Goya’s Disasters of War (c.1810-15)

Goya, like all great artists, portrays images that take place in his mind, literally in his mind, and he wants those who ‘read’ his images on the underlying level to know that. This is nowhere more evident than his series of etchings known as The Disasters of War. He never explained these 82 etchings, all made between 1810 and 1820, but most art historians typically (and unimaginatively) interpret them literally: as Goya’s response to the 1808 civilian uprising against the French or the subsequent Peninsula War. While artists often use contemporary events as a means to describe their mental and spiritual reality, the events themselves are rarely, if ever, the true subject. They are there, like the superficial meaning of stories in the Bible, for the interest of the masses who have little hope of understanding allegory. Art historians, though, should know better. Goya was neither a historian nor a journalist; he was an artist, which means a ‘visual poet’. As such, he was far more interested in depicting the creative processes of his own mind than in the doings of Napoleon. Remember: artists do not illustrate. 

Take a look at Plate 13. It is a scene of a woman being abducted by soldiers. John Ciofalo, a rare scholar, has already asked whether it does "not resemble the inside of a human skull?" He is right; it represents the inside of Goya’s mind, the archways as Goya's "eyes".1 The brightness beyond is exterior reality. The struggle, then, between the woman with idealized features and two soldiers is Goya’s own struggle to create the composition. The woman in my reading is his “art” which the soldiers are wrestling into “form”. The expectation of rape, or sexual intercourse, is not entirely off the mark because the art will only be complete once art and artist are united and reflect each other. Goya, after all, is both: the soldiers as the “artist” and the woman as his “art”.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Goya, "Bitter Presence", Plate 13 from The Disasters of War (c. 1810-15)

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Plate 11 is another scene in which the location of the underlying allegory, in Goya’s mind, is fairly obvious. Look at how the oval form of the church front, oddly large for the steeple, resembles in conjunction with the arch the pupil of an eye. Since the violent scene is taking place in front of this giant "eye", we must be in the artist’s mind.

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Goya, "And nor these", Plate 11 from The Disasters of War (c. 1810-15)

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A similar background in Plate 9 includes what can be read as “a beam of light” extending from the corner of an “eye”. What exactly the “beam” is meant to represent in the apparent scene is hard to say though the figural arrangement is clear. The monk, whom I believe one expert wrote resembled Goya, holds a knife (a symbol of the artist’s etching burin) towards his “art”: a woman and soldier unified in struggle. As Goya’s “art”, the man and woman reflect the creative battle in his androgynous mind, a mind containing both genders.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Goya, "They do not want to", Plate 9 from The Disasters of War (c. 1810-15)

 

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Once one recognizes Goya’s strategy the setting of a much later print, Plate 82, becomes easier to identify. As in the scenes with arches, the sunburst represents his “eye”. Thus the woman baring her breasts in the center of his “eye” is his “art” that the old man, representing the craftsman with his tool, admires.

This brief introduction to Goya’s Disasters of War should serve as a warning to any art lover prone to think that images of war in art are “scenes of war”. They never are because, if they were, they would be illustration not art.

For other examples of "eyes" in Goya's art, see the entry on Goya's Eyes.

Captions for image(s) above:

Goya, "They do not want to", Plate 82 from The Disasters of War (c. 1815-20)

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Notes:

1. John Ciofalo, The Self-Portraits of Francisco Goya (Cambridge University Press) 2001, pp. 122, 134. For other paintings based on the artist's skull, see my entry on Michelangelo's skull in the Sistine Chapel and his drawing The Dream of Human Life; Leonardo da Vinci's The Virgin of the Rocks and St. Jerome (c.1488-90); Giovanni Bellini's Agony in the Garden and various paintings of St. Jerome in Seeing Bellini's Eyes (c.1450-1525);  and Anish Kapoor's Memory (2008). I have also argued that many of Michelangelo's sculptures as well as the figures in his planned painting, The Battle of Cascina, are standing on faceted rock, a hidden symbol for the multi-faceted forms of the cerebral cortex. One of the reasons Renaissance artists were so interested in anatomical dissections is that many were representing the insides of their minds and body in their art.

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