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Goya: The Disasters of War

November 1, 2007 - March 2, 2008

Francisco Goya: Contra el bien general (Against the common good), c. 1815–20; etching; sheet: 11 1/4 x 15 1/8 in.; plate: 6 5/8 x 8 1/4 in.; gift of Mrs. Louise Mendelsohn.

Francisco Goya: Y son fieras (And they are like wild beasts), c. 1812–15; etching and aquatint; sheet: 11 1/4 x 15 1/8 in.; plate: 6 1/16 x 8 1/16 in.; gift of Mrs. Louise Mendelsohn.

Francisco Goya: Si son de otro linage (But they are of another breed), c. 1812–15; etching and lavis; sheet: 11 1/4 x 15 1/8 in.; plate: 6 x 8 in.; gift of Mrs. Louise Mendelsohn.

Francisco Goya: Esto es lo peor! (That is the worst of all!), c. 1815–20; etching; sheet: 11 1/4 x 15 1/8 in.; plate: 6 7/8 x 8 1/2 in.; gift of Mrs. Louise Mendelsohn.

Fatal consequences of the bloody war in Spain with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices; invented, drawn, and engraved by the original painter, Don Francisco de Goya y Lucientes.
This is how the Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746–1828) labeled the proofs of the landmark set of etchings on view in the Theater Gallery. The artist began work on the series in his early sixties; thirty-five years after his death, it was first published by Madrid’s Royal Academy of San Fernando, where it was aptly titled Los desastres de la guerra (The Disasters of War).

We are fortunate to have this extraordinary visual record of the times as seen through the eyes of the artist. Printed from Goya’s original copper plates in 1937 (the final printing of this historic work), the edition in the BAM collection is being shown in its entirety for the first time this fall. The images are not for the faint of heart. Gruesome and horrific, they attest boldly to the statement that war is hell.

Created between 1810 and 1820, the works fall into three categories: the violent drama of the war with the French; starvation and famine in Madrid; and allegorical scenes that refer to the period after the war when King Ferdinand VII was reinstated, along with the power of the Church, the Inquisition, and the judicial practice of torture.

Equipped as he was with Enlightenment ideals such as liberty and equality, one might think that Napoleon would be welcomed in Spain as a liberator, but by 1808 he was seen as the tyrant of Europe. As the Spanish people rebelled and rioted, the “bloody war” began. It was at this time that the term guerrilla was coined. Not just men, but women too took part in the battles. Captions for plates 4 and 5 read: The women give courage; And they are like wild beasts. In combat with French soldiers, a barefoot woman, carrying her baby with one hand, uses the other to shove a sharp object into the side of a French soldier. The battle scenes only grow more horrifying.

During this time, completely deaf from an illness he suffered earlier in life, Goya maintained his status as first court painter. In his official duties he remained neutral, not taking sides in the war. He continued to paint pictures of the reigning monarchs and other dignitaries. The etchings, however, a private journal of sorts, show the intensity of the fighting and the suffering of the people. Quoting from a poem, “The Talking Animals,” by his Italian contemporary Giambattista Casti, Goya accused humanity as a whole of complicity in these war crimes. In plate 74 we see a seated wolf, inscribing a message on a sheet of paper: Misera humanidad. La culpa es tuya (Miserable humanity. The blame is yours).

The installation of Goya’s prints in the Theater Gallery anticipates the opening of an exhibition by Bay Area painter and printmaker Enrique Chagoya, for whom Goya has been a key influence. Enrique Chagoya: Borderlandia opens at BAM in February 2008.

Stephanie Cannizzo
Curatorial Associate