A sabot is the wooden shoe worn in some European countries. When workmen felt that machines threatened their livelihood at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, they placed their wooden shoes into the machines to damage them and prevent their functioning. Hence, the “saboteur” and the destructive act of sabotage. Francisco Goya would have been in sympathy with these acts of sabotage in part because he was born into a poor agricultural community and had to rely on his own gifts and hard work to escape poverty. Although he would die a very wealthy man with friends among the wealthiest and most powerful Spanish families including the royal family, he was always simpatico with those who suffered at the hands of tyrants, religious or secular.
When the rich and powerful use their power against the aspirations of the mass of people, great suffering occurs. Another way to write that last sentence is: when the rich and powerful are unconscious—they choose behavior that causes great suffering for themselves and others. As a compassionate and sensitive human being and as an artist, Goya responded to this suffering.
In viewing Goya’s paintings, we can identify with the peasants, beggars, plebeians, beauties and aristocrats, we can feel his vision. “Black Spain” was still living in the Middle Ages but there were those who wanted to help their nation escape its feudal past and respond to the Enlightenment and the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity of post-revolutionary and later Napoleonic France. Among these intellectuals Goya found many patrons.
Goya was no enlightened saint and was not above making money by accepting commissions that “painted” the church in a favorable light. The church had a lot of money and many artists depended on the church to keep body and soul together by acting in effect as “propagandists.” “Religious themes were a staple of his artistic production—the most profitable in financial terms—but a large body of his work concerns the unacceptable face of religion.”[i]
Not only the institution of the Church, but all of the institutions that exemplified the dysfunctional and self-destructive behavior of the Spanish people became targets of Goya’s cynical and scathing paintings, cartoons and etchings. His subject matter represented “the follies and blunders common in every civil society as well as vulgar prejudices and lies authorized by custom, ignorance or interest [as well as] the futile horrors of war and its effects upon a civilian population.”[ii]
He had the same sensibility that we will find later in his fellow countryman Picasso in his painting Guernica (1937). In the case of Goya it was the Royal families and the power elite of France, England and Spain inflicting “collateral damage” on the people of Spain, and in the Spanish Civil War the Spanish people are caught between the forces of fascism and democracy. In both cases it was the all-too-human false self seeking power, individually and collectively.
In any case Goya fits our definition of the prophet-artist who speaks a deeper truth through his art, one that forewarns of an impending and inevitable disaster if a shift is not made to a more profound worldview. Standing in the shoes of the Old Testament prophets, who shouted warnings of the impending storm, thunder and lightning leaped from the tip of Goya’s fearless brush. How can our hearts be numb to the saboteur who throws his life into the grinding machinery of unconsciousness?
[i] Quantum Publishing Ltd. The Great Masters. London: Quantum. 2003, page 195.
[ii] Ibid., pages 198-199.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.