"Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters.” These words were spoken by Francisco de Goya (1746-1830), a Spanish-born artist who knew all too well how slender the distinction between artistic vision and nightmare can be. Visitors need only pay a visit to the Art Gallery at the College of New Jersey’s newest exhibition, “Fear and Folly: The Visionary Prints of Francisco Goya and Federico Castellon,” to encounter first-hand the “impossible monsters” that spring from the mind of a famous artist gifted with imagination and guided by madness (biographers speculate that in the last decades of his life, Goya fell into insanity, a result of illness or the accidental ingestion of lead paints).
“Fear and Folly,” which runs Wednesday, January 23 until Thursday, March 7, features the 22 etchings that comprise Goya’s last major undertaking, “Los Disparates” (the title has no perfect equivalent in English but translates roughly to “The Follies” or “The Riddles”). The exhibition — originally organized by the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in Michigan — sets Goya’s works in dialogue with 16 lithographs that were illustrations for a short story by Edgar Allen Poe. These illustrations were executed by an artist from a different time and a different land, Federico Castellon (1914-1971).
The decision to pair these two artists is not entirely intuitive. Castellon’s vision is his own; artistically, his works differ from those of Goya in a number of ways. At first glance, the feverish, crowded, surreal illustrations by Castellon do not seem to possess an obvious connection to works by the earlier artist. However, the very fact that there is no perfect, clear resemblance between the two artists’ work is part of what makes their juxtaposition so interesting. Their fellowship is based on something more profound than superficial similarity.
What Goya and Castellon share is a gnawing fascination with feeble, human error and an obsession with representing that error using images that are simultaneously horrific and captivating. In fact, these works excite a peculiar dynamic: they are all the more horrific for being captivating but more captivating for being horrific.
Goya’s “Los Disparates” is unusual for several reasons. First, it is part of a larger change in that famous artist’s body of works. For much of his career, Goya was cherished by the Spanish Crown. His paintings of joyous revelry and rosy portraits of the royal family made him a darling of Spanish nobility and eventually earned him the title of First Court Painter. But something changed.
Perhaps political unrest and Spain’s war with neighboring France embittered him. Or perhaps the aforementioned illness that robbed him of his hearing and likely his reason was responsible for a darker element that entered Goya’s work. No matter the reason, the painter began to produce nightmarish netherworlds including a series dedicated to representing graphic atrocities, “Los Desastres de la Guerra” (The Disasters of War). In the final years of his life, Goya created the so-called “Pinturas negras” (Black Paintings), images of insanity and suffering which he painted directly onto the walls of his own home.
While the series of etchings at the center of TCNJ’s “Fear and Folly,” “Los Disparates,” constituted Goya’s last major undertaking, it is interesting to note that they would not be published until 40 years after his death.
The meaning of “Los Disparates” has remained hidden; its message — either in individual works or of the entire series — has proven impossible to decode. As visitors to this exhibition may discover, although “Los Disparates” may not broadcast an obvious statement, each etching inspires viewers to manufacture their own meanings. Indeed, the bizarre yet striking contents of the etchings certainly encourage description, if not interpretation.
“Los Disparates” does not remain consistent in its tone. Some compositions are terrifying, others unsettling, and still others infused with comic whimsy. “Fearful Folly,” for example, is overwhelmingly ominous. The etching depicts a group of men, hopelessly tangled together, yet desperately attempting to flee from a shrouded figure that looms before them. One man can be seen raising his sword as he runs away. Yet, the scale of the subjects and the contrast between the implacable “figure” (the height of which is identical to that of the print) and the terrified, tiny fellows below conveys a sense that any efforts to resist that unspeakable horror would be futile.
Other prints introduce no supernatural or mysterious characters; they excite horror by capturing human subjects monstrously distorted by their own passions. “Foolish Fury” is one example: A group of men (seemingly prisoners) cower in fear and confusion as a brutish peer screams at them while thrusting a spear through the head of his shrieking victim.
