Saturday 18 November 2017

Head of a Dog

Niall MacMonagle

There are 30,000 dogs in Dublin and you can now phone a hotline [1800 251 500] to complain if you see man's best friend doing what it has to do and its owner doesn't pick up. There's a €150 on-the-spot fine but then 30,000 canines produce a pile of poo and if you've ever stepped on dog dirt the stink, and the disgust aren't easily forgotten. That's the downside.

But dogs are also cute, loyal, devoted, protective: they guide the blind, they de-stress the anxious, they comfort the lonely. And they don't answer back.

Goya's remarkable, wonderful Head of a Dog was painted between 1820 and 1824 and is one of a series known as Pinturas Negras, the Black Paintings, black because of their overall dark, disturbing subject matter, the most horrific being Saturn Devouring His Son. Goya's dog painting began its life on a farmhouse wall that he bought in his seventies. The house, was called Quinta del Sordo, the Deaf Man's Farmhouse and though Goya himself was profoundly deaf by then, the deaf man of the title was its previous owner.

Much of Goya's work was commissioned -- he painted numerous portraits of royal personages -- and meant for public display. Not this. Goya in old age was now painting for himself. Dampness or neglect could have destroyed the murals but a wealthy Frenchman, who bought the house, saw to it that they were preserved and had these 14 oil paintings on walls lifted and remounted on canvas; this process of removing the painted plaster began in 1874, 50 years after Goya had painted them.

Little about this particular Goya suggests that it was painted during the 19th Century. It looks so modern. Rothko and Sean Scully owe him one. The upper section with its textured expanse of colour [though a figurative shape is faintly present] belongs to abstract art. The contrasting darker asymmetrical sloping part looks like earth or sand in which the little dog is buried, struggling. It's alone. And helpless. Its small head, the tilt of its snout, its lonely gaze suggest vulnerability. If it barks for help, will anyone respond? Woof, woof!

Irish Independent

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