Fantasies, Follies and Disasters: The Prints of Francisco de Goya

Goya, ‘No se puede mirar’  (‘One cannot look at this’)

While we were in Manchester on Thursday, we  visited the Goya exhibition at the Art Gallery. The exhibits are taken from the Goya’s three main groups of etchings: The Fantasies, The Disasters of War and The Follies, all of which were withdrawn or withheld from publication during his lifetime because of their controversial, disturbing or strange qualities.

The works are all drawn from Manchester Art Gallery’s extensive collection of Goya etchings, recognised as one of the most important in the world, and have not been shown together as a group for over 20 years.  The Gallery owns more than 90 rare first-edition examples of etchings which were purchased in the early 1980s from the estate of a leading Goya scholar.

Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) was one of the most important European artists of his time, enjoying a lucrative career painting portraits of prominent figures of the establishment. Yet behind this public facade Goya was profoundly disaffected. In 1792 an illness left him deaf and increasingly introspective. Like other Spanish intellectuals, he was also deeply concerned by poverty and corruption in late 18th century Spain, compounded by the French occupation in 1808.

Goya’s etchings, produced largely in private, feature a mixture of satirical caricatures attacking the ignorance and hypocrisy of late 18th century Spanish society and the Church, and dark, nightmarish landscapes exposing the atrocities and misery suffered in war. Only fully known after his death, many of the works were withheld from publication during his lifetime because of their controversial and disturbing qualities.

Goya, The Folly of Fear
Goya, The Folly of Fear

The exhibition includes some of Goya’s most memorable, satirical images: animals are shown as humans to  comment on the corruption, stupidity and vanity of nobility, the clergy and wider society. The Disasters of War are savage in their depiction of violence, torture and famine. Goya’s final etchings, The Follies, produced at the age of 70, are a haunting and atmospheric series depicting the folly of mankind and populated by witches and grotesque and deformed creatures. They are really mysterious and hard for the modern viewer to fathom, transforming some of his earlier themes into dreamlike visions that, in their Freudian delving into the subconscious, perhaps anticipate some twentieth-century art.

For me, The Disasters of War is the series that  has the most immediate impact – and particularly No se puede mirar  (One cannot look at this) shown at the top of this blog. It seems to prefigure his famous painting, The Third of May 1808 (below), particularly in the beseeching stance of those about to be executed, and the brutal clarity of the bayonets arrayed against them. What is especially effective in the etching is the cropping of the image so that we see only the dagger-like tips of the bayonets thrust into the frame from the right.

After Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1807 and 1808 brought about the abdication of the Bourbon ruler, there were violent protests against the French in Madrid. The uprising of May 2, 1808, marked the start of the armed Spanish resistance, which dragged on in guerrilla warfare until 1814. It was the brutal retaliation by the French that Goya  memorialized at the end of the war in this etching and the famous painting. The Third of May 1808 is seen by art historians as marking a clear break from conventional depictions of war. It has no obvious precedent, and is considered to be one of the first paintings of the modern era. For Kenneth Clark, The Third of May 1808 is  ‘the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word, in style, in subject, and in intention’. It inspired a number of other major paintings, including Pablo Picasso’s Massacre in Korea.

Goya, The Third of May 1808

In the eighty images of The Disasters of War, Goya told the terrible truth about war: guerrillas shot at close range; the ragged remains of mutilated corpses; and the emaciated victims of war’s partner, famine. Never before had a story of man’s inhumanity to man been so compellingly told, every episode reported with the utmost compassion, the human form described with such keen honesty and pitying respect.

Whether fearful of the ruthless repression of the time, or judging that, once the war was over, there would be no appetite for these images, Goya had no prints made of the series. It wasn’t until 1863, thirty-five years after his death, that the first edition of the Disasters was published.