Have you noticed that when you travel to a foreign culture you are thrown into an almost strictly visual mode for gathering information? I am in such a mode because I am in Madrid for the first time ever. When I arrived I went for a stroll, then settled into a sidewalk cafe that faced an open public area where ordinary people were strolling. I figured I would see an introduction to Spanish life. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Almost immediately I noticed how many people were walking their dogs. It was a week night, so I imagined that these folks were home from work and the dogs were enjoying a well-deserved time outside with their favorite person. And indeed, the dogs were smiling. You know that upward curve their mouths have when they are really happy.
So many dogs! And they were utterly devoted to their companions. Some waited patiently while their human chatted with friends. One was overjoyed to chase a ball its human would throw, ever further away. Some dogs greeted one another as well-known friends or adversaries. But what struck me was that no matter how foreign a culture may be, the relationship between dogs and their companions is universal. What a comfort when one is feeling alone and, well, foreign!
And today, I went to the Prado, where I discovered an unusual proportion of paintings that somehow had dogs prominently in them. And yes: whether with kings, nudes, crucifixions, or private visions, there was a dog, being its self: sleeping in the sun, begging for food, scratching and sniffing.
But in one memorable painting by Goya, a dog appears as the protagonist. It is alone, with only its head visible, a golden background taking up the rest of the painting’s space. This dog must find its own meaning, and so must we. Critics and historians are mute on this haunting image.
I return to this painting several times, searching for its meaning, unsettled by the dog’s eternal loneliness. Do I see faces in the golden background? Like me, is the dog seeing these shadowy figures above–or is it a cruel trick our minds play to convince us that we are not alone and devoid of significance?