Visual Art

The art of Francisco Goya demands that we bear witness to the horrors of war, both then and now. By Mahmood Fazal.

Goya: Drawings from the Prado Museum

Francisco Goya’s And there is no remedy from The Disasters of War series, 1810-15.
Francisco Goya’s And there is no remedy from The Disasters of War series, 1810-15.
Credit: AGSA

The role of the matador is to lead the bull until its final moment, a life-or-death dance that blurs the differences between man and animal. In Francisco Goya’s painting Self-Portrait at an Easel, he poses in crimson-coloured matador’s garb. His paintbrush stains the canvas as he looks directly towards the spectator. What he is painting has everything to do with us.

His gaze is full of fear. In a letter to Martin Zapater, possibly his only close friend, Goya writes, “I fear neither witches, goblins, ghosts, giants, idlers, scoundrels, nor any kind of bodies, but humans.”

Goya is the most celebrated Spanish painter of the late 18th century, cited as both an Old Master and one of the first modern artists. He was a court painter to four monarchs and enjoyed a life of privilege within the Spanish aristocracy, until his life twisted in the winter of 1792. After suffering a mysterious illness Goya lost his hearing and, without sound, he began to see the world differently. The essence of his work radically shifted from dramatic Baroque frescoes in churches and austere Rococo-style portraits of leisurely picnics to a phantasmagoria of satire, war and the macabre.

Goya claimed to have only three masters: Rembrandt, Velázquez and Nature. His perspective was compounded by the unfolding world around him. The values of the Enlightenment that Goya enjoyed while working in the court of King Carlos III were becoming a dim memory. The social reforms, advancements of science and the birth of secular states were disrupted by the horrors of the French Occupation, the Peninsular War and the Inquisition.

The work that streamed from him began to question the nature of war. In black and white, Goya asks us what it is really worth.

This month the National Gallery of Victoria is showing a collection of uncommissioned prints and etchings in Goya: Drawings from the Prado Museum. The exhibition begins with a series titled Los Caprichos (The Caprices). On plate 12, titled Out hunting for teeth, a man has been hanged. A woman opposite him hides her face with a handkerchief as she tugs on the dead man’s teeth. Goya described the series as depicting “the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilised society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance or self-interest have made usual”.

The etching technique Goya practised was first used by 15th-century armourers, who carved lines on metal by means of acid mordant. To create his sombre tone, Goya employed the aquatint printmaking technique where, to accentuate needlework, resin creates sunken areas that acid then burns into the plate. The effect forms looming shades that leave subjects thirsting for light, an echo of the artist’s admiration for Rembrandt’s tenebrism or dramatic illumination.

Goya’s etching techniques are clinically precise in his series The Disasters of War. On plate 1, titled Sad presentiments of what is to come, a man has dropped to his knees as menacing shadows surround him. He is bathing in a white glow from above. As the man looks towards the sky, in a pose reminiscent of Jesus’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane, he stretches out his arms.

The atmosphere of Goya’s first etching generates the angst of a time when Napoleon’s invasion seemed inevitable. Today, as Australian troops retreat from the war in Afghanistan, I wonder if the problem is the way we remember war.

We shroud the maimed, decapitated and suicidal face of war with a celebration of glory – “lest we forget” is recycled as a heroic ode to sacrifice. Our ornamental remembrance on Anzac Day is dressed up in regal trumpets and the reverie of a sunrise. Goya teaches us that true remembrance is the willingness to face that which we can’t imagine: the warm spray of blood as a head splits from a sniper, the remains of a child’s hand discovered in the gutter of a souk, the smell of the cages where ISIS kept slaves.

In 1998, addressing the House of Commons, British MP Tony Benn protested the decision to bomb Iraq. “War is an easy thing to talk about, there are not many people of the generation that remember it,” he said, recalling the German bombing campaign of London during the Blitz. He reminded the assembly of a pledge made in the United Nations Charter: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has caused untold suffering to mankind.”

Goya is determined to keep fresh the memory of war. On plate 15, titled And there is no remedy, a blindfolded man waits to be shot. He is standing upright and is tied to a wooden post, his hands behind his back. Beside him, another man has been shot in the face and lies dead on the ground. Behind him are more men, black lines scoring their cheeks as they shriek in anticipation. Rifles are visible in the foreground but the soldiers are out of frame. Silhouettes of ghost-like figures and blood-stained posts stretch beyond the horizon. War, it tells us, goes on and on.

In the same vein, the German artist Otto Dix tried to make sense of war in his hallucinatory Der Krieg (war) cycle. Dix was one step closer, having volunteered for the army in World War I. In an interview he said: “I had to experience how someone beside me suddenly falls over and is dead and the bullet has hit him squarely. I had to experience that quite directly ... I’m such a realist, you know, that I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that it’s like that. I have to experience all the ghastly, bottomless depths of life for myself.”

Otto Dix’s etching Dying Soldier, plate 26 from Der Krieg, captures what is left of a soldier. A bullet hole has blown out the soldier’s left eye. Flesh protrudes from his throat. A skull wound reveals his brain. His hair clings around his head like a crown of thorns. There’s no air in the image: like all remains, the carcass is abandoned to rot.

Similarly, Goya’s work remembers what we prefer to forget. Like repressed memories, these images are a rendering of the world we still live with today. “I saw it,” writes Goya beneath plate 44, as unseen attackers descend on a frightened crowd. A woman rushes to her child, who is visibly awe-struck by impending doom. “I saw her,” he writes beneath an etching of a woman accused of witchcraft, as she is publicly beaten by perpetrators of the Inquisition during an auto-da-fé. Goya demands that, like him, we bear witness.

It’s a very contemporary impulse. When former United States president George Bush declared an invasion of Iraq, 40 million Arab viewers tuned in to Al Jazeera. Throughout the bombardment, the network made a controversial editorial decision to show graphic images of civilian casualties. Al Jazeera went on to broadcast pictures of slain American soldiers and interviews with American prisoners of war. In their view, the public had a right to feel the ricochet of war. During an interview, Al Jazeera journalist Hassan Ibrahim described the result as “democratise or we’ll shoot you”.

Goya has been labelled a war reporter and pictorial journalist, yet it was unlikely he was ever present during the horrors he portrayed. The power of the etchings is such that, although we understand he probably wasn’t there, we somehow know he is telling the truth. The Disasters of War were seen by some while he was alive, but the portfolio was not published until 35 years after he died.

Goya writes, “the dream of reason produces monsters”. But what do monsters look like? A naked man standing on a concrete floor? His arms stretched out as if he is on a crucifix? His pale skin smudged with his own faeces, a brown splatter that runs from his hairline to his legs? Another man holding a baton with two gloved hands?

This is not an etching by Goya. It is a photograph of torture by American soldiers, taken inside Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. The man’s head is looking upwards. We do not see his face. He is facing the other man. There is a blurry smile. More than anything, Goya understood that the irony of human survival is the fact it is primarily a struggle against ourselves.

Goya: Drawings from the Prado Museum is showing at the National Gallery of Victoria until October 3. The gallery is temporarily closed after July 16 due to the Covid-19 lockdown.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 17, 2021 as "Monsters of reason".

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