The Disasters of War  

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Disasters of War (1810s) by Francisco de Goya
With the early 19th century Disasters of War, Goya continued a tradition set in motion by French 17th artist Jacques Callot with his The Miseries and Disasters of War, both of them criticizing the horrors of war in their art

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The Disasters of War (Spanish: Los Desastres de la Guerra) are a series of 82 prints created between 1810 and 1820 by the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya (1746–1828). Noted for their uncensored rawness, two of the most gruesome prints are Great deeds! Against the dead! and This is worse and early instances of anti-war statements. Some of the prints have been "remixed" by the Chapman Brothers in their 2003 piece Insult to Injury.


Although Goya did not make known his intention when creating the plates, art historians view them as a visual protest against the violence of the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising, the subsequent Peninsular War of 1808–14 and the setbacks to the liberal cause following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814. During the conflicts between Napoleon's French Empire and Spain, Goya retained his position as first court painter to the Spanish crown and continued to produce portraits of the Spanish and French rulers. Although deeply affected by the war, he kept private his thoughts on the art he produced in response to the conflict and its aftermath. He was in poor health and almost deaf when, at 62, he began work on the prints. They were not published until 1863, 35 years after his death. It is likely that only then was it considered politically safe to distribute a sequence of artworks criticising both the French and restored Bourbons. In total over a thousand sets have been printed, though later ones are of lower quality, and most print room collections have at least some of the set.

The name by which the series is known today is not Goya's own. His handwritten title on an album of proofs given to a friend reads: Fatal consequences of Spain's bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices (Spanish: Fatales consequencias de la sangrienta guerra en España con Buonaparte, Y otros caprichos enfáticos). Aside from the titles or captions given to each print, these are Goya's only known words on the series. With these works, he breaks from a number of painterly traditions. He rejects the bombastic heroics of most previous Spanish war art to show the effect of conflict on individuals. In addition he abandons colour in favour of a more direct truth he found in shadow and shade.

The series was produced using a variety of intaglio printmaking techniques, mainly etching for the line work and aquatint for the tonal areas, but also engraving and drypoint. As with many other Goya prints, they are sometimes referred to as aquatints, but more often as etchings. The series is usually considered in three groups which broadly mirror the order of their creation. The first 47 focus on incidents from the war and show the consequences of the conflict on individual soldiers and civilians. The middle series (plates 48 to 64) record the effects of the famine that hit Madrid in 1811–12, before the city was liberated from the French. The final 17 reflect the bitter disappointment of liberals when the restored Bourbon monarchy, encouraged by the Catholic hierarchy, rejected the Spanish Constitution of 1812 and opposed both state and religious reform. Since their first publication, Goya's scenes of atrocities, starvation, degradation and humiliation have been praised. The serial nature in which the plates unfold has led some to see the images as similar in nature to photography.

An eye-witness account?

Goya completed 56 plates during the war against France, and these are often viewed as eye-witness accounts. A final batch—including plate 1, several in the middle of the series, and the last 17 plates—are likely to have been produced after the end of the war, when materials were more abundant. The titles of some plates, written beneath each, indicate his presence: I saw this (plate 44) and One can not look (plate 26). While it is unclear how much of the conflict Goya witnessed, it is generally accepted that he observed first-hand many of the events recorded in the first two groups. A number of other scenes are known to have been related to him second hand. It is known that he used a sketchbook when visiting battle sites; at his studio, he set to work on copper plate once he had absorbed and assimilated meaning from his sketches.

