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Los Desastres de la Guerra
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was one of the greatest printmakers of all time. Goya's prints were as innovative as those of Dürer and Rembrandt, and as with them, printmaking played a vital role throughout his career. The majority of his three hundred printed works were conceived as four series, representing particular themes that were based on the artist's personal involvement in, and interpretation of, the ideas and events of his time.
Los Desastres de le Guerra is the most dramatic and profound of these series, and also the most revealing of his personality and beliefs. It is a meditation in eighty plates on the events surrounding the so-called War of Independence that began in 1808 with the entry of Napoleon's troops into Spain. But it is far from being a documentary on a specific conflict, nor is it just a commentary on war - ultimately it represents Goya's view of mankind.
With the Spanish Royal family under house arrest in France, and Napoleon's brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne, the Spanish people spontaneously rose up against the invaders. One such revolt, in Zaragoza, was conducted under the leadership of Brigadier General José de Palafox, who invited Goya in October 1808 to witness the aftermath of the desperate defence of the city by a rag-tag force of citizenry and refugees from the surrounding countryside. The city had withstood heavy, repeated attacks of the Napoleonic army and their resolve was rewarded by the withdrawal of the French forces in August. Their victory was to be short-lived, however, as the French returned in February 1809 and after 42 days of ceaseless bombardment, and despite a defence of the city house by house and floor by floor, the city fell. When the French finally entered they found thousands of corpses, many of them naked, rotting in the streets.
Goya's attitude to the brutality of this war was not as straightforward as one might expect. Whilst clearly a nationalist, and passionate about the outcome of the war, he had initial sympathy for the French and the ideas of the enlightenment he hoped they would bring to his sclerotic and reactionary country. Even though his hopes that Napoleon would be an agent of change and advancement in Spain would soon be dashed, he did not depict the French as having a monopoly on cruelty. He also witnessed the barbarism of which the Spanish were capable, not only towards the invaders, but also to suspected collaborators, the so-called Josefinos. In his depictions of these events he deliberately avoided details that would allow specific times or places to be identified, and in several scenes it is not possible to know to which side the perpetrators or victims belong. Goya's intention is not reportage, his focus is not on the events - his focus is on the men and women who populate these scenes. He shows us not only what humanity can do in times of war, but what it can become. It is this that gives Los Desastres its power, and unfortunately its contemporary relevance.
The eventual defeat of the French in 1814 did nothing to reduce the level of political repression that had existed throughout Spain before the war. The restoration of the reactionary monarch Ferdinand VII in 1823 deepened Goya's mood of resignation and disenchantment, and led to his decision to leave the country. Despite working on the series over a period of some ten years (1810-20), he decided that publication would cause too great a risk of reprisal by the authorities and the plates were hidden away, to be eventually rediscovered by Goya's son Javier. They were finally printed by the Spanish Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1863, 35 years after the artist's death.
Unfortunately for Goya, the Academy had very little understanding of the technical or aesthetic considerations that went into making the plates. Without the artist to guide them, they were printed in the style of the day - with a heavy layer of surface ink ('plate tone') - and the results completely misunderstood Goya's intentions. Fortunately for posterity, as Goya worked on the plates, laboriously building up the images with progressive layers of etching and drypoint, he printed several proofs. These were distributed to close friends, and remain the only examples of this series that record how Goya wanted them to appear. Unsurprisingly they are exceedingly rare, and to have ten in one sale is unprecedented in modern times. These proofs are unique historical and artistic documents, and in a sense they admit us to Goya's atelier. To examine them is akin to watching the master at work.