Scenes of grotesque fantasies are scattered throughout “Los Disparates” as well. In “Matrimonial Excess,” a couple is literally wedded, backs welded together, features disfigured by potent, terrible emotion. On the other hand, “One Way to Fly” is simply bizarre: it depicts men borne aloft, aimlessly propelled through darkness in contraptions that seem to be bird-costumes, though it is equally possible that the costumes are actually the very skins of birds.
The series has its share of uncanny whimsy as well. “Animal Foolishness” belongs to this group: A cluster of serious-looking, bearded men hold (and seemingly hide behind) a large proclamation, which they are displaying to an abashed elephant.
Ultimately, such descriptions cannot approximate the thicket of powerful emotions “Los Disparates” is capable of provoking. Aldous Huxley, author of “Brave New World,” summed up Goya’s etchings best when he described them as an “extraordinary mingling of hatred and compassion, despair and sardonic humor, realism and fantasy.”
When exhibition-goers see Castellon’s illustrations, it becomes clear why his lithographs have been grouped with “Los Disparates.” Castellon, who was born in Spain, spent his life in America. His family relocated to Brooklyn, New York, when the artist was a child. Though his paintings were shown alongside works by high-profile artists such as Picasso and Miro, Castellon was also a well-known book illustrator. In 1969, a publishing house in Baltimore invited Castellon to illustrate a fictional work, provided Castellon selected the story. The artist unhesitatingly chose Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842).
This decision testifies to Castellon’s interest in the same themes of folly and error that are central to “Los Disparates.” After all, Poe’s story is itself a study in limping, weak morality and its gruesome correction. “The Masque of the Red Death” tells of a group of noblemen who fecklessly attempt to evade death by abandoning their plague-stricken town. An uninvited, mysterious figure follows them, however. The unknown guest proves to be a visitation of the very plague that the nobles imagined they had escaped. Castellon drew 16 illustrations to accompany Poe’s ghastly morality tale.
Castellon’s illustrations might better be called nightmarish visions. Though their subject is the universal terror of the future, of death, Castellon often renders his subjects in a perpetual foreground, a perpetual present. Though the figures are human, they bear few traces of humanity. The contorted limbs, the bodies with numerous legs, grotesque naked women and unidentifiable creatures twist across the illustrations. Death is constantly pictured as well, whether by a single finger or a catacomb-like pile of skeletons.
Perhaps the greatest point of contact between the two artists lies in the way they tickle and taunt the viewer’s fancy. Although no coherent story can be told with Goya’s “Los Disparates,” the etchings inspire no end of speculation. Castellon’s lithographs, on the other hand, were created expressly for a story. And yet, despite the fact that “Los Disparates” lacks a single story and the Castellon illustrations do, both refuse a single interpretation. Both force the viewer to confront fantastic images and create stories of their own.
Though the subject of human error has a long history, “Fear and Folly” takes place in a relatively new gallery. Though The College of New Jersey has been displaying art on campus for the last fifty years, the gallery is ‘young’; it was not established until 2010. In my interview with Emily Croll, the gallery’s director, she discussed the current exhibition and lingered over the “incredibly enigmatic prints” at its core.
When she spoke of the gallery itself, Croll observed that it was committed to providing new cultural experiences not just for the TCNJ campus, but for the wider community. The choice to display such provocative prints suggests that this art gallery in Ewing is on the road to honoring that commitment.
Fear and Folly: The Visionary Prints of Francisco Goya and Federico Castellon, College of New Jersey Art Gallery, Art & Interactive Multimedia (AIMM) Building, Ewing. Opens Wednesday, January 23, 5 to 7 p.m. Continues to Thursday, March 7. Tuesdays through Thursdays, noon to 7 p.m., Sunday, 1 to 3 p.m. Free.
Print Culture, Past and Present, Mildred and Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing. College of New Jersey professor and artist Amze Emmons lectures. Friday, February 15, 11:30 a.m.
For more information: call 609-771-2633, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to www.tcnj.edu/artgallery.