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Old Man Goya [Paperback]

Julia Blackburn
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
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Book Description

3 April 2003

In 1792, when he was forty-seven, the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya contracted a serious illness which left him stone deaf. In this extraordinary book Julia Blackburn follows Goya through the remaining thirty-five years of his life. It was a time of political turmoil, of war, violence and confusion, and Goya transformed what he saw happening in the world around him into his visionary paintings, drawings and etchings.

These were also years of tenderness for Goya, of intimate relationships with the Duchess of Alba and with Leocadia, his mistress, who was with him to the end. Julia Blackburn writes of the elderly painter with the intimacy of an old friend, seeing through his eyes and sharing the silence in his head, capturing perfectly his ferocious energy, his passion and his genius.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (3 April 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099437252
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099437253
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 586,151 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Julia Blackburn has already established herself as one of the finest writers of non-fiction, but with Old Man Goya she takes her ability to re-create the past to a new level in her haunting evocation of the final years of the great Spanish painter, Francisco de Goya. Partly inspired by the painful loss her own mother (who was also a painter), Blackburn's desire to write about Goya developed when she learnt that in 1792, at the age of 47, the painter went permanently deaf; "I wanted to know what sort of world this deaf man had inhabited and how he had managed to live with the isolation of deafness and how it had changed the way he used his remaining senses". The result is a remarkably perceptive voyage into Goya's mind, which hovers between history and fiction, as Blackburn moves between the death of her own mother, visits to Goya's old haunts in Spain and France, and the painter's own remarkable lust for life in the midst of domestic upheavals and the horrors of warfare in early 19th-century Spain.

Old Man Goya moves from Goya's early days as a rich court painter, creating "dozens of designs of light-hearted subjects", to the trauma of deafness, the devastation of the bloody Peninsula War that swept Iberia between 1807 and 1812, the death of his first wife and old age with a mistress half his age. Interspersed amongst the text are 23 beautiful Goya copperplates through which Blackburn "can see Goya, a silent witness who makes no comment, but gives a shape to everything he sees", whose relish for the absurd, the cruel and the carnivalesque remained with him throughout his long life. Blackburn's elegant prose and unerring eye for domestic and artistic detail creates a wonderfully compassionate portrait of Goya, and she happily concedes to being "caught up in the spinning energy of the man as he hurtled relentlessly through the years", a journey that her readers will find well worth pursuing. --Jerry Brotton --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"Sensitive and intelligent... Julia Blackburn has steeped herself in her subject and in the period" (Irish Times)

"A near-perfect work... combines lyrical style with such exceptional imaginative power and intelligence" (Sunday Times)

"Reading Ms Blackburn's work, you have the uncanny sensation that you have met Goya, felt his honest horny hands, watched him work" (Economist)

"Julia Blackburn has developed her own technique for marrying the 'granite' of fact with the rainbow of personality... Her prose is elegant and precise, illuminated by intelligence, curiosity and a refined visual sense... When the book is closed, her evocation of the life and times of "old man Goya" lives on, a succession of brilliantly lit images in the mind's eye" (Literary Review)

"Julia Blackburn has an extraordinary talent for thinking herself into other worlds... So vivid are her conjurings of lives lived elsewhere or long ago, you begin to suspect she sees ghosts" (Marina Benjamin Evening Standard)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Dreaming and imagining is not research 18 Aug 2014
I really wanted this novel to work; partly because its subject, Goya, 1746-1828, is a painter that I should understand better and partly because I could not see how the author, daughter of the artist Rosalie de Meric, 1916-1999, could balance the requirements of biography and fiction. Blackburn makes it even more difficult for herself by additionally weaving in a travelogue describing her responses to the locations in Spain and France where the artist lived and worked.

This is a very personal book stimulated by a book of Goya’s etchings that Blackburn took from her mother’s studio and it also intertwines the deaths of Goya and her mother. It contains 23 photographs of plates of Goya’s etchings, see below. She first visits the artist’s birthplace and vividly describes a religious festival, which demonstrates her ability to engage the reader, but then imagines Goya’s response to seeing the same processions and people. However, it is really only with the onset of the artist’s deafness, in 1792, that the story begins.

Whilst Blackburn cites relevant literature, primarily in English since her Spanish is limited [‘I can speak a sort of fluent pidgin Spanish, which means that I can talk to people at length if they are patient with me, but even with the help of a big dictionary I can only struggle through a few pages of written Spanish.’], she seems to base a great deal of her story on imagining what Goya did, saw, ate and drank - largely on the basis of visiting places associated with his life - even when all the relevant buildings have long disappeared.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ghosting Goya 19 Dec 2003
By A Customer
I enjoyed this book for the insight it gave me into Goya’s work. His work marks a break in tradition when artists began to feel free to put their private visions on paper as opposed to simply illustrating known subjects. Goya worked for the establishment and at the same time accused and ridiculed it. I was impressed by his courage, cunning or possibly pure good luck in managing to do the two things simultaneously. I was struck by his need to continue working against all the odds – a trait of character which seems to distinguish genius.
Written by a biographer/novelist rather than an art historian, the book describes not simply Goya the artisan; Julia Blackburn also uncovers Goya’s personality, intimately and sensitively. Setting his life and work within its historical context she gives us a vivid and horrifying account of the Peninsular War and its aftermath.
She uses photographs of Goya’s etching plates for the illustrations which produces a reverse negative-positive effect. This gives the illustrations an eerie, unreal quality which seemed fitting for images which often portray bizarre apparitions and a truly nightmarish reality. I would however have appreciated a translation of the list of illustrations and specific references to them within the text, where relevant.
I liked the way Julia Blackburn fuses the experience of her mother’s illness and death with her telling of Goya’s story. This personal touch allows the reader to identify with the author and draws the reader more deeply into the weave of the story. Blackburn’s style of writing is natural and unpretentious making her gift for description, her imaginative power and the scope of her knowledge all the more enjoyable.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Old Man Goya 8 Dec 2012
By sandra
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Old Man Goya is an interesting study of the ageing artist and his time. I found Julia Blackburn's inclusion of her own reactions to her travels doing research in Spain and France where Goya had lived an added bonus.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Goya: a far from still life 16 April 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Having enjoyed Julia Blackburn's recent 'Thin Paths', I turned back 10 years to her excellent book on the Spanish painter Goya. This not-quite-straight biography concentrates on the latter part of the painter's long career when he had lost his hearing. The 'facts' of Goya's life are sketchy in many places, so the author has filled in the gaps using her creative imagination. She makes clear where she is doing this and the whole project works extremely well. What we get is an intimate and moving picture of the political and domestic context in which Goya plied his art, including three-dimensional portraits of his family and a useful reminder that, even after wars have ended according to history books, revenge killings, famine and repression often continue for many years.
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