On the use of captions

THE most moving of his captions I have already mentioned : " I saw this." But there are few pages at the foot of which he did not write some remark or other. Perhaps one can hardly describe as captions these cries wrung from the heart, cries of grief or anger, of agony or vengeance. " What courage ! " he cries, full of admiration for the heroism of this extraordinary race — a heroism which reminds us of the sudden awakening of a wild animal, always betraying a pride of character the previous manifestations of which are forgotten, and too indifferent to death to remember them. "Is this what you were born for ? " — " The way is hard." — " There is no remedy." — "They will be fit for further service." — or "They equip themselves," he says when confronted with the hideous spectacle of French soldiers removing the boots or shirts of mutilated corpses. "So much and even more" — before a heap of corpses, or else "Bury them and be silent," or more simply still, "Cartloads for the cemetery," or again "For the common grave " ; or else, with a terrible irony, that Spanish irony reminiscent in its violence of the bull's horn penetrating with a single stroke the belly of a horse : " Charity," when men of the people are sweeping towards a gaping ditch the bodies of their enemies — doubtless in order to be sure that they receive Christian burial. --Elie Faure


Art historians broadly agree that The Disasters of War is divided into three thematic groupings—war, famine, and political and cultural allegories. This sequence broadly reflects the order in which the plates were created. Few of the plates or drawings are dated; instead, their chronology has been established by identifying specific incidents to which the plates refer, and the different batches of plates used, which allow sequential groups to be divined. For the most part, Goya's numbering agrees with these other methods. However, there are several exceptions. For example, plate 1 was among the last to be completed, after the end of the war.

In the early plates of the war grouping, Goya's sympathies appear to lie with the Spanish defenders. These images typically show patriots facing hulking, anonymous invaders who treat them with fierce cruelty. As the series progresses, the distinction between the Spanish and the imperialists becomes ambiguous. In other plates, it is difficult to tell to which camp the distorted and disfigured corpses belong. Some of the titles deliberately question the intentions of both sides; for example, Con razon ó sin ella can mean with or without reason, rightly or wrongly, or for something or for nothing. Critic Philip Shaw notes that the ambiguity is still present in the final group of plates, saying there is no distinction between the "heroic defenders of the Fatherland and the barbaric supporters of the old regime". There have been a variety of English translations offered for the plate titles. In many instances, the satirical and often sardonic ambiguity and play on Spanish proverbs found in Goya's carefully worded original titles is lost.


In The Disasters of War, Goya does not excuse any purpose to the random slaughter—the plates are devoid of the consolation of divine order or the dispensation of human justice. This in part a result of the absence of melodrama or consciously artful presentation that would distance the viewer from the brutality of the subjects, as found in Baroque martyrdom. In addition, Goya refuses to offer the stability of traditional narrative. Instead, his composition tends to highlight the most disturbing aspects of each work.

The plates are set spaces without fixed boundaries; the mayhem extends outside the frames of the picture plane in all directions. Thus, they express the randomness of violence, and in their immediacy and brutality they have been described as analogous to 19th- and 20th-century photojournalism. According to Robert Hughes, as with Goya's earlier Caprichos series, The Disasters of War is likely to have been intended as a "social speech"; satires on the then prevailing "hysteria, evil, cruelty and irrationality [and] the absence of wisdom" of Spain under Napoleon, and later the Inquisition. It is evident Goya viewed the Spanish war with disillusionment, and despaired both for the violence around him and for the loss of a liberal ideal he believed was being replaced by a new militant unreason. Hughes believed Goya's decision to render the images through etchings, which by definition are absent of colour, indicates feelings of utter hopelessness.

His message late in life is contrary to the humanistic view of man as essentially good but easily corrupted. He seems to be saying that violence is innate in man, "forged in the substance of what, since Freud, we have called the id." Hughes believed that in the end there is only the violated emptiness of acceptance of our fallen nature: like the painting of Goya's dog, "whose master is as absent from him as God is from Goya."

The Disasters of War plates are preoccupied with wasted bodies, undifferentiated body parts, castration and female abjection. There are dark erotic undertones to a number of the works. Connell notes the innate sexuality of the image in plate 7—Agustina de Aragón's igniting a long cannon. The art historian Lennard Davis suggests that Goya was fascinated with the "erotics of dismemberment", while Hughes mentions plate 10 in Los disparates, which shows a woman carried in the grip of a horse's mouth. To Hughes, the woman's euphoria suggests, among other possible meanings, orgasm.


