Though there are art historians that point to a period of convalescence Goya suffered through and later a nervous break down as reasons for the disturbing content he presented, I feel that perhaps a pre-existing worldview of a disturbing nature may have contributed to any mental illness later on in life. Obviously, I’m no detective or psychologist, but as I looked through paintings throughout his career — I was somewhat intrigued to discover that a current of the disturbing was always there… even in his commissions of the rich and powerful… even in depictions of childhood.
With that in mind, I present “Boys Playing Soldiers” which was painted in 1779. It is as the picture suggests “Boys Playing Soldiers.” Now, as a frame of reference… think of Norman Rockwell and how he might depict kids playing at war. Think even, aside from art to real life, and perhaps the children you’ve seen playing “war.” Personal/political feelings aside from “war”, I feel that generally speaking there’s something innocent about most games children play — unless they’re budding maniacs or potentially dangerous psychopaths.
YET, in Goya’s “Boys Playing Soldiers” it is exactly maniacs that I feel I’m looking at.
There are four boys in the painting: three whose faces you can see, and one you cannot. Of the three you can see, the one on the left looks malicious and plotting with his scowling face and wild blond hair as he cradles a building, the one on the right stares up at the two in the middle with a fanatic’s eyes as he bangs on the drum, and the one in the middle with pupils dilated to unnatural proportion seems to turn around to face us with an almost predatory curiosity. The one boy whose face we cannot see seems almost poised to jump — and as we almost don’t even notice he’s there in the first place, his presence seems extra sinister considering the presentation of the one’s we can see; this faceless boy… what is he hiding?
And, let’s not forget the shining bayonets that look sharp and dangerous, the strong wind blowing the leaves, the skewed wall and the intensely black shadows lurking at the bottom of the painting. These details would be right at home in a horror movie. Last but not least, what about the steps that the boy with the predatory eyes seems moments away from stepping down and attacking the viewer?
One thing seems certain — that those these boys may be playing soldiers, it seems they aren’t “playing” in the sense of fun, but perhaps “rehearsing.” The longer I look at this image, the more uneasy I feel. Goya is a talented and skilled artist no doubt, and it almost goes without saying that his depiction of “Boys Playing Soldiers” contains a bit of himself.
While most depictions of kids are innocent, even if they’re being mischievous (as in a Rockwell, or Seymour Joseph Guy’s “Golden Locks”) the kids presented by Goya are not innocent. If one is inclined to creep themselves out, they ought check out more of Goya’s so called “innocent” work such as his commissions, and pay special attention to the selections of finer detail: sinister shadows, dilated pupils, faces turned away from the viewer and so forth… AND THEN, contrast these “innocent works” with the ones that were painted in what is more widely considered his demented state.