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On Goya

About the artist and the work

The artist Francisco de Goya produced a series of etched plates known as, ‘The Disasters of War’, which offered a hitherto uncommon view of war. By showing the horror and devastation of armed violence, the resulting dehumanization, and the distress and suffering of the victims, he denounced the consequences of war and famine and the ensuing political repression. He is portraying these acts in a compassionate light that denounces the sexual violence, unmasks the shameful attitude of the perpetrators, and highlights the courage and dignity with which the women defend themselves. And Goya goes even further. His images invite us not to reduce violence to the acts themselves but to turn our attention to the experience of the victims. He invites us to plunge our eyes into those of the victims, to look at the situation from the victims’ perspective, with compassion and humanity. The images prompt us to acknowledge not only the crime and its perpetrators but also the vulnerability, suffering, and dignity of the victims. They are an appeal to the sentiment of humanity. Goya’s lucid, compassionate, yet uncompromising depictions of war and its consequences are not unique but also highly relevant today. His work is also an outcry and a plea for acts of humanity in the turmoil of armed violence. My favourite works of Goya are the following;

The Burial of the Sardine- Painted in 1812; The gathering is dominated by a sombre figure dressed in black, whose attributes, a death mask and horns, have personified evil in myth and legend for thousands of years. Figures of this kind include a creature "with a ram's head who accompanied the Celtic death god, the scapegoat sent into the desert laden with the sins of the Israelites, and Satan, in the guise of a black goat, celebrating eerie mass with his witches. In the arenas of Spain, black bulls, bursting with vigour, are vanquished by toreros who wear a glittering "suite of light", re-enacting, whether consciously or unconsciously, an ancient cultic ritual in which good triumphs over evil.

Adoration of the Name of God- Painted in 1772, Angels are massed on banks of clouds that form a triangular space of celestial sky in which hovers the name of God written in Hebrew. In this very Baroque composition, the impression of depth is created by how the figures grow smaller the further away they are. In the distance, the angels almost seem to dissolve in the light. The broad brush strokes used here will also characterize Goya's later work.

Goya, 200 years ago, painted a devastated SPAIN. The engravings, which depict a world devastated by a war without limits, whose victims are without aid or protection, are like a negative image of the challenges faced by humanitarian law and humanitarian work in armed conflict. Goya’s work draws its richness from how it focuses entirely on the human being. His depictions of violence are lucid and engaged, without prejudice or complacency, yet sensitive to the suffering of the victims, thereby paving the way for neutral, independent humanitarian action. The engravings also reflect Goya’s personal experience of war, as painful as it was traumatic. They are the testimony of a man who witnessed the extreme violence and harm that man inflicts upon his fellow man once violence is unleashed. In Goya’s time, most works of art depicted the death of a hero, representing war as positive, beautiful, and glorious, and the deceased as the hero of a great cause. Pictures of war had moral qualities and spared little space for suffering. From the outset, Goya adopted a radically different, original attitude, rejecting the bellicose, heroic, sacrificial, and triumphalist approach. His work centres fully on the human person.

Faced with a world of devastation, destruction, suffering, and neglect, he cries out with indignation, pleading for a gesture of humanity. Goya shows us a world of extreme violence, in which no help is offered to the victims, in which the earth is empty and bare and all feelings of humanity seem to have vanished. His depictions point to the absolute and urgent need for limits to violence in armed conflict, and his plea for help for the victims is as authentic as it is obvious. Goya’s extraordinary work would not be published until 1863, thirty-five years after his death and in the year of the first international conference of the Red Cross. The Disasters of War; In 1807, the army of Napoleon Bonaparte began its invasion of Spain. On 2 May 1808, following the abdication of the king, a popular uprising in Madrid was repressed by the French cavalry. The incident pushed Spain into a terrifying war. What began as a fight against the invaders turned into civil war as the French occupiers enjoyed the support of numerous Spanish partisans hoping to end the system of absolute monarchy. For Goya, who was 63 years old at that time, the shock was terrible, torn as he was between his liberal, enlightened views and the horrific cruelties and abuse that were to last for six years. During this period he travelled throughout Spain and witnessed first-hand the ravages of war and the suffering of the population.

(preparatory drawing) 1797. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Gloomy premonitions of what must come to pass; The sky has darkened and in the distance, we can almost hear the sound of marching boots and rolling drums. War is imminent, appears inevitable. The imploring look on the man’s face is an expression of deepest distress and anxiety about the events that are about to take place. Alone, on his knees, he is surrounded by dark shadows and haunted by menacing, grimacing figures. What light there is reveals his near nakedness, his ragged clothes. He is pleading for help, powerless in the face of events from which there is no escape.

With or without reason; Goya considered that nothing could ever justify exactions by armed violence. He stood alone among his contemporaries in refusing to see anything heroic or glorious in actions that transform the warring parties into barbarians. The subtitle chosen by Goya is also an indication of his disillusionment, he who had believed so strongly in the force of reason. The power of reason celebrated by the Enlightenment had proved impotent in the face of violence. Goya dismissed both protagonists in the conflict as equally at fault, by demonstrating that when violence is unleashed reason ceases to be of any value. Here, humanity itself is at stake.

Neither do these; The titles reveal the artist’s indignation at the acts, and at the denial and leniency with which they have been received throughout history. The scene is set in the shadows, under an archway, before the eyes of a prone, powerless figure and of a baby lying at the feet of the young woman dressed in white. The background features a church, yet the situation seems hopeless and the outcome


Get them well, and on to the next; Several of the prints show wounded soldiers being cared for on the battlefield. The titles ironically indicate that care is not dispensed in a humanitarian spirit. The aim is to get back on their feet those who are still able to fight.

Ravages of war; A vision of horror and destruction. The world is upside-down. Everything is in a state of disorder, people are killed indiscriminately, whether man, woman, or child. All coherence and meaning have been lost. The scene is puzzling, bordering on the


This is worse; The barbarous acts include bodies that have been mutilated, impaled, or sawn into pieces, and limbs put on display.

Nothing. That is what it says; A decomposing corpse holds a sign on which is written ‘Nada’ (‘Nothing’). Behind it, a mass of threatening figures emerges from the shadows. On the left, we can just make out the scales of justice. Yet there is no justice. In his work, Goya expressed what traumatized persons feel. Finding new meaning in life and nourishing our hope for a just world enable us to build resilience.


In his engravings and etchings, Goya depicts war and armed conflict by concentrating not on the motivations for them but their consequences. He takes a different and radically new look at war, where heroes have vanished and only human beings remain. Goya does not confine himself to telling a story: he relates himself, and in doing so constructs a narrative allowing him to restore clarity to his world and to make it coherent. His images invite us not to reduce violence to the acts themselves but to turn our attention to the experience of the victims. He invites us to plunge our eyes into those of the victims, to look at the situation from the victims’ perspective, with compassion and humanity. The images prompt us to acknowledge not only the crime and its perpetrators but also the vulnerability, suffering, and dignity of the victims. They are an appeal to the sentiment of humanity. His work is that of a man who has experienced, seen, and felt the violence and devastation of war, which has brought him to question violence itself by showing the extremes to which it can lead, boundless in their horror and desolation and a source of endless suffering. War destroys lives, families, institutions, and the very foundations of society. Like Goya, we also understand that the essential aspect of our work is encountering the other person.


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