This week’s work of monumental art is The Colossus, an oil on canvas painting made by Francisco de Goya in 1812. Goya was a Spanish Romantic painter, whose many paintings and etchings critique the politically tumultuous time in which he lived. In the second decade of the nineteenth century, Spain was occupied by the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose reinstatement of the country’s monarchy crushed the hopes of liberals like Goya. This political upheaval culminated in the Peninsular War, at the end of which, in 1814, British and Spanish forces finally evicted the French.
The Colossus has been seen by many as Goya’s allegory for Spanish resistance during the period of French occupation. The giant’s aggressive posture, with his fists raised in defence against some unseen enemy, is argued to articulate this allegory. This interpretation fits neatly with the long held assumption that the painting is based on Juan Bautista Arriaza’s patriotic poem, ‘Pyrenean Prophecy’, written in 1810.
But assume that the painting is just romantic glorification of the people’s resistance and you elide many of the ambiguities and equivocations Goya has worked in to it. For instance, it is unclear whether the legs of the gigantic figure are just occluded by mountains, or whether they are actually stuck in the ground – if they are, then it can hardly be seen as the most drum-thwacking endorsement of the people’s power.
Also, the Colossus’s adversary is not even shown – is he just confusedly facing up to no one at all? And why are all the animals in the foreground running away? Are they running away from his foe, or just scarpering before he turns around? This ambiguity exists because the Colossus himself is such a questionable receptacle for our sympathies. He seems too ominous, too monstrous, to be a neat allegory for the noble resistance of the people. Or perhaps he is an allegory for the people, just not so flattering a one.
So Goya’s painting is a work of monumental art because it is too complex to be contained within neat, allegorising interpretations. The longer we look at it the more of our questions we realise it refuses to answer.