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24 April 2024

Goya’s lessons for a world at war

Why the great Spanish painter’s work still resonates so urgently.

By Andrew Marr

We must search out the best reporting where we can. My post-Easter bulletin is that I’ve discovered that by far the finest fresh information about the threats facing Europe this decade can be found in Madrid. Not in the foyer of a television station or newspaper, but at the cool, austere San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the bustling heart of the city.

There, for the first time, all of Francisco Goya’s famous print series, but in particular, The Disasters of War, 82 prints he made between 1810 and 1820, are on display together. They might appear to be part of some kind of historical record, but it is clear from the exhibition that they are a sharp warning about what is happening in eastern Ukraine, in Israel and in Gaza right now. They are as urgent, immediate and relevant as anything on social media or being published by the main media companies – indeed, as I want to show, more so.

For a long time I did not love Goya. His portraits of froggy monarchs and weirdly dressed women seemed from another age. His later obsessive interest in the ugly, the dark and the occult, from his technically brilliant series of prints and into the notorious Black Paintings, just seemed too dark, too pessimistic for modern times. Evil priests, witches, garrottings, public executions – it all felt ancient, too rooted in pre-Enlightenment Spain to have much to say to contemporary Europe.

But the longer you stand in front of these prints, preferably until your back is aching and your feet are throbbing and you feel you might die of thirst, the more you realise that they are a permanent record of a reality from which we normally look away. Goya painted madmen, cannibals, torturers and people transformed into donkeys or monkeys not out of perversity, but because he couldn’t help seeing the base, appetite-driven and deluded creatures we are all capable of being – no matter how beautifully brocaded the coats we wear or how sophisticated the technology we carry.

What Goya does is he flays. In Los Caprichos (“The Caprices”), the set of 80 prints he published a decade before the Disasters, he peels back the skin of wealthy, pious, rational Madrid society to show a world, only partly human, of gleeful sexual exploitation, extreme cruelty, hypocrisy and madness.

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For him, this wasn’t a passing realisation. Much later in life, he surrounded himself with murals, painted on to the plaster walls of his country house, which are among the bleakest and most terrifying art ever made. Removed from the walls before the old building was demolished, and transferred to 14 canvases, these can now be seen in the Prado Museum, in a kind of sepulchral anti-chapel, where they are known as the Black Paintings.

The Disasters of War, plate 50, “Madre infeliz!” (“Unhappy Mother!”) by Francisco Goya. Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Goya was hardly alone in his violent recoil from the optimism of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. This was one of the motivating forces for romanticism, with its interest in the marginal, the insane and the dangerous. He is, in some ways, a Spanish Hogarth, with flashes of William Blake – a visionary who has closed his eyes to the conventional religious and neoclassical art in which he was trained, to contemplate the follies of his age. As he points out in one of his most famous images, in which a collapsed, dreaming man is surrounded by owls, bats, cats and a lynx, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”

It does; and it still does. We don’t have a society dominated in the same way by a persecuting church and monarchy, or with public executions. But below our surface of gluttonous consumerism and celebrity exhibitionism, the same basic and base human instincts are present. That animal determination for food and sex, that special human talent for cruelty that the podgy, balding sharp-eyed Spanish artist observed more than two centuries ago… It’s all still there.

We have lived over these past few decades in a most unusual bubble of local peace, in which we are sold the belief that liberal democracy, working with ever more dextrous and intelligent technology, will deliver us from evil. We had almost come to believe that the modern monsters – racism, violently superstitious religion and totalitarianism – were quitting the planet. So this is just the moment for Goya.

Obliged to earn a living by painting the rich and famous – so many pie-faced creatures in velvet and silk, staring out of the canvases, startlingly vulnerable and alone, despite the expensive fabrics and glittering jewellery – he couldn’t help seeing below the surface. And the monsters we most fear today are vividly present in his picture-making of cruelty, paedophilia, rape, deformity, madness. These are beautifully drawn but ugly; images of ugly truths.

