The late 18th/early 19th century Spanish painter and printmaker, Francisco de Goya, is frequently called the first modern artist. His imagery, particularly that of his “Disasters of War” etchings, continues to be evocative, often in a surprisingly familiar manner. Perhaps this is because Goya concerned himself with the human condition.
I gave Daniel an excellent copy of a book printed in 1937, with eighty-five etchings from the series reproduced in actual size (though some of the plates may have been discredited since then; I’m not sure). It is the best reproduction of the etchings I’ve seen in book form. The text on the dust jacket (still intact; someone took good care of this copy) describes Goya’s “Disasters of War” thus:
A chronicle of war, but one which portrays not just historical events but what war means to human life everywhere: the unleashing of rage, the horror and misery which follow in the train of war. Goya shows how men reeling in a wild intoxication, scarcely human any longer, hurling themselves at one another, grappling for each other’s lives, wade and die in blood. Murder and rapine, sanctuaries desecrated, villages burned, houses collapsing, men horribly tortured and women struck down, taken as prizes, raped in the presence of their children, or fighting desperately for their honour: — like a nightmare, all this moves before the observer’s eye, unrolling a picture of war as horrible as can well be concieved.”
-Max Dvorak, in “Essays on the History of Art”
While “Disasters of War” was not the original title for the series of prints (Goya only ever printed one edition during his lifetime, and wrote “Fatal consequences of the Bloody War in Spain against Buonaparte and other Emphatic Caprichos” on the folio cover). The title we commonly know the series by today is indicative of its ability to transcend the context of the time in which the prints were created.
Tyler Green, in an article for ArtInfo, considered Goya’s prints in light of Muammar Qaddafi’s death:
Goya knew that some people deserved to die — but he also understood that the story doesn’t end when one evil man is killed, that the parading of a dead man through the streets (and in today’s case, across cell phone networks too) only leads to continued depravity. Like Davidson said, it could get even uglier in Surt.
Goya’s “Disasters of War” is one of the grisliest portfolios in art: In one etching a man is impaled on a tree branch, anus-on-up. Elsewhere, corpses are mutilated and dismembered, and rape is imminent…. Still, while depravity is nearly ubiquitous in “Disasters,” it’s never gratuitous. It’s only by including such detail — yo lo vi? — that Goya is able to caution us about the true and deeper disasters of war, about the way cycles of violence tend to feed upon themselves.
I suspect that Goya’s prints will resonate for a long while yet – they express the gruesome nature of human conflict, and I doubt that will change any time soon. In Terry Green’s words, “Informed by Goya, I can’t quite celebrate Qaddafi’s death. The death of a dictator rarely ends the bloodshed.”