The Wonderful Horror of Goya’s Fight to the Death with Cudgels
Don’t drop your fife in the shower
Goya’s most readable black painting, Fight with Cudgels is one of those paradigmatic paintings, like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which introduces a blinkering understanding of an artist’s oeuvre, one which will be applied to all of their paintings, for better or worse, and forever swim like piscatorial lodestars in the eyes of critics.
Goya never gave the black paintings titles. They were cataloged after his death and titled in equivocal, though mostly felicitous, ways (The Witch, The Dog). El Prado took an even more equivocal approach and slapped two(!) names on the plaque. “You pick which you prefer”: Duel with Cudgels or Fight to the Death with Clubs. To pick not one but two(!) names is simultaneously to box the reader in and to paralyze them with a rather serious decision. How much there is on the line! And should you decide neither fit? Well, there is no choice but to think through it.
The first name calls to mind the pomposity of sport and politics — simulated violence over slights of honor. Even to strike that first telling word “duel” and replace it as I have done above with “Fight” with Cudgels, yields a vast improvement. Cudgel, an Old English word, is as brutal in name as is the sudden but drawn-out crunching of bone which it brings to mind. Likewise, Fight to the Death with Clubs carries a weak verbal link. Perhaps Duel with Clubs would be the appropriate name of two caveman’s perfunctory squabble over a love mate, but it certainly doesn’t carry the grandeur and effrontery necessary to title such essential violence. Might I suggest a synthesis? Fight to the Death with Cudgels. Much better. But, is it in fact a fight to the death?
I think there is ample evidence before us that this is no mere pissing match between drovers’ sons. Part of the horrific delight of the painting is that the motion of the assailants does not countervail one another. With arcs of similar velocity and ferocity they will each, in the end, land the killing blow upon the other’s head, from above and from the side. There is nary a thought to dodge or flee, to maintain strategic distance like a hunter, or to wile the enemy into a trap, just the overriding intent to kill and to kill quickly: the virile fruition of mutually assured destruction we were so baited on during the many impotent years of the Cold War. It is indeed a Fight to the Death with Cudgels.
Often stories of violence are couched in nuance, and more often than not carefully and compassionately painted in the language of innocence, naivety, and youthful impetuosity. Soldiers are after all and above all else, sons and daughters of the state doing merely as they are told like good little children who will get a lolly, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Goya brings no such pretense to his scene. The viewer is brought, without the pomp of war games or grandeur of myth, to the very last moment of clarity, the climactic swing of the pendulum, before the blur and crash of death blows — the last chance the men have to contemplate one another. And just the same they persist toward death as if, just as in the pendulum, it were for them perfectly inevitable. Leave your stories of chivalry and your ethical and biological arguments about the importance of self-preservation where you’ve left your hat, contorted and damp in your bloodless hands. Is there anything sexier than a fruiting vine who from the nutrient dense effluvium of what is essentially rot and snarge and an infinite open-casket, opened many millenia ago and yesterday too, transforms the very abject dirt into absolute flourishing and then dies? In a mortal life or whims and chance, any inevitability is a blessing. In an Anthropocene which throws us from a static and steady world into existential spin, wouldn’t it be something to grab a club?
One can also read metaphor in the environment which enhances this sense of inevitability. Just as Homer wrote of armies in confluence, the men in Cudgels are each backgrounded by conjoining clouds and separated by blue sky between. Putting the men before the clouds gives their form a silhouette’s clarity in an otherwise turbid environment while, in a macroscopic sense, mirroring the natural forces above and below them — a common trope in visual art. Through death a return to the whole. Just as Homer’s armies confluence, as Ovid’s characters transmogrify, as Goya’s clouds reform, as tectonic plates meet and erupt, the men embrace in a death made universal by the dirt, by the reeds which scratch and grasp at their legs.
In Goya’s Third of May, the subjects do not belong and do not wish to remain. The executioners look away into their shoulders; the onlookers cower and cover their eyes; the martyrs plead or shield themselves. Nothing about the painting feels inevitable: the soldiers needn’t fire, the innocents needn’t die. The painting is marked by dissonance borne of immoral irrationality which vitiates the sense of inevitability. The paradox is, even though it doesn’t feel inevitable — even though by all accounts it feels imperfect and unformed, without reason, irrational — it will end in violence just the same (as evidenced by the nearby corpses). The basic pathos of the painting is built into the composition. It is the faces and the light — the mythic grandeur — of the martyrs we are shown; it is their story and for them we are told we ought to weep lest we be taking sides with faceless, inhuman brutality. There is no such moral bent in Cudgels and I would argue it offers the antipodal feeling: satisfaction. There is no fanciful pathos, only inevitable, senseless, and consensual self-destruction.
This is not to say that there are no narrative cues whatsoever in Goya’s painting. The two men fight with different abandon. The man to the left is bloodied in the face and displays his chest. He swings overhand with the intent to crush. The man to the right shows a modicum more prudence, covering his face — thus far unmarred — and swings wide in an attempt to overtake. These are not mere stupid archetypes swinging: they are human enough in the way, that is, of a detective smoking herself to death or the gardener filching flowers for his lover’s home. To give them too much story would imply too many extenuating reasons for the fight and remove its universality. However, to concede to total anonymity would render them mere shadows, begging the image of the caster.
This faceless archetyping is used well in the paintings of pop and folk artists (like the incredible early paintings of Faith Ringgold), but wouldn’t make sense here. For, Goya’s fighters are the casters and who but us the shadows. Such is what makes the Black Paintings so compelling and so scary: in portraying humanity careening passionately and inevitably — more like comets than souls — toward death and the occult, they depict our origin and our end both.