There is still chance to catch a glimpse into Manchester Art Gallery’s impressive collection of over 90 Goya prints. The Fantasies, Follies and Disasters exhibition has been running since August, with a new display of 30 prints on show from early this year. Displayed in Gallery 11, which usually hosts the small and changing exhibitions, the collection pays homage to Goya’s controversial yet widely-acclaimed three series of copper plate etchings: Los Caprichos (The Fantasies), Los Desastres della Guerra (The Disasters of War) and Los Disparates (The Follies) all produced between 1797 and 1824.
Francisco Goya (1746-1828) enjoyed a successful art career in his native Spain as the chief painter to Charles IV, and at one point as Director of Painting at the Spanish Royal Academy. Known as a prolific portraitist he painted many establishment figures of the age including the Duke of Wellington. Yet Manchester’s display observes how a more disaffected and political side of Goya emerged, and was celebrated, most notably after his death. A culmination of events including an illness, which left him significantly deaf in 1792, and mass disillusionment at the bloodshed following the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808, led him to develop this fascinating artistic style. The intense scorn and political contempt Goya’s works show meant that following his death in 1828 they were judged too controversial to be published until finally in 1863-4.
The exhibit, while only small, is uniquely powerful because of the parallels it draws between the 19th and 21st centuries. The chief of these parallels is of course war, but other concurrent themes, which define both Goya’s work and our own modern cynicism, are those of cruelty, hypocrisy, corruption, deceit and satire.
On entering the exhibition you are first confronted with a wall of artwork inspired by Fantasies, Follies and Disasters, and created by 15-18 year olds from across Manchester. This introduction establishes a very innocent mindset from which to view Goya’s prints. Inside the main room the 30 prints line the four walls while in the very centre is a contemporary piece by Jake and Dinos Chapman in tribute to Goya’s etchings.
Known for their controversial modern art, ‘Disasters of War’ (1993) by the Chapman brothers is no exception. Inspired by the Goya collection a glass case features individual sculpted scenes replicated from Goya’s prints. It recalls a horrific battlefield of mutilations, hangings, famine and death. Like Goya’s work it reflects and makes visible the most barbaric and ridiculously inconceivable actions inflicted on and by civilisation. The smallness of each model is instantly captivating – as though observing a collection of toy soldier figurines – yet the intricacy and depth imbues the models with a more realistic intensity, bringing the horrors of the battlefield home and away, past and ongoing, to the relative safety of the art gallery.
Goya’s Los Caprichos (The Fantasies, 1797-9) satirises the hypocrisy and corruption of the social and political elite. The nobility, religious orders and establishment figures most commonly bear the brunt, yet Goya occasionally turns on the public for their gullibility, and to question aspects of humanity. In ‘Que Pico de Oro!’ (What a Golden Beak!) the public are mocked as they crowd round a parrot speaking from the lectern. The prints are deeply dark and graphic as the sinister and the ridiculous come together to create a sense of unease and unfamiliarity, which reflect the distortions of human civilisation. The caricatures are hideous and gnarled, often haggard and androgynous, while Goya also intersperses these with fantastical animals or humans bearing the faces of beasts. The surreal undercurrents surface through themes of witchcraft, fable and allegory, and are often based on Goya’s experiences. ‘Muchohay Quehupar’ (There is Plenty to Suck) was conceived after reading about two women who sacrificed their children to the devil. A gang of witches gather round a basket of mutilated babies at the forefront of the image, while bats cluster overhead.
Goya’s Los Desastres della Guerra (the Disasters) makes a significant leap to the surreal, where establishment figures are ridiculed under the guise of animals and beasts. Yet the Disasters series ends on a question of hope. The two etchings ‘Murio la Verdad’ (Truth Has Died) and ‘Si Resucitara?’ (Will She Rise Again?) show the virginal white of the female embodiment of Truth against a background of heavy grey etching. In the former Truth is being buried by monks and priests, with Justice mourning to the right, and a crucifix at the top centre of the print fading under the darkness of the scene. In the latter the whiteness of Truth shines forth from the foreground in possible resurrection, startling the gathering clerics, beasts and monsters. However, that the plate’s inscription is posed as a question illustrates Goya’s deeply ambiguous view of the future.
Goya exercises this imaginative leap more fully in Los Disparates (the Follies, 1815-1824). The final images on display are elevated from the bloodshed and agony of the former pictures and clearly question the absurdity of war and politics. There is a sense of the carnivalesque running throughout the images on display, but most notably in Los Disparates. ‘Los Eisacades’ (The Men in Sacks) shows a group of men bound in sacks and alludes to the pretence of madness at carnival time; in this way Goya hints at how the traditional carnival was at once a release and also a pressure-cooker of social ills. In ‘Dis Puntual’ (Sure Folly) a woman on horse back performs an acrobatic trick, yet the tightrope her horse walks across is flat on the floor, while the circus audience have their eyes closed to the truth. Goya moves on from the visceral reality of war to the ideas behind it: ideas about corruption, deception, infantile politics and repression that we are so familiar with in our modern day experiences of warfare and politics.
Being only small, the display is almost a snapshot of an exhibition, but it does its job in provoking thought and debate that is as relevant today as it was in the 19th century. Although there are some informative panels that accompany the prints, the images are open to interpretation simply because of their surreal and fantastical nature. It is this attitude of showing and not telling that the display does so well, and using just 30 prints makes it accessible and manageable. Moreover, the exhibition features an array of art by young people and an area where visitors can play with paper, pens and stampers to encourage the next generation of Bankys. The ability to interact with young people on these political and controversial issues demonstrates how, unlike Goya’s repressive society, the 21st century is a time when all voices should be heard. For me, the exhibition goes some way to answering Goya’s question: will Truth rise again?
Fantasies, Follies and Disasters: The Prints of Francisco de Goya
Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester, M2 3JL
15 August 2009 – 25 July 2010
Open Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm
Closed Mondays except Bank Holidays
See website for more information.