‘Goya’s Great Deeds Against the Dead represent, as we see it, a Humanist crucifixion. “Humanist” because the body is elaborated as flesh, as matter. No longer the religious body, no longer redeemed by God. Goya introduces finality – the absolute terror of material termination’ termination’ (D. and J. Chapman in Unholy Libel (Six Feet Under), London 1997, p. 150).
‘We cannot hear Goya’s words and cannot learn from our mistakes – we can only denounce the violence we are condemned to repeat.. cruel repetition is given as the elemental condition of human nature but not as the fundamental condition of hegemonic morality’ (J. Chapman, Insult to Injury, Göttingen, 2003, unpaged).
‘When our sculptures work they achieve the position of reducing the viewer to a state of absolute moral panic...they’re completely troublesome objects’ (D. and J. Chapman, quoted in D. Fogle, ‘A Scatological Aesthetic for the Tired of Seeing’, Chapman World, London, 1996, unpaged).
‘Shock is an indicator of our shared frailty and our common fate as a species. Shock humanizes. An aesthetics of shock is the cultural equivalent of the ethics of care’ (D. Beech, Shock: A Report on Contemporary Art in Jake and Dinos Chapman: Bad Art for Bad People, exh. cat., Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, 2006, p. 110).
As the first example of the Chapman brothers’ direct appropriation of Francisco Goya’s famous 39th plate from the Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) print portfolio, Great Deeds Against the Dead is an historic work in the artists’ oeuvre. This was the work that started the brothers on their path of modifying and reinterpreting the chilling Napoleonic invasions of Spain repeatedly across a range of media. As their first significant sculpture, Great Deeds Against the Dead went on to set the foundation for the rest of the brothers’ oeuvre including the defacing or ‘improving’ of an original The Disasters of War portfolio in 2003 and most importantly the brothers’ monumental masterpiece Hell (2000).
Executed in 1994, and widely exhibited throughout the 1990s, during the rise to international fame of the Young British Artists, Great Deeds Against the Dead became an iconic headline work for the Chapman brothers. Originally as part of the Saatchi Collection, it was during this pivotal time of their career that the work represented the artists in the 1997 exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection at the Royal Academy, London. As a result, and in recognition of its importance, Great Deeds Against the Dead has since been exhibited in nearly all of the major exhibitions on the infamous YBA group and in every major retrospective of Jake and Dinos Chapman.
Standing nearly three metres in height Great Deeds Against the Dead is a life-size photorealist sculptural reworking of Goya’s Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (A heroic feat! With dead men!); the most recognised and gruesome sheet from Goya’s famous 83 print portfolio created in 1810-1820. The Chapman brothers have taken the decapitated and limbless bodies of the small flat monochromatic print and graphically brought them to reality in a three dimensional form that transports Goya’s timeless theme of the horrors of war into the twentieth-century. Reproduced in perfect scale to the original, the Chapman brothers’ fibreglass figures have been meticulously painted with the precision handling that was to become a trademark for the duo later exemplified in the painstaking accuracy in execution of Hell.
Like many artists in the canon of art history, the Chapman brothers fell under the spell of Goya early on in their lives, once confessing in an interview to Christopher Turner that they ‘even considered changing their surname to Goya’ (C. Turner, ‘Great Deeds Against Dead Artists: How the Chapman brothers Nearly Changed their Name to Goya’ in Jake and Dinos Chapman: Bad Art for Bad People, London 2006, p. 37). This influence becomes obvious when comparing Goya’s Saturn devouring one of his children from Madrid’s Museo del Prado to any one of the Chapman brothers’ notorious Hell scenes. But it was in 1993 with the execution of their first major collaborative work that their obsession became a reality. Executed in 83 parts, in Disasters of War (Tate, London) all the plates of Goya’s portfolio are skilfully bought to life in minute three dimensional forms. Toy soldiers and plastic figurines re-enact the gruesome and chilling Napoleonic invasion that Goya first depicted.
Fascinated with Goya’s unavoidable memento mori in the severed corpses that hang soullessly in A heroic feat! With dead men!, the Chapman brothers dedicated their next series of works to focussing on this one scene alone starting with the present work. In an interview with Robert Rosenblum they described how these lifeless bodies took away all notion of the spirit and reduced man back to the simple components of human flesh; ‘Goya’s Great Deeds Against the Dead represent, as we see it, a Humanist crucifixion. “Humanist” because the body is elaborated as flesh, as matter. No longer the religious body, no longer redeemed by God. Goya introduces finality – the absolute terror of material termination’ (D. and J. Chapman in Unholy Libel (Six Feet Under), London 1997, p.150). This ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ conception of the human form returning to a spiritless assemblage of blood and bones is exaggerated with each work in this series, most notably Sex I (Olbricht Collection, Berlin) of 2003, in which the Chapman’s decompose the bodies to their skeletal basics.
As a source of inspiration Goya’s nineteenth-century A heroic feat! With dead men! appears as equally disturbing as the video nasties and horror films of the 1980s that continue to influence the duo’s oeuvre. Awkwardly exposed blood red stumps are reminiscent of the gruesome, yet comically animated, severed limbs of the x-rated Italian-French horror film Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein. Like Andy Warhol, by casting Great Deeds Against the Dead in a relatable contemporary medium, the nineteenth-century story is brought into the twentieth-century with a chilling realism. As Goya had done in 1820 with History paintings, Great Deeds Against the Dead removes the Hollywood glorification of war and confronts society’s detachment from the realities of conflict on the frontline. In 1994 the sculpture would have been a vivid reminder to contemporary viewers of the brutal conflicts and horrific atrocities taking place across the world in places like Bosnia, Rwanda and Haiti. For the Chapman brothers this lifelike creation of the mannequins, free from any identity of the artist’s hand, was chosen specifically with ‘the intention of detracting from the expressionist qualities of a Goya drawing and trying to find the most neurotic medium possible.’ (J. Chapman quoted in M. Maloney, ‘The Chapman Bros.: When will I be Famous’ in Flash Art, no.186, January- February, 1996, p.64). As a true memento mori, the neurotic medium jars the viewer into the realisation of mortality and the shared unavoidable reality of life with the hanging figures. As Dave Beech writes ‘shock is an indicator of our shared frailty and our common fate as a species. Shock humanizes. An aesthetics of shock is the cultural equivalent of the ethics of care’ (D. Beech, ‘Shock: A Report on Contemporary Art’ in Jake and Dinos Chapman: Bad Art for Bad People, exh. cat., Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, 2006, p. 110).
So shocking and neurotic was the medium the Chapman brothers created in Great Deeds Against the Dead, that when it was first exhibited at the Victoria Miro Gallery in 1994 the police were called to the show responding to an obscenity charge by a previous visitor. On arrival, the police were soon shown that the Chapman’s gruesome death scene, that had been causing so much stress to the public, was in fact based on Goya’s nineteenth-century print. As a result, the police had nothing to base the charges on and as Jake recalls ‘They left with an image of the Goya, so it was historical authenticity that gave us licence’ (C. Turner, Great Deeds Against Dead Artists: How the Chapman brothers Nearly Changed their Name to Goya in Jake and Dinos Chapman: Bad Art for Bad People, London 2006, p. 37).