Despite being one of the most significant anti-war works of art, The Disasters of War had no impact on the European consciousness for two generations, as it was not seen outside a small circle in Spain until it was published by Madrid's Royal Academy of San Fernando in 1863.

Since then, interpretations in successive eras have reflected the sensibilities of the time. Goya was seen as a proto-Romantic in the early 19th century, and the series' graphically rendered dismembered carcasses were a direct influence on Théodore Géricault, best known for the politically charged Raft of the Medusa (1818–19). Luis Buñuel identified with Goya's sense of the absurd, and referenced his works in such films as the 1930 L'Âge d'Or, on which he collaborated with Salvador Dalí, and his 1962 The Exterminating Angel.

The series' impact on Dalí is evident in Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), painted in 1936 in response to events leading to the Spanish Civil War. Here, the distorted limbs, brutal suppression, agonised expressions and ominous clouds are reminiscent of plate 39, Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (A heroic feat! With dead men!), in which mutilated bodies are shown against a backdrop barren landscape.

In 1993, Jake and Dinos Chapman of the Young British Artists movement created 82 miniature, toy-like sculptures modelled on The Disasters of War. The works were widely acclaimed and purchased that year by the Tate gallery. For decades, Goya's series of etching served as a constant point of reference for the Chapman brothers; in particular, they created a number of variations based on the plate Grande hazaña! Con muertos!.

In 2003, the Chapman brothers exhibited an altered version of The Disasters of War. They purchased a complete set of prints, over which they drew and pasted demonic clown and puppy heads. The Chapmans described their "rectified" images as making a connection between Napoleon's supposed introduction of Enlightenment ideals to early-19th-century Spain and Tony Blair and George W. Bush purporting to bring democracy to Iraq.

List of prints[1]

Plate 1

Español: Tristes presentimientos de lo que ha de acontecer. English: Sad presentiments of what must come to pass.

Plate 2

Español: Con razón o sin ella. English: With or without reason.

Plate 3

Español: Lo mismo. English: The same.

Plate 4

Español: Las mujeres dan valor. English: The women give courage.

Plate 5

Español: Y son fieras. English: And are wild beasts.

Plate 6

Español: Bien te se está. English: It serves you right.

Plate 7

Español: ¡Qué valor! English: What courage!

Plate 8

Español: Siempre sucede. English: This always happens.

Plate 9

Español: No quieren. English: They do not want to.

Plate 10

Español: Tampoco[2] English: Nor do these

Plate 11

Español: Ni por esas. English: Or these.

Plate 12

Español: Para eso habéis nacido. English: This is what you were born for.

Plate 13

Español: Amarga presencia. English: Bitter presence.

Plate 14

Español: Duro es el paso! English: The way is hard!

Plate 15

Español: Y no hay remedio. English: And it can't be helped.

Plate 16

Español: Se aprovechan. English: They avail themselves.

Plate 17

Español: No se convienen. English: They do not agree.

Plate 18

Español: Enterrar y callar. English: Bury them and keep quiet.

Plate 19

Español: Ya no hay tiempo. English: There is no more time.

Plate 20

Español: Curadlos, y a otra. English: Treat them, then on to other matters.

Plate 21

Español: Será lo mismo. English: It will be the same.

Plate 22

Español: Tanto y más. English: All this and more.

Plate 23

Español: Lo mismo en otras partes. English: The same (thing) elsewhere.

Plate 24

Español: Aun podrán servir. English: They'll still be helpful.

Plate 25

Español: También estos. English: So will these.

Plate 26

Español: No se puede mirar. English: One cannot look at this.

Plate 27

Español: Caridad. English: Charity.

Plate 28

Español: Populacho. English: Rabble.

Plate 29

Español: Lo merecía. English: He deserved it.

Plate 30

Español: Estragos de la guerra. English: Ravages of war.

Plate 31

Español: ¡Fuerte cosa es! English: This is too much!

Plate 32

Español: ¿Por qué? English: Why?

Plate 33

Español: ¿Qué hay que hacer más? English: What more can one do?

Plate 34

Español: Por una navaja. English: On account of a knife.

Plate 35

Español: No se puede saber por qué. English: Nobody knows why.

Plate 36

Español: Tampoco[3]. English: Not (in this case) either.

Plate 37

Español: Esto es peor. English: This is worse.

Plate 38

Español: Bárbaros! English: Barbarians!

Plate 39

Español: ¡Grande hazaña! Con muertos! English: Great deeds! Against the dead!

Plate 40

Español: Algun partido saca. English: There is something to be gained.

Plate 41

Español: Escapan entre las llamas. English: They escape through the flames.

Plate 42

Español: Todo va revuelto. English: Everthing is topsy-turvy.

Plate 43

Español: También esto. English: So is this.

Plate 44

Español: Yo lo vi. English: I saw it.

Plate 45

Español: Yo esto también. English: And this too.

Plate 46

Español: Esto es malo. English: This is bad.

Plate 47

Español: Así sudedió. English: This is how it happened.

Plate 48

Español: ¡Cruel lástima! English: A cruel shame!

Plate 49

Español: Caridad de una mujer. English: A woman's charity.

Plate 50

Español: ¡Madre infeliz! English: Unhappy mother.

Plate 51

Español: Gracias a la almorta. English: Thanks to the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.).

Plate 52

Español: No llegan a tiempo. English: They do not arrive in time.

Plate 53

Español: Expiró sin remedio. English: There was nothing to be done and he died.

Plate 54

Español: Clamores en vano. English: Vain laments.

Plate 55

Español: Lo peor es pedir. English: The worst is to beg.

Plate 56

Español: Al cementerio. English: To the cemetery.

Plate 57

Español: Sanos y enfermos. English: The sound and the sick.

Plate 58

Español: No hay que dar voces. English: It is no use shouting.

Plate 59

Español: ¿De qué sirve una taza? English: What good is a single cup?

Plate 60

Español: No hay quien los socorra. English: There is no one to help them.

Plate 61

Español: Si son de otro linage. English: Perhaps they are of another breed.

Plate 62

Español: Las cama de la muerte. English: The deathbeds.

Plate 63

Español: Muertos recogidos. English: A collection of dead men.

Plate 64

Español: Carretadas al cementerio. English: Cartloads for the cemetery.

Plate 65

Español: ¿Qué alboroto es este? English: What is this hubbub?

Plate 66

Español: ¡Extraña devoción! English: Strange devotion!

Plate 67

Español: Esta no lo es menos. English: This is no less curious.

Plate 68

Español: ¡Qué locura! English: What madness!

Plate 69

Español: Nada. Ello dirá. English: We shall see.

Plate 70

Español: No saben el camino. English: They don't know the way.

Plate 71

Español: Contra el bien general. English: Against the common good.

Plate 72

Español: Las resultas. English: The consequences.

Plate 73

Español: Gatesca pantomima. English: Feline pantomine.

Plate 74

Español: ¡Esto es lo peor! English: This is the (absolute) worst!

Plate 75

Español: Farándula de charlatanes. English: Troupe of charlatans.

Plate 76

Español: El buitre carnívoro. English: The carnivorous vulture.

Plate 77

Español: Que se rompe la cuerda. English: Look, the rope is breaking!

Plate 78

Español: Se defiende bien. English: He defends himself well.

Plate 79

Español: Murió la Verdad. English: The truth has died.

Plate 80

Español: ¿Si resucitará? English: Will she live again?

Plate 81

Español: ¡Fiero monstruo! English: Proud monster!

Plate 82

Español: Esto es lo verdadero

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Disasters of War" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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