Rings of Saturn
Old Man GoyaJulia Blackburn
(Vintage · paper · $13)
A powerful piece of visual art can grab hold of you and pull you in, allowing you to experience the torment and beauty of a world without words. This is certainly the case with the work of Spanish painter Francisco de Goya. His best known paintings present gut-wrenching images of hardship and war that are sometimes difficult to stomach.
Goya became deaf at the age of 47. His handicap allowed him to create images that were more profound due to their isolation from the aural world.
Old Man Goya by Julia Blackburn fails to capture the essence of this complex painter and his art. Blackburn incorporates vivid descriptions of Goya's life and struggles but does not deliver meaning and substance.
She chooses to focus on the latter years of Goya's life and his struggles with his hearing loss. The beginning of the book has potential but its drawn-out explanations fail to draw in the reader. The whole book reads like a long description of the painter. With very little plot, it gets rather tiresome.
It baffles me that anyone could write about an artist by focusing on his handicap rather than his work. Blackburn's book mainly dwells on Goya's deafness and how it affected his life and art. This handicap is certainly relevant, but the whole book reads like a biography of an invalid and not an accomplished painter. Another annoyance is that Blackburn talks about what Goya felt as though she were actually there and could read his mind.
Although Blackburn apparently did her research, the book reads more like a journal entry than an insightful and entertaining biography. You can definitely tell that Blackburn had an admiration for Goya, but her book is just plain boring.
Illustrations in Old Man Goya from copper plates are hazy, and they fail to capture the essence of Goya's work. Those unfamiliar with his art won't get an accurate impression of its power.
The book wasn't entirely drab. Blackburn's description of Goya's mistress, the Duchess of Alba, for example, was much more detailed and lively than her description of Goya himself. (The Duchess was a colorful character who was the central figure in many of Goya's paintings.)
Blackburn describes Goya's struggles with his sons, who were more concerned about their inheritance than with their father during the last years of his life. She also touches upon the struggles of Goya's mistress and child. Although these observations are interesting, Blackburn touches on them only briefly.
A good book, like art, draws its audience in and does not let go. Some books fail to capture the interest of readers because they lack a coherent vision. Old Man Goya had potential, but something went terribly wrong along the way.