It all really kicked off when, in 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain and a long, drawn-out peasant war began, the subject of the Disasters. And it is in these engravings that his message to us becomes particularly urgent and insistent.

For what has been happening in Gaza, actually? What is going on in those damp, shredded copses on the Ukrainian front line? Our “way of seeing” all that is very poor. Cameras trained from a long way away show blurred images of smoke rising over rooftops or fields. We can follow the flight of missiles. In Ukraine, drones and body cams produce images of war that, for all their technical sophistication, have about as much reality as the drawings in the Commando comics of my youth, or the bang-bang video games of today.

What does it look like when a child in Gaza begins to experience full famine, and her heart begins to slow and her lungs and leg muscles shrivel? When Hamas arrived on 7 October to rape mothers in front of their children before killing all of them, what did it feel like to be a child there and then? Do men still want to dismember and torture? The Israelis have tried to explain, but it feels impossible.

Meanwhile, some 50,000 young Russians have died in Ukraine. We use the term “meat grinder”. But how is it, to dispose of decomposed and shattered bodies? How deep do you have to dig? There have been, we read, scenes of torture and summary execution on the front line. What happened?

I am sorry to put it so graphically, but graphically is my point. Even with all our recording technology, we are not graphic about the wars around us, which may, in different ways, come nearer all the time. Goya, with only copper plates to draw on, and a burin in his hand, tells us far, far more. The Essex University art historian Sarah Symmons has called the Disasters “the most uncompromising artistic record of conflict ever produced”. She must be right.

The 19th-century Peninsular War was a guerrilla conflict and particularly vicious because of that – a war of torture, intimate execution, the mutilation of corpses, the abandonment of children, and atrocities at every turn. In Goya you can smell it all. He goes in very close, including to the famine that follows war almost everywhere. 

A Spanish patriot, and a child of the Enlightenment, he is interestingly slow to take sides. He had worked with the French and understood that the proletarians of Madrid were capable of just as much cruelty as the army they faced. He would have tried to depict fully what has happened to Palestinian children and Ukrainian women on the front line; but he would have drawn, with just as much angry vigour, the evil Hamas committed, and what happens to young Russian conscripts when a Western-made shell lands nearby. This is not “committed” art as we came to understand it in the 20th century, but humanitarian art.

The truths Goya uncovered in the villages of rural Spain as Napoleon’s army retreated are still to be found in the Donbas and in Palestine. Other artists have followed him, including Manet, Picasso – whose Guernica is in Madrid as well, though less effective – and Salvador Dalí, Käthe Kollwitz, George Grosz, the Chapman brothers… But they followed Goya, that’s the point. He was there first.

So what, you might ask? We have imaginations. We don’t need to see everything. People on all sides protest and wring their hands. Do we really need Goya, too?

The Disasters of War plate 26, “No se puede mirar” (“One can’t look”) by Francisco Goya. Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Well, we are telling sanitised and too-comfortable stories about ourselves all the time. We don’t confront the full deceit and pornographic horror of the internet – Goya would have been fascinated by that – and we don’t treat this time of war and hatred as if it is fully real. We comfort ourselves not with the promises of the Catholic Church or the temptations of witchcraft but with conspiracy theories and a kind of lunatic, restless consumerism. The skin of our civilisation is no thicker than was Goya’s, before the bad times arrived for him. 

As somebody who paints and draws myself, and haunts galleries, I have always treated great art, like great music, as my refuge from the disappointments and nastiness of life. A better, more colourful, more harmonious parallel world, full of its own challenges and surprises – but in the end, an alternative. So, it was a shock to come up properly against Goya. 

But it was a good one. He throws at us entirely modern truths. In a dangerous world we need above all to know ourselves – our vulnerability, our loneliness. And, swaddled in liberal self-congratulation, that we still are – when the wind changes – capable of absolutely anything.

[See also: Fifty years after Picasso’s death, we still struggle with the figure of the monstrous genius]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger