The endless fascination with Francisco Goya’s body of work is, for many, founded in the Spanish painter’s ability to surprise, tease and horrify all at once. A famous and favorite prototype of his playful wickedness is “Se repulen,” (they spruce themselves up) a 1798 print in which three goblins sit together, one clipping another’s curled toenail.
Goya, often remembered as the father of modern art, was a master at humanizing both the subhuman and superhuman and, in equalizing them, highlighting the lowest and most grotesque aspects of the human experience. That darkness and depravity is also the focal point of Goya’s series The Disasters of War, on display at the Honolulu Academy of Arts through August. The 40 prints, from a rare first edition of the series, frankly and graphically depict war’s torturous consequences and its human cost.
“La mismo,” shows a man, ax raised, about to slaughter another man amid the brutality of fighting around him. “Para eso habeis nacido,” (This is what you were born for) shows a man vomiting on a pile of corpses and “Y no hai remedio” depicts a man, blindfolded and bound to a stake, head hanging, in line to be shot dead. In “Y son fieras,” a woman wearing a long dress with a bare-bottomed infant slung over her hip is spearing a man’s abdomen. “Que valor!” also features a woman—this one is manning a cannon and standing on a pile of dead bodies.
There are scenes of people crying over stacks of lifeless bodies, corpses hanging from trees, men being tortured, women and children fleeing in fear, skeletal prisoners and cartfuls of bodies. “Las resultas” (The consequences) shows winged bat-like creatures pecking at a body and “El buitre Carnivoro,” (The carnivorous vulture) depicts a mob of people attacking a giant birdlike beast with a pitchfork. Art historians have suggested it’s a symbol of Spanish resistance to French occupation, with the bird representing the French Imperial Eagle.
Indeed, the powerful and gruesome series reflects a violent period in early 19th-century Spain during which villagers and peasants became guerilla soldiers, fighting to ward off French invaders as Spanish King Charles IV was imprisoned in France by Napoleon. In illuminating the simple horrors of war, Goya mocks man’s insistence that war’s inherent complexity justifies its perceived inevitability.
The exhibit itself mirrors the simplicity of Goya’s message. The prints, matted plainly in pretty wooden frames, are displayed in a tiny room sandwiched between a gallery filled with impressionist and post-impressionist works by the likes of Paul Gaugin and Mary Cassatt and a another gallery filled with ornate china, charming tea pots and a meticulously decorated secretary desk. In entering the room where Goya’s prints will be on display for the next few months, one half-expects to see darling etchings from an old edition of a Dickens novel. A closer look reveals the prints in all of their terrible glory.
The Academy’s presentation, like the subject matter of the prints themselves, serves to surprise the viewer. The exhibit as a whole reminds us that war takes something ordinary—a woman, a village, humanity itself—and disfigures it, terrorizes it, tortures it and ultimately destroys it. No matter how it may appear at first glance, war is fear begetting pain begetting death.