In 1819, deaf, old and sick, Francisco Goya moved to a house known as Quinta del Sordo, or House of the Deaf, on the southern outskirts of Madrid. Moving away from the proximity of the royal court and the political turmoil of the city, he lived here for the next four years, working mostly on preparatory drawings for his ongoing series of prints, Los disparates, or Follies, and on the cycle of wall paintings. whose 14 images are known as the Black Paintings. Using oils, he painted directly on the plaster walls, covering a number of landscapes that already decorated them, suggesting that the images he created there were made only for himself. Neither they, nor his last large series of etchings, and the accompanying drawings, emerged only a few years after his death, in exile in Bordeaux in 1828.
Two hundred years later, the Black Paintings remain by turns nightmarish, bitter, funny and tender. They appear as wounded, both as images and as objects. They suffered a lot. Goya’s paintings were eventually cut from the walls (some say “pirated”, although the technique used to remove and preserve them was a skillful task) and transferred to canvas in the mid-19th century. The painting has been damaged or lost, and at least one has been reduced in size.
Among the most enigmatic works of his turbulent life, they now occupy a single room in Madrid’s Prado Museum, whose collection they entered in 1881. Why Goya painted them, and even if they were all oil painted Originally by the artist himself; how much he revised and altered them, and how much they were altered by early restorers – all of this remains a matter of debate. There are also conjectures about his house (which takes its name not from Goya, but from the previous occupant), which was demolished in 1909.
A few steps from the Black Paintings takes us 200 years into the future, in a room of similar proportions, temporarily transformed into a small cinema by the French artist Philippe Parreno, where he projects La Quinta del Sordo, a film seen for the first time at a Goya exhibition in Switzerland last year. Now it is paired with the paintings that provide its subject matter. Typical of this complex artist, there is more. Several times a day, the lights go out and a cellist takes a seat next to the screen, reading a phrase by Spanish composer Juan Manuel Artero before starting to play.
“Preludes, as we know, are like a time machine,” he reads, before playing a short solo composed by Artero. “They’re presenting something that hasn’t happened yet.” At the end of Parreno’s 40-minute film, the cellist draws his bow a second time to play a sonata by Luigi Boccherini, an 18th-century Italian composer who had his place at the court of Madrid and who had once been a friend of Celle by Goya. The prelude played before the start of the film is itself a variation on Boccherini. Music is, says Artero, a time machine and a mirror, like film.
Parreno’s film oscillates between surface and depth, light and shadow; between sound and image, the pictorial spaces created by Goya and the walls of the rooms they originally covered. This oscillation continues, like a rocking gyroscope, between past and present. At the end of the film, we see a crossroads at dusk, lampposts, a row of buildings. We hear the traffic and the squeal of the brakes of a local train rounding the track.
Parreno describes his film as “science fiction”. That might sound controversial, until we discovered the 3D computer model he created of the house, which included the placement of the paintings relative to the windows and doors and to each other. Parreno was then able to create an acoustic model to simulate the way sound traveled through the building, the creaking of its doors, the sounds of footsteps on the wooden floors, the light and the chirping of birds entering through its windows. It’s a kind of speculative architecture, a ghost space.
His film also used a camera capable of shooting Prado’s own high-definition scans of Goya’s footage at half a million frames per second; it seems to generate a hiss, as if coming from the paints themselves. There are other tilts and gyrations, between the paintings and our apprehension of them and the rooms they once inhabited, and the space inside a deaf man’s head.
How daylight fell and passed through the paintings, how shadows, darkness and candlelight illuminated and darkened them as he moved. How we saw, going from surface to depth as intermittent light raked their surfaces. How the sound came and went, was heard and was not heard, or how it reached Goya or got lost in the pounding in his ears and the inner grinding and choking in his head. The film makes us think how much hearing affects sight and how the apprehension of things depends on all our senses.
Everything depends on the circumstances, the hours of the day, the months, the seasons and the weather. Despite all the research, working with documents from the Prado and other materials, La Quinta del Sordo cannot be anything other than impressionistic. He approaches realism, but is constantly thwarted by the detail, the atmosphere, the volatility of his subject. The camera wanders, catching Saturn’s stunning eyes as he gorges himself on his child. It lingers on gaping mouths, someone shouting into an old man’s ear, a hand holding scissors and an elderly couple eating. Crowds exiting the city on the feast of San Isidro, Madrid’s patron saint; two men trying to fight to the death with clubs. There are people sitting on branches and others floating in the air, all seen fleetingly, incompletely, as the camera moves from face to face, detail to detail, hand to ear, just like an eye wandering, heading and moving away.
The Black Paintings are filled with apparitions, classical references, alimentary and anticlerical ramblings, folk superstition and memory. Daylight through the window casts the shadow of the leaves on the woman in the mantilla. The painting is incomplete and a bit crumbling, but somehow alive, accompanied by the sound of pigeons and sparrows. Children’s voices bicker, parents call, a church bell. Everyday sounds and a subliminal chorus, deep, overwhelming thunders and rumbles at the witches’ sabbath.
It might be cheesy, but it’s not. Frequent collaborator of Parreno, Nicholas Becker, won an Oscar for his sound design for the film Sound of Metal, about a heavy metal musician losing his hearing. Becker helped Parreno map the acoustics of the Quinta. His sonic recreation of the house is wonderful. We listen through headphones and sometimes feel pressure in our ears, the roar of circulating blood. It’s almost a film about deafness, with its resounding interior noise, as well as the pictorial noise of the paintings themselves.
Watching Parreno’s film is like moving through an unknown space with a candle. The darkness takes on a galactic vastness at times, lit by pulsating particles and clouds of ocher dust, a flight of insects and light capturing the camera lens, like spectral moons, by sparks and hisses , squeaks and squeals, and disturbing vague shapes that won’t resolve. We only ever see things incompletely, which is how Goya’s paintings appear to us now too. There is rain pattering at the window, the shadow of droplets sliding down the pane cast on the heavy void and repainted above Goya’s dog. Has its owner stood there, but has it been repainted? Afterwards, returning to the Black Paintings, I am more attentive to each of their touches, to their silences, to their indeterminations and their strangeness, to their haunting.