The eighty etchings which make up Los Desastres de la Guerra, created over a period of ten years, were not intended to illustrate specific wartime events. They were instead the sum total of Goya's journey through the ravaged landscape of his native country in 1808 at the start of the Napoleon's Spanish campaign, his experience of the famine in Madrid that ensued, and his reaction to a deeply repressive Spanish monarchy after 1814. They were also the product of Goya's own imagination, his imaging of popular hear-say, and his recreation of the eye-witness accounts of others. They opened a window onto panicking civilians, crying children, starving refugees and reveal man's aptitude for harm, as well as for solidarity.
Death and destruction was not only their subject-matter, but also an important factor in their production: at the height of the war the reduction in the supply of copper drove Goya to cut his already used printing plates in half. Bucolic landscapes scenes were engraved with acts of rape and torture on the reverse. Such bold acts were also met by a similar boldness of technique, and in many prints he let the grain of the aquatint become an abstract veil, a stark backdrop to the frenzied and chaotic events on centre stage.
The tyranny of King Ferdinand's rule following the war meant that this important series was to remain unpublished in Goya's lifetime. When the Academia finally issued them in 1863 their capacity to shock was still palpable, and the publishers even saw fit to make alterations to the text to soften the impact.
The Desastres were Goya's deeply private, non-partisan and human response to his own experience of conflict, and his reaction to the public myths, nightmares, and visions which circulate in any country at the time of war. Like all great art, however, Goya's vision transcends the specific place and time in which they were born, and his terrible creation continues to resonate profoundly in the modern era.