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The Disasters of War
By FRANCISCO GOYA Y LUCIENTES
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1967 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Introduction to the Dover Edition
Ever since the 1914–18 war, and its aftermath of "man's continuing inhumanity to man," ever since the second world conflagration and the ensuing cold war, more and more attention has been attracted to Goya's dramatic graphic representations of a similar subject, which came to be known by the posthumous title, Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War). First published in 1863, thirty-five years after the artist's death, it normally consists of eighty aquatint plates, roughly six by eight inches oblong format, with short but vivid captions perhaps composed by Goya's learned friend, Ceán Bermúdez, from the artist's notes. The actual execution of the captions is by still another hand. Yet their purport is quite clear: Goya wished to denounce war by making a telling visual report on the Spanish nationalist insurrection against the French puppet king, Joseph Bonaparte, which began in 1808, and soon developed into the Peninsular War. The French artist Jacques Callot had made a somewhat similar, though smaller, series of prints for more or less the same reason nearly two centuries earlier. This had been published at Paris in 1633, and was titled Les Misères et les Malheurs de la Guerre. The influence on Goya both in title and content is unmistakable. But as usual Goya borrowed only the idea. His series was much larger and broader in scope and, naturally, he expressed himself in contemporary, even in avant garde terms. As the writer's Harvard colleague, the distinguished art critic Jakob Rosenberg, once said, "These sharply drawn scenes must be essentially true; for Goya in his art records like a seismograph the deep revolution in philosophic, social, and political concepts that shook the western European world in his time." Somewhat earlier, in the depression year of 1932, a different great art critic, Bernard Berenson, had noticed another fact akin to this. For he remarked after a visit to the Goyas in the Prado Museum, "Here in Goya is the beginning of our modern anarchy."
It is hard to understand why Goya failed to publish the Desastres series himself immediately after the war of liberation was over. At that time its impact would have been very great. Doubtless he feared some such form of political reaction from the despotic new Spanish regime of Ferdinand VII as had so seriously endangered him when he published his first set of prints, Los Caprichos, in 1799. Probably by 1815 he had already added to the sixty- four reportorial Desastres plates the sixteen prints of a fanciful, enigmatic nature which certainly contain veiled attacks on persons, Church, and State, as had all the prints of the Caprichos series. Thus it was left for a new generation to bring them out, when the passions of the Napoleonic era had receded. The Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid acquired the copperplates in 1862, and in that year printed off a few sets of trial proofs of the plates before retouching, as Goya had done with individual subjects in his own lifetime. Then a year later, in 1863, the Academy issued the prints publicly, with a newly engraved title page, and printed preface, in eight paper-covered, numbered parts, with some retouching to the aquatint backgrounds and even to Goya's etching itself! Occasionally the size of a plate was actually altered. But the 1863 first edition reproduced here is a magnificent series of prints, even if it is not strictly as fresh as the unpublished trial proofs the Academy had run off (a complete set of which is in the writer's possession), or the powerful and delicate proofs which Goya took off the plates himself while in the process of making them. But these proofs are quite unavailable today.
A word about the individual subjects in the series. The caption on one of Goya's plates (number 44) states boldly, "Yo lo vi" (I saw it), confirmed by "Y esto tambien" (And this too) below the succeeding one. Therefore we believe that many Desastres subjects were really seen by him, others depicted from eye witness accounts. The first plate, showing a kneeling figure with the moving title "Tristes presentimientos de lo que ha de acontecer" (Sad presentiments of what must come to pass), while nearly equally realistic, does not show Goya himself but rather the allegorical figure of suffering humanity, horrified by prophetic vision.
A few scenes are of actual historical record, as is number 7, "Que valor!" (What courage!). It represents Agostina, a brave woman of Saragossa, who manned a cannon after all its staff had fallen during the French siege of that city in July, 1808. Lord Byron saw Agostina at Madrid in 1809, and celebrated her exploit in his poem Childe Harold. Also, the English artist David Wilkie painted her portrait in 1829. But it is still Goya who has caught her best in this her moment of glory!
Almost equally impressive is number 15, "Y no hai remedio" (And it can't be helped), which uses, as does number 26, the artist's famous shorthand "invention" of showing only the rifle barrels, instead of the French soldiers themselves, who are about to execute a prisoner. Goya employed essentially this same device, but with the soldiers, in his great (Prado) painting "Los Fusilamientos" (The Executions), and Edouard Manet, much later, adopted it for his large canvas in the Louvre of the "Execution of the Emperor Maximilian" (of Mexico). One cannot conceive of a more fearful indictment of war than these prints and paintings!
One of Goya's (or Bermúdez'?) most powerful titles is attached to print number 18: "Enterrar y callar" (Bury them and keep quiet). Another masterpiece is Plate 69 and its one-word caption, "Nada" (Nothing). This is not Goya's bitter confession of atheism (he was probably quite religious); rather it probably refers to the vanity of all human concerns in the face of death. "Nada" has been written by the corpse on the tablet in front of its right hand. The rendering is worthy of Rembrandt.
After the scenes of war, come the scenes of famine—of the terrible "Año del Hambre" (year of hunger) in Madrid—from September, 1811 to August, 1812, which cost the lives of over twenty thousand citizens (numbers 48–64). Even in a reproduction "Gracias á la almorta" (Thanks to the millet), number 51, proves the truth of Goya's proud statement that: "In art there is no need for color; I see only light and shade. Give me a crayon, and I will paint your portrait." This print has all the subtle hues of poverty and hunger.
Not part of the eighty Desastres prints published originally, but clearly intended for the series, because of their size, shape, and allegorical content (like the last plates of the series) are Plates 81 and 82, in Delteil's bibliography of Goya's prints. These plates were not rediscovered till after 1863, by the French artist Lefort, and were only much later offered to the Academy of San Fernando. Plate 81 has been awarded the title "Fiero monstruo" (Proud monster). It shows a great beast, something between a hippopotamus and a huge horse or mule, lying on its side, and devouring a number of naked human beings. What does it signify? No one can tell, since one cannot learn the secrets of, nor psychoanalyze, a great artist dead nearly a century and a half. Is it perhaps "war" itself? Or national greed for territory and people, which has so often caused the cataclysms of the past?
Goya's Desastres are, however, on the whole fairly understandable and clear cut. Have we learned the lessons from them? We had better look at this fine publication—and be sure!
Cambridge, Massachusetts 1967
Excerpted from The Disasters of War by FRANCISCO GOYA Y LUCIENTES. Copyright © 1967 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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