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Satire, Shock, and Superstition: The Nightmarish Vision of Francisco Goya

Satire, Shock, and Superstition: The Nightmarish Vision of Francisco Goya

Social satirist, bullfighting enthusiast, famed precursor of modernism—Francisco Goya (1746–1828) lent his fertile and often wicked imagination to hundreds of inventive and technically brilliant prints. This exhibition presents selections from Goya’s three best-known print series: Los Caprichos, Los Desastres de la Guerra, and Los Disparates. This array of witches, bogeymen, marauding soldiers, and creatures of the night celebrates Goya’s fantastic imagination and documents his unique marriage of Enlightenment ideals to an early Romantic fascination with the nightmarish, monstrous, and bizarre.

Goya reached maturity during the so-called Age of Reason, when philosophy and science advanced the notion that humans were shaped entirely by their environments. It was believed that perfecting these environments would lead to a harmonious society. Goya’s Caprichos (Caprices) stemmed in part from these ideals; they aimed to creatively and humorously condemn the problems afflicting Bourbon Spain—the greed of the monarchy and the church, the lack of opportunity and grinding poverty among the common people. Despite his grounding in Enlightenment ideals, however, Goya believed that reason could not encompass all of human experience, and that emotion and spirituality had a valid role to play as well. The central idea of Romanticism as a reaction against the reason of the Enlightenment comes alive in the subject matter of Goya’s prints and in his use of Spanish folklore and superstition to assert an unstable and flawed, but still undeniably human, view of society.

Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian peninsula in 1808 led to a series of horrors far more real than the nightmares of the Caprichos. The Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War) catalogue in turn the brutality of Napoleon’s soldiers toward the Spanish populace, the twenty thousand deaths of the Madrid famine of 1811 (exacerbated by the French occupation), and the ultimate restoration of the repressive and intolerant Bourbon monarchy in 1813. Created before 1815 and after 1824 when Goya left Spain for France, Los Disparates (Follies) are the most enigmatic of Goya’s prints. Unlike the Caprichos and the Desastres, with their informative captioning, the Disparates are without captions and Goya wrote little about them. The power of the Disparates is partly a question of scale; they are well over twice as large as the plates of the Caprichos or Desastres, and Goya worked many of the plates to a level of intricacy and emotional intensity not seen in the previous two series.

One of the printmakers of greatest importance to Goya was the French etcher Jacques Callot (1592–1635), whose 1633 Les Misères et malheurs de la Guerre (The Miseries and Misfortunes of War) was the first series to hold a mirror to the brutality visited on local populations by mercenaries during the wars of his own day. This series inspired Los Desastres and two plates from it are on display in the gallery. Likewise, many artists were inspired in turn by Goya’s Caprichos, including, as can be seen in this gallery, the American William Gropper and the Mexican-born Enrique Chagoya.

Andrew C. Weislogel
Associate Curator / Master Teacher

Images from Satire, Shock, and Superstition: The Nightmarish... (Click an image to open slideshow)