Two hundred years after he covered the walls of his house near Madrid with febrile visions of Saturn devouring his son, a witches’ sabbath and a slowly drowning dog, Francisco de Goya has been summoned home to help reverse the fortunes of the poor, remote and underpopulated Spanish region where he was born in 1746.
The painter, printmaker and fascinated, appalled chronicler of war, cruelty and reason’s frequent slumbers, studied in Italy and painted for the court in Madrid before dying in Bordeaux in 1828. But he was born on the other side of the Pyrenees in Fuendetodos, a small town 27 miles (44km) south of Zaragoza in the north-eastern Spanish region of Aragon.
Today, Fuendetodos and the 14 other towns and villages that make up the Campo de Belchite are invoking Goya’s name and legacy as they try to cling to the map.
The Territorio Goya association – a group of artists, curators, academics, residents, culture and tourism experts and specialists in depopulation – is attempting to stem the decline of a region where there are just 4.8 inhabitants per square kilometre and the annual per capita income is about €8,600 (£7,300).
“By using the name of Goya, who was born in this little town near Zaragoza, we’re trying to do something a little bit like what Stratford-upon-Avon has done with William Shakespeare, or what Eisenach has done with Bach, or what Figueres has done with Salvador Dalí,” says Julio Martínez Calzón, the president of Territorio Goya.
“Goya has a profound human, cultural and social pull because of the circumstances in which he created his works and because of his own capacity to reach people all over the world. We want to use that to empower the towns and villages in the Belchite region.”
The area’s plight is hardly unique. Last year Spain’s socialist-led government acknowledged the problem of la España vaciada – the hollowed-out Spain – by creating a ministry for what it termed “the demographic challenge”.
About 90% of Spain’s population – approximately 42 million people – are squeezed into 1,500 towns and cities that occupy 30% of the land. The other 10% (4.6 million people) occupy the remaining 70%, giving a population density of barely 14 inhabitants a square kilometre.
But not many corners of la España vaciada have a cultural figure as titanic as Goya to whom they can turn. By the end of the year, Territorio Goya hopes to have two cultural projects under way to mark the 275th anniversary of the artist’s birth, and the second centenary of the Pinturas Negras (Black Paintings) that he applied to the walls of the now demolished Quinta del Sordo estate near Madrid.
The first is a reconstruction of the two floors of the Quinta del Sordo, complete with full-scale images of the Black Paintings that were photographed in 1874 before being stripped out and transferred to canvas and ending up the Prado in Madrid.
“We’re hoping to produce a visceral, organic impact in visitors; a shock,” says Martínez Calzón. “The idea is to show them as they were.”
The second initiative has involved commissioning 15 contemporary artists from Spain, France, Italy, Mexico and the US to reinterpret the Black Paintings so that one of the reworked paintings can be exhibited in each of the 15 towns and villages in the region.
Eventually, Territorio Goya hopes the Quinta del Sordo installation will form part of a permanent, international centre for Goya studies in Fuendetodos.
The town’s half-built museum, one of the many casualties of Spain’s most recent boom-and-bust cycle – and a relic of a time when so many places dreamed of their own Guggenheim – would make the perfect venue and already has thousands of donated artworks that could be displayed.
While Martínez Calzón wants to see many more Spaniards and foreign visitors making the pilgrimage to Fuendetodos, the project is also about ensuring that Goya finally receives his dues in his home town and beyond.
“The idea is to look after the person that Goya was because of what he meant to Spain and to the world,” he says. “In his paintings, there’s a drive to capture the conceptual essence of what it means to be human and of what human society is. Before then, it was all kind of photographic and you didn’t get those incredibly intense expressions of people’s internal, unresolved passions and feelings.”
The artist Ricardo Calero, one of the founder members of Territorio Goya, moved to Fuendetodos 14 years ago after undertaking a commission to reinterpret Goya’s enigmatic and incomplete Follies series.
“I fell in love with the light of the place, with its rough, powerful landscape, with its skies, with its silence, and, of course, with its people,” he says.
But Calero is keenly aware of the Campo de Belchite’s problems and of the urgent needs to remedy them.
“Goya is a great lighthouse who could illuminate the region,” he says. “All this is about using culture as a tool for development in a really wide sense. It’s about using memory, education, nature and the landscape and raising awareness so that people can see the great value that this place and this land possess.”