“The mobocratic spirit.” Abraham Lincoln’s phrase could hardly be more apt.
Nearly a year ago I stood inside Madrid’s Prado Museum staring at a spectacularly fearsome work of art. The small brushy drawing done in brown ink on beige paper by the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya depicts an open-mouthed, prone man screaming to fend off a pack of dogs. The rest of his body is sewn inside a dead horse. The caption on the composition explains this torment: “[the figure] lay inside the carcass all night.” According to Goya’s scribble beneath the animal’s entrails, the character in question, presumably a historical personage named Constable Lampiños, had been punished by a mob for having abused his legal authority.
Lampiños appears in two drawings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current gut-punch of a show of 100 graphic works by Goya, bookends to the equine torture. The first, titled A Man Breaking Up a Fight (ca. 1812–20), pictures the constable gleefully deploying a vara, or staff, on a pair of struggling figures. The second describes his grisly end in both line and text. A scrum of mostly female bodies hoists the policeman’s ass up like a paper moon, while a central figure out of Rosy the Riveter applies a burning coup de grâce: “a quicklime enema.”
All three drawings, the ghastly one at the Prado and the two haunting this tidy but robust exhibition the Met has dully titled Goya’s Graphic Imagination, are rarae aves. They depict neither war, nor God’s wrath, nor Christian tragedy, nor David versus Goliath, nor righteous rebellion against authority like countless other examples from art history. Instead, these fragile drawings nail the visuals of five-alarm civic horror — one familiar to pandemic dwellers today, glued as we are to our multiple screens in lieu of meaningful social contact. Goya’s shorthand for the phenomenon was “populacho,” or rabble. A term derived from the Spanish “pueblo,” or people, it describes not the masses conjured up by Kumbaya Marxism but a welter of deeper, more visceral, and rabidly resentful urges.
The 19th-century “populacho” that Goya drew was like a magnitude 9.0 earthquake or a monsoon of Biblical frogs. In 2021 it remains a powerful social force capable of laying waste to the planet. The heirs of Goya’s rabble currently assume increasingly deranged forms and mouth conspiratorial jibber-jabber. For contemporary analogues to Goya’s recurrent views of the mob — as well as other instances of what John Milton might have termed “darkness visible” — insert recent CNN, MSNBC or Fox News images here: looters smashing shop windows in NYC; anti-maskers demonstrating in L.A.; armed militias menacing in Michigan; insurrectionists beating police officers with hockey sticks and flagpoles on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. A suggested Goya-like caption for our times (the artist worked text like a graphic novelist): “This is not a movie.”
Plate 28 of Goya’s The Disasters of War (1810–20) — a suite of anti-war prints the Spaniard crafted in response to the atrocities of the Peninsular War — is captioned Populacho. It depicts a mob descending on an exposed liberal. The fact that this particular work is not included in Goya’s Graphic Imagination is only a small disappointment given all the other gems filling out the exhibition’s three galleries. Like other recent Goya shows (I’ve seen four since 2017), it stacks up less like an art event and more like a revelation. I have reason to believe Goya-fever is catching. Responding to a recent Goya image I posted on Instagram, a prominent New York abstract painter wrote: “Our time begs for Goya.”
Goya was, as the critic Robert Hughes wrote, “the first great artist to bear witness to the atrocities committed by ideologues in the name of liberty.” Because he was uniquely up to the challenge, Goya now inhabits a dusty cliché: he was the last of the old masters and the first of the moderns. Of course, certain clichés are head-slappers. Had Goya been born in Germany rather than in backward Spain, he would have given Hegel a run for his money as a man of letters. As it was, remoteness condemned him to greater uniqueness — he became a philosopher of the visible. Not for nothing is The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, his etching of owls and bats bedeviling the artist’s own dreams — as well as viewers at the Met — considered visual shorthand for the idea that reason itself can lead to barbarism.
Goya’s representations of the “populacho” constitute the flip side of his decades-long obsession with rationalism — the engine that drives, among other works on view at this exhibition, the satirical print series Los Caprichos (1796–98). These exist not as meditations on the uses and abuses of Enlightenment liberalism (whose present-day counterpart we might identify as a belief in science or expertise or legacy media or cosmopolitan multiculturalism), but as allegories of his time’s xenophobic and bloody popular clapback against reason. That spirit — which Abraham Lincoln pegged as “the mobocratic spirit” in his now much-quoted 1838 anti-lynching Lyceum Address — animates the obscurantism deployed in various works at the Met. One etching, titled Here Comes the Bogeyman (1799), depicts a mother and two children cowering before a hooded figure that is also an imaginary evil. Another features a witches’ coven chattering over a basket of dead babies; beneath it Goya penned the words There Is Plenty to Suck. (Eat your heart out, Q-Anon!)
Then, as now, the rabble rarely countenances the humanitarian ideals of the elites. In times of great tumult and confusion huge chasms open up between popular and privileged cultures, which can lead to civil strife, war, genocide, or worse (there is always worse). To quote Churchill citing Hosea 8.7: Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind. Which brings me to Goya’s Seated Giant (circa 1814–18). A massive, menacing lug seared into paper in inky monochrome, he appears seated on the edge of the world while glancing over his shoulder at the viewer. If he could talk he might grunt something like this: “Recognize me, I live in you, ignore me at your peril.” ❖