Goya With Doctor Arrieta


Self-portrait with Dr Arrieta, Francisco Goya, 1820

From London Review of Books:

The last room of the exhibition gathers together portraits of friends and exiles done in Bordeaux, and puts at the centre the masterpiece Goya painted in 1820, Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta. It is the show’s most daunting moment. Arrieta was in a sense a second Jovellanos for Goya: intimidatingly clever, compassionate, authoritative, no doubt a touch frightening in the way great doctors are. Only this time Goya owed him his life.

It is indicative, I think, that when Goya set himself the task of describing the boundary (or lack of one) between living and dying, as he did here, he seems automatically to have thought in terms not just of a double portrait – which would be extraordinary enough – but of a group portrait, or the parody of a group portrait, or a portrait of ‘life’ (just) surrounded and haunted by entities from elsewhere. That is to say, Arrieta presents us with Goya’s deepest thinking about himself and other people, and their reality and unreality for him. Any attempt to put that thinking into words is bound to be crude and intrusive, rather like Arrieta’s fist as he holds the glass (of hemlock? of blood?), trying to persuade Goya to swallow, when what one wants is a prose as unnoticeable and supportive as Arrieta’s other hand on Goya’s shoulder. But here goes.

Could we say that Arrieta in the picture stands for life and Goya for death – for the deathwish that is life’s constant salving attendant, the wish and need to escape from a ‘reality’ that is too often disorienting and cruel? Maybe. So much is done in the picture by the difference in size between the heads of the two men in the foreground – much greater than one realises at first glance – and the difference in colour. What an effort it must be to be – to remain – as vital as Arrieta! Don’t we all envy Goya’s half-sentient greyness? Or consider the two men’s poses (forgetting Berger’s phenomenology for a moment, and concentrating on – empathising with – actual bodily positions). If we saw Arrieta’s pose and expression abstracted from their present matrix, wouldn’t we guess he was a lover, or a philosopher listening to the argument of a young disciple? (He’ll come up, we’re sure, with a kind but devastating counter-example.) Can we disentangle the doctor from the gallery of tonsured intruders behind him – I hear them slobbering and snuffling in the shadows? Isn’t he the carrier, in spite of himself, of their ghoulish enthusiasm for the ‘good death’? What is Goya looking at? How does he (how do we) experience his body? Is he supporting himself, or leaning weightlessly on Arrieta’s chest? The slight twist of his body under the grey coat and white collar is weariness itself. But Goya’s hands – or one of his hands – can still summon up enough ‘hold on life’ to pucker the folds of the sheet between finger ends. How intently the vile attendant in the dark next door strains to see the pressure, not wanting to miss the moment when it stops! How alive and in pain the flayed pink of the underblanket, and the traces of it showing through the sheet!

Historians who ask us not to look at Goya’s portraits with his albums and Black Paintings in mind lose me completely when it comes to Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta.

“It stamps its pretty feet”, T.J. Clark, London Review of Books