link to Romanticism is connected very much to the French response to Goya’s use of the grotesque in art, mainly his prints. Victor Hugo thought the Caprichos romantic and who am I to argue with that?

On the whole the audience liked the lecture and we had some good questions at the end.

You can hear the audio lecture (mp3 format) at Dr. Symmon's web site here

The 2004 interview with Dr. Symmons is here.
Our general page on Dr. Symmons is here.

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