The town of Castres has several claims to fame. At its centre handsome rows of old tanners’ and weavers’ houses overhang the river Agout. It was where the socialist leader and peacemaker Jean Jaurès was born in 1859. It has a flourishing ‘Top 14’ rugby side. And it contains the Goya Museum, which specialises in the historical art of Spain.
The Museum is housed in a seventeenth century bishop’s palace. There are several succeeding rooms of paintings – the central ones are laden with heavy-duty counter-reformation messages – until you arrive at the last, where the facing wall is dominated by one huge canvas, Goya’s painting usually known as The Philippines Assembly (it’s also known as The Junta of the Philippines). Nothing up to this point in the Museum prepares you for this stunning and enigmatic work.
The Philippines Assembly is the largest painting Goya ever made, and his last public painting. He was commissioned to produce it to commemorate the annual meeting in Madrid on 30 March 1815 of the Royal Company of the Philippines. The meeting was notable because of the unexpected presence there of the King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, who had been restored to the throne at the end of the Peninsula War and who wished to reassert his authority over Spain and the Spanish empire. Ferdinand has an unenviable reputation. The historian Stanley Payne summed him up thus:
Cowardly, selfish, grasping, suspicious, and vengeful, [he] seemed almost incapable of any perception of the commonwealth. He thought only in terms of his power and security and was unmoved by the enormous sacrifices of Spanish people to retain their independence and preserve his throne.
The power of the Spanish state, though, was on the wane, and the Royal Company, created in 1785 to establish a Spanish monopoly over trade in the islands, on the pattern of the British East India Company, was by now an empty and powerless institution. Relations between the Spanish government and the Royal Company were tense: the company had lent the state money and the government wanted it to cancel the debt, but the impoverished Company resisted. Its temporary President, Miguel de Lardizabal, a reformer, had dreamed up the idea of a regal visit, to help repair relations. His attempt proved to be a failure, and the King dismissed him, in September 1815, imprisoning him and then sending him into exile.
Robert Hughes, in his book on Goya, calls this picture ‘the grandfather of all boardroom portraits’. He goes on, ‘For anyone who has had to endure a full shareholders’ meeting of a large modern corporation, its mood is instantly recognizable’.
The first thing that strikes you about the painting, apart from its exceptional size – it’s 4.47m wide and 3.27m high – is the way Goya has shown the assembly room and the people in it. It’s a cavernous chamber, reducing the human figures, numerous though they are, to ciphers. The only source of light is a long narrow window on the right, which dimly illuminates the walls, a Kafkaesque sequence of grey planes, the tiled and patterned floor, and a huge chandelier overhead. Goya uses a narrow range of muted colours, mainly rose, grey and brown. From a distance this looks almost like an abstract painting (Robert Hughes detects an ‘incipient modernity’).
You need to squint through the gloom to discern the human figures. Perhaps age has slightly darkened the surface of the canvas, though I suspect that for Goya darkness was deliberately sought. The hardest to make out are the King and the officials of the Company, seated behind a long row of tables in the centre of the painting. The Museum’s guide calls them ‘a set of sinister puppets’. Not only are the figures small, they’re stiff, isolated and lacking in detail. If the table can be seen, as Robert Hughes suggests, as a theatrical stage, it’s remarkably lacking in dramatic action.
At the very centre of the picture and, appropriately, at the vanishing point of its perspective, sits the King. His body is imprisoned inside his gold-encrusted uniform. His shoulders slope. He wears a red sash, like one of those red-ribboned ID badges given to people attending a conference. His coarse face is topped with bushy eyebrows and the low dark fringe of a teenager (Ferdinand was 31 year old). He grasps a piece of paper, unconvincingly, in his left hand. This is a miniaturised version of the unflattering picture of Ferdinand Goya had painted a year before , now in the Prado Museum, Madrid, a portrait made from an incongruous jamming of a grim near-caricature head on to a lifeless, waxwork body.
In contrast to these distant uniform mannequins the Company members, seated in several tiers on two ranges on either side of the empty central floor, are larger, more individualised and much livelier. They lean, lounge, slouch, chat, stare into the distance, and even sleep. Some sit formal and upright, but most of them adopt much more relaxed poses. Either the meeting has not yet begun, or the King is proving a startlingly inept and ineffective chair.
Two figures catch the eye by virtue of their positions. On the right, silhouetted by the long pillar of white light falling from the window is the bulging head of bear-like man, looking intently ahead (Goya uses this motif again in The dog, one of his ‘black paintings’). He seems to be watching another figure, on the left, who’s concealed from the bigwigs at the table within a recess. According to Albert Boime this is none other than Miguel de Lardizabal. The figure doesn’t appear in Goya’s sketch for the painting, now in the Berlin State Museums, and Boime speculates that, though de Lardizabal had been dismissed from his position since the meeting and it was impossible in the painting to give him his rightful seat at the table (he apparently sat at the King’s right hand, having ceded the chair), Goya wanted to retain him as an unseen dissident or subversive presence in the finished work.
There are other differences between the sketch and the painting. The sketch is more conventional: it lacks the cavernous setting, the strange lack of respectability of the shareholders, the gulf between them and the officials at the table, and the ‘black’ figures seated among the shareholders (one of them, a monk-like figure on the left, is almost completely covered and leans forward in apparent despair).
The Philippines Assembly is a deeply troubled and troubling work. It’s hard to agree with Robert Hughes’s facetious epithet, ‘the grandfather of all boardroom portraits’. Such pictures are invariably intended to magnify and validate corporate power. Goya’s picture seems to do the exact opposite. It reduces power to two equally negative states: impotence masquerading as authority (the King and the Company officials), and careless indifference (the mass of shareholders). Both groups are dwarfed by the vast, drear darkness of the assembly room and by the geometric emptiness of its space – both metaphors perhaps for the loss of political hope represented by the royal restoration and the repression that followed.
Ferdinand’s return meant the end of efforts by Spain’s Enlightenment men – the ilustrados – and political ‘liberals’ to move the country and its colonies away from absolutism and religious intolerance towards a polity, exemplified by the Cadiz Constitution of 1812, that reflected American and French thinking. Goya seems to have sympathised with the reformers, and to have found their defeat hard to bear. That is why Migual de Lardizabal is perhaps the only figure in the painting whom the artist depicts favourably. It’s interesting that about the same time, in 1815, Goya painted an admiring portrait of de Lardizabal, now in Prague, in which the sitter holds a piece of paper containing the words ‘fluctibis republicae expulsus’ – ‘banished by the tides of politics’.
From a post-colonialist point of view the vast emptiness of The Philippines Assembly stands for another absence – the Philippines themselves. The meeting, after all, is taking place in the capital city of the imperial power, thousands of miles away from the lives and concerns of the people whose fate is ostensibly under discussion in the Assembly.
There is bitterness in this picture. A dark, sardonic vein was spreading through Goya’s work as pessimism and despair overwhelmed him (the first of the terrible so-called ‘black paintings’ were only three years away), a vein that revealed itself in the overall structure and feeling of The Philippines Assembly, the acerbic treatment of the participants in it, and possible a dark satire inherent in the fact that the painting seems to take as its model Leonardo’s Last supper.