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War struck Spain when Francisco Goya was in his sixties. He was already the court painter to the royal family, and a successful portraitist of the aristocracy.
However, his responses to the upheavals of 1808, the Iberian campaign of the Napoleonic Wars, and their reactionary aftermath are his most shocking and perhaps his most enduring works of all.
Interpreting The Disasters of War: one work or many? The Disasters of War – or Los Desastres de la Guerra – is a series of over 80 prints, created over the course of 10 years. However, Goya himself clearly saw them as a single body of work: he collected them and presented them under his own title, “The deadly consequences of Spain's bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices”.
There are crucial consistencies to this decade’s work, such as the etching and aquatint methods Goya employs, and of course the detail, immediacy and brilliant observation of his style.
However, an exploration of the sequences and themes within the wider series reveals a complex picture. Throughout, Goya is horribly clear-sighted about the physical brutality of conflict and the human desolation of its aftermath. But while some of the chronologically earlier images seem to show sympathy with the Spanish forces and people, the value of just cause and the distinction between sides appears to count for less and less: as a bitter conflict deepens, there are merely perpetrators and their scarred or broken victims.
Violence against the Catholic clergy – rarely objects of sympathy for Goya, or in an increasingly anti-clerical climate – is recorded alongside images that allude bitterly to a re-imposition of the twin forces of religious and politically repressive power.
The series includes a number of allegorical images that darkly reflect on the crisis of post-war Spain, and draw on an imagery of the nation, its power-brokers and rulers that would have been immediately resonant with Goya’s contemporaries. The allegories take us into Goya’s darker imaginings – though the stylistic closeness to his eyewitness images makes them seem disconcertingly real.
Demons perch in rocky landscapes, a flesh-eating vulture stalks the land, and objects of hope are surrounded by forces of darkness – a white horse bravely kicks out at the marauding dogs that tear at it; a radiant woman on the edge of death is encircled by sinister figures. Modern viewers used to mild political cartooning - or even familiar with the more mordant or obscene caricatures of Goya’s contemporaries in Georgian England - will struggle for comparisons with this life-and-death art. These “caprichos enfáticos” are a genre apart.
A number of Goya’s sketches for the series survive, including a few that were never included in the print series. At least some of the images represent drawn-from-life scenes of the Napoleonic battlefields, and the titles of them – such as “Yo lo vi” (‘I saw this’) – are more than rhetorical or publicity devices on the artist’s part; other titles, like “This is how it happened”, stress the veracity of second-hand accounts and episodes.
Goya’s ability as a painter of the elite had relied on mastery of technique and observation, albeit to very different ends. Even as the Peninsular War continued and Napoleon’s career reached its endgame, Goya produced portraits of significant figures on both sides. Perhaps most famous is his depiction of George Wellesley, begun before his elevation as Duke of Wellington: it is a psychologically compelling rendering of an individual, as against Thomas Lawrence’s later depiction of a national icon.
The bleak black and white of The Disasters of War invites comparisons with war photography and its documentation of violence, pain and the falling-away of humanity. Nick Ut’s famous shots of the aftermath of bombing during the Vietnam War are just some of the images that Goya seems almost to anticipate. But the immediacy of horrors, the monochrome and the dismemberment of beasts and people also suggests the most iconic image of 20th century war: Guernica.