Francisco Goya is probably the most significant ancestor of modern art. He excelled at portraiture and commission work, treading in the footsteps of old Spanish masters like Velázquez, but transitioned into the themes of darkness, horror, violence and inhumanity that made him influential and celebrated long after his death. His early career as a court painter may have brought him wealth and reputation, but the enduring bleakness of Goya’s darker work stands tall over his earlier portraits of toffs in high society.
This shift is generally attributed to illness in 1792-93, which left the artist deaf, introspective and somewhat paranoid about his health and sanity. Historical speculation variously places the blame on polio, lead poisoning and Ménière’s disease. Whatever the cause, Goya’s new perspective was fuelled by inner demons and the horrors of the changing world around him.
Goya’s The Third of May 1808, Witches’ Sabbath and The Dog (a personal favourite), are loaded images that jumped out of any art book I found them in as a child. My subsequent introduction to Los Caprichos has made his work a lifelong fascination. It still has the effortless ability to evoke a world of flickering candles, old crones in the shadows, horned creatures, inconceivable human cruelty and the lingering fear of the fading Inquisition.
The Disasters of War (Los Desastres De La Guerra) is the second of Goya’s major aquatint/etching prints collections. The images relate to events surrounding the Peninsular War (Napoleonic war against Spanish nationalists and their allies). Plates for this body of work were produced over a ten-year period (1810-20), prior to the final “ominous decade” of King Ferdinand VII (quite the odious individual by all accounts), but the prints themselves were not actually published until 35 years after his death.
What is on display here is a second edition set from 1892 (the first edition was printed in 1863). The Chester Beatty Library is exhibiting 40 of what it says is a full set of the 80 prints it owns, although conflicting information puts the full set at 82. The exhibition has warning signs up about sensitive subject matter just in case some innocent little suburban darlings see something in this art they won’t in a video game. The works are small, approximately 6” by 8”, and look like deceptively innocent bygones at a glance, but the devil is in the detail.
As the prints were divided into 3 thematic groups, so is the selection of work on display here. Disasters is the nearest this gets to an eyewitness account of the gruesome nature of war and the tangled mess it leaves in its path. Famine steps away from warfare itself and portrays the suffering of the population. Caprichos Enfáticos deals with abstraction, mockery and caricature of the church, the Burbons and the absolutism of Ferdinand VII. The exhibition simply calls them Caprichos, which confuses them with the earlier Los Caprichos series of etchings even though a surreal horror makes them aesthetically similar.
Compared to the types of exhibitions that rotate internationally, we’re starved of this sort of historic quality here. There’s one Goya (portrait of Doña Antonia Zárate) in the National Gallery and lion’s share of his significant works are in the Prado, so for half this collection of etchings to go on display is extremely welcome. The Chester Beatty Library is a treasure but its temporary exhibition space is limited – try and see it early on a weekday. I went 2 days after it opened and had the place to myself for 40 minutes. Avoid if you stumble across a school tour or loud feckless tourists capturing phone data.
The Disasters of War makes for compelling examination with its array of garroted priests, corpses suspended from tree stumps, twisted violence, starvation and strange zoomorphic beasts. This body of work has a clear line of influence, down through the Der Krieg prints of Otto Dix, the sinister graphic works of Paula Rego and the dark symbolist illustrations of Alfred Kubin. Goya’s blunt indulgence and treatment of subject matter also has its DNA all over the anti-war paintings of the 20th century Spanish giants.
Invigorating stuff indeed. Go see it yesterday.