In 1819 Goya was a feted and popular artist in Madrid, being commissioned for many portraits of the rich and aristocratic, even though he was known for his unfriendly and brutally honest representations. He bought a small house on the outskirts of the city on the banks of the river Manzanares known as ‘the house of the deaf man’ unrelated but fitting, as he himself had become deaf. On the plaster in the house he painted some of his most disturbing works, a series of images known as the black paintings that are recognised as the beginning of Modernism, not that he ever meant for them to be seen or purchased. They covered the walls of his house, dark metaphors of pain and madness that were not discovered until after his death.
In the Prado museum in Madrid many of his great works are on display, and the ‘black paintings’ are exhibited in a dark corner of the museum. This image of a dog, painted onto ageing plaster with a few deft strokes impacted on me more than any other. It was never entitled but has become known by different names, most often as ‘El Perro Semihundido’ or ‘the half drowned dog’.
I first saw the image when I was twenty-five. At the time it resonated with me because I had been pushing my surfing to a point that was becoming untenable. I was never going to be a great surfer, but in the water I could be brave, and had not yet balked at size or power. The Atlantic can throw some sizeable waves in the autumns, and during the big swells of those years I would push myself into the ocean with what I hoped was nonchalance and calm.
One Autumn morning after driving from Portugal I dropped off an Australian surfer in Madrid for a flight home, I took a few hours out to wander in the Prado. There this painting hooked into me, I returned to it, twice. The little hound with unseen paws paddling hopelessly in a great dark sea, the towering mass of dread looming over him and the way he seemed to be close to the end, still struggling against the inevitable.
On the long drive up to Northern Spain that afternoon I pondered on the image and my own frailty and laid to rest the ideal that I would always paddle out. The plight of that little dog was a lesson in humility.
I drove through the night to Mundaka and slept a few hours in the car park above the break. The swell had picked up, as the forecast had shown. There were some good sized waves, but I felt calm. I’d paddle out, but I didn’t feel like I had to.