Goya: Drawings from the Prado Museum
Any history of modern printmaking starts with the work of an outsider, a Spaniard, Francisco Goya (1746-1828). By outsider, I mean that in the late 18th century, printmaking was not a major art form in Spain – there was no tradition of printmaking – unlike Dürer in Germany, Rembrandt in Holland, Callot and Fragonard in France or Marcantonio Raimondi, the Carracci and Piranesi in Italy, printmaking in Spain was almost exclusively a minor art form that reproduced paintings. Goya was not only a great technical innovator, as all major printmakers are, but he also advanced a new concept for printmaking, one that in many art historical constructs is seen as the beginnings of the modern print.
Goya’s thinking as a printmaker is revealed through his incredible drawings that are held in the Prado and until now a pilgrimage to Madrid was necessary to be inducted into the alchemy of his creative process. This brilliant exhibition unites 44 drawings from the Prado with over 120 etchings and aquatints drawn primarily from the collection of the NGV and supplemented with a number of works from AGSA.
Goya’s working method was to start with a sanguine wash drawing, this was then translated into a red chalk drawing where the composition was further resolved and this was simply transferred as a reversed impression onto the copperplate with its soft ground and run through the press. Then Goya fully engaged with the etching and aquatint processes to produce a powerful image. With printing, the composition is once more flopped over to make it the same way round as in the original drawing, but the simplicity of grounds, the subtlety of line, and the dramatic highlights made this into an image which can only be uniquely realised as an etching. Throughout the exhibition the preliminary drawings are united with the finished etchings.
When Goya published in Madrid, the 80 etchings with aquatint, which comprised his Los Caprichos, in February 1799, this marked, what could be seen in retrospect, the beginnings of modern printmaking. The name Los Caprichos, which can be translated as The Caprices or satirical images, is a metaphorical smokescreen behind which are concealed images of grotesque realism made by a man steeped in Enlightenment learning examining with passion and cold introspection the surrounding world.
The intended opening plate for Goya’s Los Caprichos was The dream of reason produces monsters, an etching and aquatint, measuring 22 x 15 cm [smaller than A-4], which is approximately the impression size of most of the plates. The inscription, which is found on the preparatory drawing is: “The author dreaming. His only intention is to banish harmful common beliefs and to perpetuate with this work of caprichos the sound testimony of truth.” Goya depicts himself at his desk with the creatures of darkness swarming behind him. The owl on the desk has grasped his pencil and is urging him to work, while the demonic cat looks on from the floor.
As everything in Los Caprichos, this too is a metaphor alluding to a deeper meaning, the monsters which he depicts are those of the Spanish church, the Inquisition and high society. It is this combination of dream, fantasy and social criticism and the rejection of flight from reality and the engagement and commitment with harsh realism that gives the series its unique bite. Possibly as a compromise, Goya deleted this frontispiece, shifting it to plate 43 and replaced it with the famous self-portrait Francisco Goya y Lucientes, Painter, executed as an etching, aquatint, drypoint and burin. Apparently it was an insufficient compromise and Los Caprichos was withdrawn from sale after only two days and, four years later, in 1803 Goya presented all of the copper plates and the unsold 240 sets to the king, Charles IV. It appears that the artist had been reported to the Inquisition and feared for his safety.
Education, or lack of it, is a central theme of Los Caprichos. The Enlightenment, or the rule of light, is contrasted with poor education, superstition and ignorance, or the rule of darkness. About half way through the series, before the witches and goblins appear, there is a sequence where the professional and upper classes in society are characterised as asses. An asinine teacher who holds a ferule in his left forehoof instructs the young ass by rote the letter ‘A’. The satirical inscription reads: “What if the pupil knows more?” In another etching, a seated aristocratic ass proudly holds open a book of genealogy demonstrating as the caption declares that his family consisted of asses “As far back as his grandfather”. In other etchings Goya shows peasants with their eyes closed carrying on their shoulders aristocratic asses, a comment on the poor stupidly carrying on their shoulders the idle rich.
Los Caprichos scholarship frequently dwells on Goya’s circumstances for the creation of the series. How he had been out of Madrid for a long while living in Andalusia, how he had suffered an illness which left him permanently deaf, his love affair with the sex goddess of the day, the Duchess of Alba, and her subsequent unfaithfulness to him (she did not return to her husband, nor did she stay with Goya) and the general political and religious oppression in Spain. It may also be the case that Goya, who was 53 when Los Caprichos was published in 1799, was easily the most prominent artist of his day in Spain, one who spent much of his time painting portraits of the aristocracy whom he despised. The allegorical images of the asses are supplemented with images of grisly realism.
