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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Goya, Caprices et Désastres

by Maurice Ulrich

Goya, Caprichos and Disasters

Translated Wednesday 26 March 2008, by Isabelle Métral

The Petit Palais gallery in Paris is home to an exceptional collection of aquatint etchings by the Spanish painter, in whom Malraux saw the pioneer of modernism.

The plate is probably one of the best known of Goya’s etchings. A man is sitting asleep, his head and folded arms resting on a table. Owls and bats flitter about him; a cat is sitting at his feet: all have haunted eyes, and the table leaf bears the famous inscription: “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters”. It is to be seen in the Petit Palais gallery in Paris, where almost all of Goya’s engravings are on show – an exhibition not to be missed!
The plate is one of Goya’s Caprichos, which the artist engraved in the late eighteenth century, nearly ten years after he had given up his career as a court painter. After embracing the enlightenment, the Spanish monarchy, now in terror of the French Revolution, had dismissed from the government all the liberal ministers who took a favourable view of it, and who were Goya’s friends. By 1792 he was now forty-six, and suffering from a disease that impaired his hearing.

The violence of blacks and whites clashing

Goya’s Caprichos were censured by the Inquisition. In this gallery of grating characters and half-monsters the artist portrays his fellow-contemporaries. Each of the etchings is like a short fable with a moral, and sometimes the humour is savage. “All of them will fall” shows a group of women busy plucking chickens with men’s faces while others still flying about are destined for the same doom. Eerie figures are also to be met: a padlocked head (the picture of narrow-mindedness) inevitably suggests that it inspired, formally at least, the character played by Boris Karloff in the first Frankenstein.

But all this would be no more than satire and cruel games were it not for the violence of blacks and whites clashing, the expressive force of his sharp-angled lines, his grey surfaces articulated like flat patches in an abstract painting. This also inevitably suggests that beyond Delacroix and the romantic painters and all those who took up his engravings, his work has inspired heirs in the twentieth century: think of the cubist constructions, or of the blacks and whites of Picasso’s Guernica, for instance.

When the artist rebels

The modernist painter that Malraux celebrated in Goya will be found not only in the picture he gives of his time, but also in the form he devised: let us turn to the second major set of etchings, of which it was precisely Malraux who spoke first, namely The Disasters of War. In the face of the atrocities of the Peninsular War (waged by Napoleon’s army), the artist turns reporter and prosecutor. His aim is no longer to make beautiful pictures, to take orders, or even to record his fellow contemporaries’ foibles, as others before him have done: Hogarth, for instance, or even Botticelli in the sixteenth century with his Calumny. The artist’s mission is to call the times into question, to rebel. Goya does not engrave war scenes for art’s sake, but as a humanist, no doubt a despairing one, but a combatant still, fighting on the scene of history.

Among Goya’s paintings, a very famous one takes up the theme of the Disasters, namely the Second of May, showing French soldiers firing at point-blank range at insurgent patriots in Madrid; and that yellow-shirted man who raises his arms while uttering his last, all but inaudible cry: ”Down with freedom!” It was indeed in the name of freedom that Napoleon’s troops had come to Spain. Bunuel will remember precisely that grim historical farce in his Phantom of Liberty. Other correspondences with the Disasters will be found in the hallucinatory paintings of the Quinto del Sordo (the house of the deaf man). But Goya’s last message, shortly before his death in 1828, is one of the most beautiful portraits of a woman ever painted, the Milkmaid of Bordeaux.

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