Faced with some works of art, you can find yourself completely unclear about what the artist wanted to express in them. That is frustrating at first, but then it gives you the freedom to focus on your own perceptions. What do I see in this painting?
Francisco de Goya’s painting of a dog’s head is enigmatic. It belongs to the so-called ‘black paintings’ with which he decorated his country house Quinta del Sordo. Having acquired the property in 1819, he created fourteen paintings of great inscrutability on its walls—just for himself and his few visitors.
The series offers a nightmarish panorama that can hardly be interpreted. Single human figures or groups of people in strange connections and contortions show the monstrosities of humanity as though in a ‘satanic mass’ of visual art.
The painting of a dog’s head is an exception. It is neither monstrous nor charged with mysterious references. It only shows a dog’s head. But it is as difficult to understand as it is simple in appearance. Was it easier to decipher it in its original state? Historical photographs from the Quinta show that Goya had originally placed the dog in a landscape with a high rock in front of it, birds flying in the sky, at which the dog’s gaze was directed. All this is lost. Now the head alone survives, surrounded by fields of yellow-brown colour. Everything that could provide context is erased. Is the dog hiding behind a hill, is it buried in sand, or is it struggling in brown water—sinking into a dark wave? And what does its expression communicate: is it fearful or hopeful?
Whatever Goya wanted to express in his original composition, what I see here now is an endangered creature, all alone, surrounded by a brown nothingness—a desert of sand and ashes or a hostile sea that threatens to bury or to drown it. But it keeps its head up, looks straight ahead, seeming to expect something that will rescue it—perhaps even seeing it already.
This dog seems to me to be more expressive of the human condition than all the other figures in the ‘black paintings’. And it is this condition that Peter gives voice to with his words: ‘Lord, save me!’ (Matthew 14:30).
Hofmann, Werner. 2003. Goya: ‘To Every Story There Belongs Another’ (London: Thames & Hudson)
22 Then he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. 25And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out for fear. 27But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”
28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; 30but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Beth-saʹida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out; 50for they all saw him, and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” 51And he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17got into a boat, and started across the sea to Caperʹna-um. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The sea rose because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat. They were frightened, 20but he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.