The origins of many of the plates in Los Caprichos are to be found in the drawings in the so-called ‘Madrid Album’ which Goya commenced in Andalusia while staying with the Duchess of Alba in 1796 and completed the following year on his return to the capital. There is a danger of being over literal in interpretation and reading Goya’s art as an exercise in autobiography, or even worse as a misogynist vendetta. His images of ‘majas’, basically courtesans or women of the night, have long been identified with the Duchess of Alba and this may in fact be founded in reality, but their function in his art goes considerably beyond the specific individual.
I think it is important that the women of modern Spain whom Goya depicts are shown as victims of their upbringing and at least as guilty of depravation as the men with whom they consort. The plate in Los Caprichos is called Two of a kind, sometimes translated as Two birds of a feather, it may have a specific identity in the Madrid Album drawing, but, in the etching, it becomes a universal statement.
What is not always immediately apparent to a person who casually glances through Los Caprichos is the manner in which one plate visually, spiritually and intellectually, relates to another. Love and death is plate no 10, Out hunting for teeth is plate no 12; compositionally one echoes the other, the tonality has been reversed and the woman/man relationship of the live woman and the dead man is similar, yet in substance different. The episode with teeth relates to a Spanish superstition that if a woman pulls out a tooth from a dead man she would soon find herself a husband. Goya’s comment is that it is that sort of superstition and stupidity which leads to one person fighting a duel with another.
Everything to do with the series of etchings popularly known as The Disasters of War is considerably more complicated than it first appears. As three of the plates are dated 1810, this has been taken by many as the commencement date for the series, and as other subjects may refer to events following the defeat of the French, the completion date for this series has been extended to about 1820. Goya was apparently in fear of the Inquisition and was looking for a safe time to publish his edition, but such a time never arrived. These prints were never published in his lifetime.
It appears that at some time between the restoration of 1814 and 1820, and before Goya fled Spain to go into exile in 1824, he printed two sets of proofs which he circulated amongst friends. These had the title Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte and other striking caprichos. In these proof sets there were 83 plates accompanied by hand written captions. In 1863, long after Goya’s death, the copper plates were recovered and a major edition printed employing rich inky tones which were fashionable in the mid-19th century. Three of the plates were omitted and several of the captions were altered to modify their message.
It is difficult to speak of Goya’s Disasters of war without largely describing the narrative of the scenes. They are amazingly graphic images, like Why? and Great heroism against the dead, both generally dated between 1812 and 1815. They have also become some of the most famous icons of anti-war art ever made. If we look at these works as prints, they violate all of the conventions of the preceding tradition of European etching. Murky pools of aquatint appear like pools of blood, the focus is personalised, immediate and confronting. Not only the limbs, but compositional structures are truncated and violated. So many of the artistic strategies advanced by Goya are not only pictorially confronting, but also pre-empt the devices of Expressionism and Surrealism of a century later.
It is a curious question, but perhaps one worth asking, who was the audience which Goya wanted to address through his Disasters of war. On one hand, apart from circulating a couple of proof sets amongst his intellectual and liberal friends, there was no audience for these images for the first half century of their existence. Was it a personal act of a cathartic nature? Modern etching has often played the role of the confessional image. Goya does here comment on many of his pet obsessions with violence, superstition, rape and hypocrisy in the Roman Catholic church. On a number of the etchings he notes “This is what I saw” and “I was here”. One of these plates is simply captioned “They don’t want to” and the imagery is self-explanatory.
Another image is quite loaded. A skeleton rises from its grave to inscribe a single word “Nada” meaning ‘nothing’. Goya’s caption to the work is unambiguous, he writes “Nothing, that’s what it says”. When the Royal Academy of San Fernando came to publish these etchings in 1863, even then, the inscription seemed too much an affront to the Roman Catholic church and it was altered to read “The events will tell”, rather than the bleak apocalyptic pronouncement which could be given an atheistic reading.
This is an incredibly powerful exhibition that demands several visits.
Goya: Drawings from the Prado Museum
NGV International, 25 June- 3 October 2021
Thankyou for these astute and incisive observations. I learnt so much more that from the catalogue, which is very beautifully produced, but I found not very enlightening.
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GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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