The Dog, by Francisco de Goya
The question is: What does this even mean? Like really, what are we supposed to make of this? It belongs to the “Black paintings” series by Goya (these were actually murals), and even by the standards of Goya it is so bizarre.
The works from the Black Paintings by Francisco de Goya are extremely intense and dark; they deal with fear, panic, dementia and horror, and for the most part are difficult to interpret. That difficulty is nowhere as apparent as in The Dog. In this painting only the head of the dog is shown, and the animal looks sort of funny but so incredibly worried. I have always thought the dog was swimming at the sea, and that a wave was coming towards him, but to be honest he could perfectly be on solid ground or on sand, who knows. There is a sense of despair to it, and the fact that his head only takes a small portion of the painting increases the idea of fatality or anxiety. We don’t even know if the animal is looking towards salvation or if on the contrary, that is where the threat is coming from. Subjects positioned at a weird place and being off-balanced can also be seen in another painting from the Black Paintings series: In the so called (Goya did not named these paintings, the names were given by other people) “Cabezas en un paisaje”, the heads of the subjects occupy only the bottom right corner of the painting.
I think the power of “The Dog” comes from things being familiar to us but yet strange at the same time. We can notice the anxiety in the animal, and even though we cannot be sure of the landscape (we don’t know if that is the sky above the dog, or where he is situated) it is not completely unfamiliar to us. Yet terror is somehow lurking there, and it feels menacing and dangerous, even when we cannot define it, we just do not know what it is. The best part is that nothing of what I said may be right. Some photographs taken on the 19th century show that the dog might have been looking to a couple of birds that disappeared from the painting after an attempt to restore it. The problem is that the painting might have suffered other changes after Goya’s death and before the pictures were taken too, so we don’t even know how the original one really looked like. Therefore the painting can be about some unexplainable terror, about the emptiness and solitude felt by humans, or about a puppy watching some birds. Considering the other paintings from these series I would find it hard to believe that this last explanation is the right one (not to mention that the position of the dog and his face create a lot of tension), but I would not bet money on it.
Even though it has nothing to do with this painting, I can feel a slightly similar feeling when listening to the third movement of the Symphony No. 1 in D major, by Gustav Mahler. In this movement he transforms the French nursery song “Frère Jacques” into a funeral march. We know the song, but now we are thrown off by the minor tonality, thus our sense of familiarity is turned upside down. On another topic, this movement was also very particular in using the double basses as soloists (right at the start), something that I don’t think it was ever done before (at least it was not a common thing to hear).