August 14, 2009
January 10, 2010
Deep in the Academy’s print vault is a rare first edition of the Spanish artist Francisco Goya’s (1746–1828) “The Disasters of War,” a series of etchings that levels an uncannily prescient indictment of the broad human suffering inevitably associated with warfare. The works have long been recognized as a centerpiece in Goya’s oeuvre. Beginning in March—for the first time in decades—a selection of 40 prints will be on view as the fourth iteration of Graphic Cabinet, an ongoing series of focused exhibitions showcasing highlights from the Academy’s vast and significant collection of work on paper.
More than any other Spanish painter, Goya gave visual form to the Enlightenment—a moment in 18th-century Western thought in which reason gained prominence as a driving intellectual force—and he created a body of work that examines the tension between rationalism and superstition, truth and religion, and society and the individual. He etched the plates for The Disasters of War between 1810 and 1814, when Spain—with its king, Charles IV, in exile and its lands occupied by Napoleon’s army—was embroiled in the long and bloody Peninsular Wars: guerrilla warfare fought by Spanish peasants and townspeople in pursuit of sovereignty against their foreign invaders.
The Disasters of War is a record not of battle, but of the torture and execution, the piles of corpses, the rape and famine, the wasted terrain, and the hypocrisy of those in power that collectively stand as evidence of the wholesale cost of the long and difficult struggle. In choosing not to take sides, Goya issued the deeply humanitarian reminder that war, far from being a confrontation between good and evil, is a tragic event in which both sides are victims, and he left us with haunting images of unspeakable carnage whose casualties are unidentifiable and whose cause and justification are ambiguous. His refusal to glorify heroes and rulers and instead offer a sobering picture of the consequences of unchecked, irrational violence not only speaks to Enlightenment thought, but it also foreshadows the revolutionary sensibility that energized much of modern art. The French writer André Malraux put it best when he wrote, “Goya prefigures the whole of modern art because modern art begins with this liberty.”
Although Goya is known primarily for his forthright portraits of the Spanish monarchy and his darkly ambiguous late works known as the Black Paintings, The Disasters of War testifies to his equally profound expertise as a printmaker and particularly to his skill in aquatint, the application of acid to a partially resistant copper plate to achieve the subtle gradations of tone that give his prints their complexity and texture. He completed the majority of the working proofs for the series as the war unfolded and its atrocities heightened, but he never published The Disasters of War in his lifetime, for the increasingly reactionary and censorious political climate that escalated after the reinstatement of the Spanish monarchy in 1814 made publication not only impossible but unthinkable. In 1863—35 years after Goya’s death—the Real Academia de San Fernando (The Royal Academy of Saint Ferdinand) revived the artist’s original copper plates and published The Disasters of War for the first time.