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Goya, a pragmatic romanticist. Part 2 - “Los Desastres de la Guerra” 1810-1820

Alan Taylor noted that between 1500 and 1650, the Spanish imported 181 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver from the New World. If we try to convert this into today’s value, the total will be close to 11 billion dollars. But while the stream of bullion was weaker, the prices in Spain rose by 500%, in 1650 Madrid, a loaf of bread cost 5 times more than at the beginning of Conquista. No wonder, when the Napoleon army invaded Spain, the government of Carlos IV had simply no money to spend on military forces. During the battle of Leon, the Spanish soldiers outnumbered the French 2:1, 23000 Spanish, to 13000 French, yet the battle was lost, because the Spanish soldiers had, practically, no weapons. Two centuries after conquering New World, the Kingdom was bankrupted.

(Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America, New York 2002, p.63.)

Goya’s friends and associates belonged to Los Ilustrados, a group of progressive, often pre-liberal and well-educated champions of La Ilustración, or the Age of Enlightenment. The war tested the optimism of the movement to the point of disillusionment. For Goya himself, the war became a turning point in his perception of the world. In 1810, the most fashionable artist in Spain, stared to work on the first prints in his very secret, private project, the cycle Los Desastres de la Guerra or “The Disasters of War”, a pessimistic, cruel study of the humanity at its worst.

Plate 15: Y no hay remedio (“And it cannot be helped”). Composition of the firing squad is clearly similar to Goya’s oil painting “The Third of May 1808”, painted 1814, possibly after this print.

Goya attitude toward invaders was, as with everything else, complicated. As a strong critic of the corrupted symbiosis of Church and the Court, he realized the opportunity for a change brought by French, whose revolution sets an end to old society and to the Ancien Régime; but his hope was soon damped by greed and savagery of the invaders. As a patriot he applauded the heroism of the defenders of Madrid and Zaragoza. As a humanist, he couldn’t bear the cruelty, demonstrated, almost enthusiastically, by all sides of the conflict - the French occupants, the Spanish partisans, and occasionally even by civilian bystanders. Finally, pragmatic by nature with a bit of materialist mindset, he couldn’t possibly refuse profitable portrait commissions from the most prominent figures of the newly established court of Joseph Bonaparte; eventually painting even the Napoleon’s brother himself.

Los Desastres became a personal diary of the days of war, unbound by public judgment; executed with the utmost care and skill but always hidden. Many of the prints from the Desastres cycle reveal the uneasiness, or even the distrust toward the uncontrollable aggression of the crowd; its rage, fueled by a common cause reaching directly into hearts and minds, emotions and instincts, casting the rational and the Enlightenment aside. The occasional bursts of violence represented in the earlier series, the Caprichos, could be explained by religious passion or by hatred of those, who were perceived as a danger to the traditional social structure. “Disasters of War" demonstrates how religion and patriotism can often motivate people toward heroism and compassion, but just as often they incite unspeakable cruelty and herd mentality. The scenes from war, direct and brutal in their honesty, often cross the border between caricature and grotesque, allowing all the dark emotions, the anger, the horror, and the powerful, unified aggression of the crowd, to be perceived throughout the series.

Even though Goya never meant to show Los Desastres to the public, the cycle became one of his best artistic achievements. The artworks were crafted using a variety of intaglio printmaking techniques, mainly etching for the line work and aquatint for the tonal areas, but also engraving and dry point.

Plate 44: Yo lo vi (“I saw it”), 1810 (published 1863)

In the lower margin of plate 44 Goya etched Yo lo vi, lit. "I have seen that”, just below the image. Plate 44 paints a unique scene, were neither military conflict, nor cruelty is directly represented, but both seem to loom over the horizon. A group of frightened refugees flee from the conflict. A viewer looking at the picture is drawn into a kind of freeze-frame, following different attitudes and different behaviors; all of them unfolding in the picture as a chain of characters linked in a tableau of scenes vaguely resembling a street theater technique. On the left side of the image, in front, a black-clothed village priest, wearing an old-fashioned tricorne hat and tightly clutching a sack of gold, makes a hasty stride forward, carelessly elbowing a man on his left. His neighbor, frozen mid step, gesticulates wildly, pointing toward a woman on the right of the picture. The woman, carrying a child on her shoulder, reaches to help another child, who stumbled and fall down on its knees. A short distance farther, behind the main characters, a viewer can see an chaotic group of frightened, running civilians, mixed with indifferent, armed cavalrymen.

Plate 45: Y esto tambien (“And this too”), 1810 (published 1863)

The scene from Plate 44, “I have seen that”, finds its continuation in Plate 45 Y esto tambien, “And this too”, representing three forlorn figures of women; the women slowly walk across the war torn country, carrying their children and meager possessions, while a black pig passes them running wild, and in the background bleak skies hang over a bundle of loosely sketched and barely recognizable human figures. Together, the diptych made of Plate 44 and Plate 45 constitutes a separate commentary to the whole cycle, offering maybe the most reflective and humanist vision within a vision. The artist force the viewer to confront the real meaning of war: fear, chaos, separated families, defenseless civilians trying to survive and human beings reduced to cadavers sinking into the soil. The statement Yo lo vi, “I have seen it” does not simply stress the truthfulness of the graphic narration; it draws viewers attention to things that can be seen if we look into the true meaning of war.

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