By: Jonathon Keats
“The author is convinced that it is as proper for painting to criticize human error and vice as for poetry and prose to do so,” proclaimed Francisco de Goya y Lucientes in the Diario de Madrid on Feb. 6, 1799, announcing the publication of Los Caprichos(or “Caprices”), his suite of 80 prints made by etching and aquatint, which were intended to reveal “the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance or self-interest have made usual.” The ambition of this undertaking was considerable, given that these were the first significant prints by the 53-year-old court painter to King Carlos IV, and that Goya had recently emerged from a life-threatening illness that left him nearly deaf. Three hundred sets—24,000 prints in all—were laboriously produced in his studio, and the edition was offered for sale at a cost of 320 reales—one ounce of gold—for each suite. The price was reasonable, and Goya’s name was famous, yet only 27 sets found buyers in the two weeks before Goya withdrew the remainder.
Many factors contributed to the failure of the Caprichos. They were stocked exclusively in a perfume and liquor store on the Calle del Desengaño (“Street of Disenchantment”), presumably because the reputable bookshops in Madrid were wary of the Inquisition. Moreover, the prints seem to have aesthetically bewildered (or offended)even the most sophisticated viewers, even decades after they were published: John Ruskin, who had no cause to be outraged by the content of theCaprichos, succinctly expressed his opinion by burning his set. The sole positive contemporary notice was penned by a Spanish chemist. Seemingly the only other enthusiast for the etchings was the king himself, who eventually bought the remaining 21,840 impressions, though the reason was almost certainly to preserve the dignity of his court painter while also protecting the royal family, whose common prejudices and deceitful practices graced several of Goya’s caprices. One can hardly be surprised that two decades later, when Goya competed his next major suite, The Disasters of War, he declined to print the 80 new etchings, and the plates’ existence was scarcely known until 1863, 35 years after his death, when the Royal Academy of San Fernando published an edition.
Since that time the Caprichos and the Disasters have become some of the most exalted prints in the history of art, not only inspiring modern masters but also engaging viewers who have scarcely visited a museum. This is partly on account of their political prescience, for instance showing the Peninsular War’s contagious violence in a way that anticipated indiscriminate carnage from Vietnam to Iraq. Equally, it’s a matter of the visual idiom, often compared to photography, which seems familiarly modern.
Of course Goya never saw a photograph. The first daguerreotypes were produced in 1839, 11 years after he died, and 40 years after the Caprichos confounded the pictorial expectations of patrons accustomed to painting. Yet the essential visual qualities of photography—both the inherent strengths and the inherent weaknesses ultimately transformed into strengths—are evident in the Caprichos and fully developed in the Disasters. Indeed, just as photographs can help us to appreciate Goya’s prints, his etchings can enhance our appreciation of photographs.
The essential dynamic in Goya’s printmaking, as in photography, is the interplay between representation and abstraction, in which the latter imbues the former with a point of view without evident distortion. Focus is a key aspect of this process. InCaprichos such as Out Hunting for Teeth, the foreground figures (a woman pulling out a hanged man’s molar for use as an amulet) are sharply engraved, while the nocturnal setting, primarily rendered in dark shades of aquatint, is unintelligibly vague. By these means Goya accomplishes what a camera does with limited depth of field, a problem inherent in optics exploited by good photographers to accentuate what is important. Reality is subtly contextualized by the artist. In the case of Out Hunting for Teeth, the visible details convince us that such farces really happen, while the haziness suggests that, given the power of superstition, they could occur anywhere.
Goya realized that such techniques would work—that his images would register psychologically even if they didn’t exactly correspond to external reality—by observing the limitations of his own vision. “I do not count the hairs on the beard of the man who passes by any more than the buttonholes on his jacket attract my notice,” he argued. “My brush should not see better than I do.” That insight may have suggested another photographic trope so effectively used in his prints: cropping. Reality is all-encompassing, and traditional 18th-century scene painting approximates this wholeness by synthesis, selectively altering the world as naturally seen to fit the composition. A photograph cannot do that. With a set aspect ratio, a camera can provide only a fragment, a limitation that good photographers overcome by finding an evocative excerpt. The best photographers use this radical abridgement to fold time into a still image. Given a glance, we’re impelled not only to imagine what’s around the corner but also to project the scene into the past and the future. This is the essence of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.” It’s also the basis of Caprichos such as They Carried Her Off, and far more starkly, Disasters such asOne Cannot Look at This, as well as, most notoriously, And It Can’t be Helped.
Both of these Disasters show violence being done by soldiers who fall outside the etching’s frame. And It Can’t be Helped is the more extreme because the execution we’re witnessing is reiterated in the background, and the limited depth of field allows Goya to suggest further repetitions behind that one. The horror is at once immediate and expansive. We encounter a specific instance of the universal. And this is what makes his print so politically forceful.
Not all of Goya’s etchings work in this way. In the Disasters, most of the final 20 plates are essentially allegorical. The penultimate shows truth as a woman dead at the feet of an officiating bishop, and the last shows her struggling to rise, above a caption asking, “Will she live again?” Many (if not most) of the Caprichos are also allegorical, if not outright satirical. A woman prays before an effigy of a priest, his cassock ludicrously draped over the branches of a tree. A monkey plays a guitar—backward—for a foolishly admiring jackass. These are Goya’s advertised criticisms of “human error and vice,” yet they are far less effective at revealing “common prejudices and deceitful practices” than the Caprichos’ matter-of-fact abduction scene, They Carried Her Off, let alone the depictions of casual execution shown inDisasters such as And It Can’t be Helped.
In other words, Goya’s etchings have much to teach us, not only about what we see in photography but about why photography is the basis of the most powerful political art—practically the only powerful political art—in our own era. The allegorical pretensions of Picasso’s Guernica, for instance, or the satirical intentions of Philip Guston’s Poor Richard, are highly articulate in the expression of an opinion but lack the critical openness that gives art a life of its own, independent of the one who made it. We can agree or disagree with the satirist’s polemic, but good art never lets us off so easy. Like life, it’s too nuanced to allow for certainty.
Certainty is the cause of the terror we see in the Disasters, the conflicting convictions of Spanish and French partisans who are certain against all reason that their foes must be ruined. The photographic declarative “I saw it”—Goya’s most quoted caption—is at once a claim of authority and a renunciation of judgment. The burden is passed on to the viewer, who sees what Goya saw. In this instance, it’s a woman pulling her child away from an unspecified threat. Elsewhere, it’s a man being hanged for unstated crimes. Elsewhere yet, it’s a corpse of unknown nationality impaled on a tree trunk by unidentified assailants. Goya sees moment by moment. His comprehension is fragmentary, contingent. He does not claim the satirist’s self-satisfied omniscience, and he categorically denies such complacency to us.
“I saw it” is the hallmark of great photography, from Associated Press photojournalist Nick Ut’s iconic Vietnam War picture of a girl running naked from a napalm attack to contemporary artist Richard Misrach’s Desert Cantos, comprehensively documenting the environmental destruction of the American West. These are images that raise questions. And Goya has already supplied the caption. “Why?” he inscribed beneath another of his Disasters. There are no satisfactory answers. There is only vigilance.
Our Complimentary Bimonthly eNewsletter