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3.8 out of 5 stars
Old Man Goya
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 August 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. This is taken to lextreme degrees – as when she imagines one of his friends, Braulino Poc, visiting Goya on his deathbed ‘I imagine him with a bushy moustache and smelling of strong tobacco, even though I have never seen a picture of him, only a reproduction of his twirling and confident signature.’

There is a huge amount of information presented but I was unsure what was fact and what imagined. Before I reached the end of this book I was frustrated with Blackburn’s meanderings into dreams and fancies, following 'I see Goya...', 'I would have Goya....’ or ‘what Goya must have seen...’. At one point she writes ‘I don't know what Goya saw or did not see on his journey to Madrid, but I have taken a few images from travel books of the time, and these I scatter around him...’. To get closer to Goya, Blackburn obtains and wears a grotesque carnival mask, and buys ear plugs to better appreciate the artist’s deafness.

She describes Goya’s etching technique in detail and provides a chilling account of the Peninsula and other wars that Goya lived through. Fact or fiction? The various Spanish royal families are portrayed, as is the Duchess of Alba, Goya’s wife, his only child to reach adulthood and his mistress and her children. However, how much was true? She imagines Goya journeying from Madrid to Bourdeaux at the age of 78 on the basis of following his route almost two centuries later. At one stage she imagines the artist watching the 1930s film ‘Freaks’ with its cast of human oddities related to those appearing in Goya’s etchings.

Blackburn might have written a very compelling novel about the artist or an interesting biography, although limited by her inability to consult primary documentation in the original language. She could certainly have written a travel book ‘In the Steps of Goya’. However, what becomes increasingly evident is that the task she has set herself is beyond her and what she, and the reader, end up with is a dissatisfying hybrid.

The illustrations in the book are frequently unclear and not related to the text. Equally, Blackburn sometimes writes in detail about works that are not illustrated and both put a barrier between the artist, his works and the reader. Although the 23 plates are listed at the end of the book, their titles are in Spanish and individual illustrations, positioned sporadically throughout the book, are not numbered. Such lack of attention is surprising from an experienced publisher.

Having taken us up to Goya’s final stay in Bordeaux Blackburn describes his death and its aftermath much too quickly and, because of her previous treatment of fact and fiction, the reader is left wondering about Goya’s legitimate and illegitimate children, and of his various paintings, drawings and etchings represent fact or imagination.

This is ultimately very unsettling, a biography penned by a medium. I am not sure that I understand this complex and very influential artist any better now than when I began this book. Blackburn is a capable writer but, here, she fails to deliver, 5/10.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 16 April 2012
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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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 19 December 2003
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
on 8 December 2012
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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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Julia Blackburn pitches us into early 19th century Spain and into the last years of the life of the artist Francisco de Goya.
Tormented by his absolute deafness, surrounded by the harshness of Spanish life and the threats of the Napoleonic Wars, ultimately driven from his home to exile in Bordeaux, bereaved of his wife but consoled by a young mistress, Francisco de Goya produces some of the most original and striking art in history.
In short chapters and luminous prose Julia Blackburn brings the painter and his times to life in rich detail. From the painter's house decorated by himself to the religious and royal politics of early modern Spain to the sinister omnipresence of the Inquisition to the horrors of the Peninsular War to the pleasures and pains of everyday life, she guides us through the alleys, the squares, the bullfights, the countryside, the battlefields of early 19th century Spain and France as if she had been there to witness the scenes she describes.
Superbly evoked and described, beautifully illustrated with Goya's own etchings, this is a fascinating, memorable and wonderful read.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 10 January 2013
Unfortunately I did not enjoy this book at all although I had very much looked forward to reading it. Having visited the Prado a number of times and been absolutely intrigued and fascinated by his 'Black' paintings, I really wanted to be given an insight into Goya's creative process and line of thinking.
Sadly this not provide me with what I wanted and when the author admits in the first chapter that she has no real reading knowledge of Spanish, one knows immediatly that all her research, by definition, is from secondary sources.
Admittedly the book doesn't pretend to be an academic biography of the artist, but I find Ms. Blackburn's attempts to link the life and suffering of Goya with her own mother's sad death somewhat spurious to say the least. The book then becomes something of a travelogue as she visits various places associated with Goya's life and work, but the assumptions that she makes from these travels are suspect and contrived.

There are certainly flashes of good writing here and the fact that I did finish the book rather than tossing it out of the window means it can't be all bad, but I certainly would not reccomend it to anyone to read I'm afraid.
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on 19 May 2013
Pretentious rubbish, which I could never recommend to a friend. I was expecting a biography but got a fantasy journey.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 3 July 2011
I started off enjoying this book very much. The style of writing is sometimes lyrical and quite poetic and the author communicates great enthusiasm for her subject. Unfortunately the book is really much more about her than about Goya. Her research does not appear to have been very extensive and there are one or two anachronisms and historical improbabilities that appear to stem from a belief that she is 'in tune' with Goya and intuitively knows about him without checking for evidence!
It is OK as a travel book or historical novel but not as serious biography.
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Fascinating life!
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