My favourite painting: Gerald Scarfe

'This brilliant and shocking black painting captures, symbolises and and sums up the stupidity of Man.'

Duel with Cudgels, 1820/23, by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828), 491⁄4in by 1023⁄4in, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain

Gerald Scarfe says:
‘Goya is one of my heroes, and this brilliant and shocking black painting captures, symbolises and and sums up the stupidity of Man. Two men, like animals, beat one another to a pulp as they sink into the quagmire. Yet another fight over territory? Religious division? Or just naked aggression, one nation against another? It has all the direct simplicity of a cartoon—the message is clear. I’ve used similar images many times myself: in the 1980s, I painted a huge backdrop of two ape-like monsters splintering each others’ skulls for The Big One, an anti-nuclear show produced by Susannah York in London. I took my my inspiration directly from this painting.’

Gerald Scarfe is a cartoonist, illustrator and designer. His exhibition, ‘Milk Snatcher: The Thatcher Drawings’ is on show at The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, Co Durham until May 31.

John McEwen comments:
Goya witnessed the hierarchical order of the 18th century being replaced by the revolutionary disorder of the 19th. When life-threatening illness struck in 1792, he was at the zenith of his professional career. The illness left him stone deaf. War in Spain, the first ‘guerrilla’ war in history, followed and conflicts continued until his death. The chaos freed him to some degree from the servitude of commissions and he reacted to the horror on his own liberal terms. His genius was released. Had he died in 1793, he would be remembered as a significant Spanish painter; his confrontation with war made him an artistic titan.

In 1819, after a second near-fatal illness, he bought a country villa outside Madrid, suitably named the ‘Villa of the Deaf Man’ after its previous occupant. It was a refuge from the continuing terror overseen by the tyrannical Ferdinand VII (1784– 1833), a despicable king to whom he was still Court Painter. Goya enlarged the house and ‘decorated’ the walls with 14 private and cathartic murals. They were subsequently called the ‘Black Paintings’ due to their nightmarish imagery.

Recommended videos for you

This painting was one of four that filled the side walls of the ground-floor room. In the 1828 inventory, it was titled Two Provincials. The fighters appear to be sinking in a quagmire. art historians puzzle over its meaning. Is it an allegory of Spain under Ferdinand, who ruled by sowing discord? Certainly, it is a Dantean vision of Hell.

Baron d’Erlanger, a later owner of the villa, had the murals transferred onto canvas (severely damaging them in the process) and presented them to the state in 1881.

This article was originally published in Country Life, March 18, 2015

More from the My Favourite Painting Series