I saw it: The invented Realities of Goya's Disasters of War

Que locura!: The Fantastical and the Absurd in the Caprichos Enfáticos

A pathetic beast stands center stage amid the masses, awaiting its inevitable execution while staring dumbfounded at the viewer.  The carnivorous vulture, Plate 76 (Fig. 19), captures the complexity and ambiguity of the last sixteen prints of Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War, known as the caprichos enfáticos.  A closer reading of The carnivorous vulture shows a division among the masses – where the lower class seems to be somewhat absorbed by the spectacle, the upper class huddles away towards the right; this division suggests that overcoming the ferocity of the beast is no assurance of peace, humanity, and progress.

The last sixteen prints of the Disasters of War (Plates 65 to 80) depict a post-war society where truth seems to be lost.  Introduced in the original binding of the series as “other emphatic caprichos”, these sixteen prints are believed to have been engraved between 1814 and 1820 (Sayre cix).  Like the previous series of prints produced at the turn of the nineteenth century, the Caprichos, the caprichos enfáticos use allegory and personification to make a commentary on society, but do so in a more cynical, biting matter.  The carnivorous vulture, whose beast-like creature is often interpreted to represent the Napoleonic Empire, comments on the bastardization of Spanish society by the monarchy, the clergy, and the upper class returning to their old, hierarchical rule (Hughes 302).  Goya conveys his frustrations with a society where the horrors of war and atrocity still exist, just in a subtler and arguably more disturbing manner than during the war.  Though laden with symbols, the caprichos enfáticos have the most overt political message of the Disasters of War, one that extends beyond a contemporary critique to a general humanistic one.

Goya scholar Enrique Lafuente Ferrari mentions that, although Goya’s intent may easily be read as pessimistic, Goya was “an optimist in his belief in Progress through Reason” (Ferrari xviii).  Whether Goya still expresses the belief of progress through reason during the war and its aftermath is debatable, but reason is a concept explored in all of Goya’s major print series.   Easily juxtaposed to caprice or folly, reason provides a means to explore the absurd.  The caprichos enfáticos is a place where reason, as delineated in Goya’s direct, biting references to socio-political realities, meets chaos, as seen through fantastical and absurd imagery.  Or rather, the caprichos enfáticos is a place where reality, as represented in both specific occurrences and in Goya’s general humanistic message, meets imagination, as often presented through allegory.  Goya uses allegory to represent a state of being where reality or reason seems to become farcical.  Goya uses fantastical imagery – from the animalistic personifications of the church and the monarchy to a clergyman balancing on a frayed rope in Plate 77, May the cord break – to make his prints transcend specific political references in order to question whether humans have the capacity for reason.

The introductory print of the caprichos enfáticos (Plate 65) contains a self-reflexive title, What is this hubbub? (Fig. 20).  An official sits to the left on a sack, signing an unknown document.  He glances leisurely at the figures to his left, who clasp their ears and barely keep their ground.  Dogs barking at the center crowd seem to contribute to this commotion – or as bodily gestures would suggest, utter chaos.  Though the dogs and the official seem to be the cause of this commotion, their actions are peripheral.  They dominate the chaos because they are both the cause of it and placed outside of it.  This order within chaos is very much like the carnival, an event that Goya scholars Victor Stoichita and Anna Maria Coderch define as celebrating “the period when the universe drifts as a result of order collapsing” (15).  Carnival is often represented in the caprichos empháticos through the masses, whose subjective presence among whatever spectacle occurs is accompanied by a “pathological violence” – a more general, humanistic disorder interpretable through the temporary disorder (spectacle) taking place (84).

The spectacle enrapturing the masses is often displayed in the caprichos enfáticos by Goya’s use of mockery and allegory, as especially seen in prints depicting religious devotion.  Plates 66 and 67 serve as astute examples of how the caprichos enfáticos participate in the carnivalesque.  In Plate 67, titled This is not less so, a common religious relic in the foreground, often believed to be the “Virgin de la Soledad,” is objectified as merely a burden carried on the back of common Spaniards (Sanchez & Sayre 343).  In reducing the Virgin to a burden, Goya makes a negative spectacle, a mockery of the icon, and evacuates it of religious meaning by weighing it down in the secular.  Likewise, in Plate 66, Strange devotion!, Goya creates an entrancing public spectacle of a dead figure atop a donkey – an animal that Goya often used to depict folly – to suggest that in the same way humans debase the religious and make it ordinary, they elevate the ordinary to the realm of the religious.  Through these allegories, Goya shows how, in the carnivalesque world that is his, reason is useless.

In Plate 70, They do not know the way (Fig. 21), the spectacle itself becomes an entranced crowd, where clergy and common-folk are indistinguishable. The print depicts a line of men who submissively follow each other as they walk and stumble around a hill. Tied together by a rope, the participants seem not to question the pointlessness of this activity.  A subtle form of chaos is suggested in this image, as participants confusedly engage in a self-destructive, aimless action.  Oblivious to their actual condition, the participants press themselves blindly into an eschatological demise. 

They do not know the way shows the manner in which the entrancement of a crowd or audience becomes commonplace.  This is seen also in Plate 76 (Fig. 19), where the lower classes have facial expressions that suggest a myriad of emotions as the upper class flee.  What matters here is not the temporal devotion and actions of the lower class but the allegorical beast masking the long-term realities of the war – the upper class fleeing.  Plate 68, What madness! (Fig. 22), focuses directly on a gluttonous monk who is surrounded by masks, implying deception, and a stockpile of religious items that, in bulk, lose their spiritual value.  The monk’s actions, or madness, far overshadow those of the obedient masses, who remain barely noticeable in the background.  This print mocks reason, for what matters – the gluttonous representations of oppressive forces rather than the feeble majority – seems nonsensical.

In Plates 71 and 73, Goya uses allegory to directly contrast references of reason.  The seated figure of Against the common good, Plate 71 (Fig. 23), crouches over a blank book, an obvious sign of reason, while writing unidentifiable text.  The figure holds a finger out to the masses crouched in thatched huts in the background, perhaps asking them for patience, perhaps as an allusion to clerical blessing (Eickel 90).  What is most significant is that this figure is not human, but rather an old man transformed through batwings and morphed into a grotesque, winged creature.  Like similar surreal creatures in the Caprichos, he represents chaos creating a logical product.  The crowd, including the man with his hands in the air on the far right, is secondary to the spectacle.

      Plate 73, Feline pantomine (Fig. 24), depicts a cat resting on top of books – identifiable as books through the horizontal marks and by the fact that the top book protrudes forward from the one below it – resembling a stair case.  An obedient, likely religious figure kneels in prayer towards the cat resting atop these symbols of reason.  An owl violently flies towards the cat, perhaps advising the cat.  The entire audience in the background as well as the obedient man is oblivious to the owl, and oblivious to the fact that the cat is sitting on top of reason.  Much like Plate 72, The consequences, man is subjected to beast, and power seems to be in the hands of these grotesque allegorical creatures.

What exactly the creatures of the caprichos enfáticos represent may always remain a mystery.  Goya left few notes regarding his use of allegory, and the indirect references of his allegory make the caprichos enfáticos, like Goya’s print series The Disparates, both perplexing and intriguing.  The animal figures are most likely readable as representations of socially oppressive forces such as the church, the monarchy, and the upper class.  As Reva Wolf suggested, “Goya equated all symbols of power… specific identification is irrelevant” (45).  It is still helpful, though, to apply some concrete meaning to these symbols.

In a 1978 article, Nigel Glendinning suggested that Goya’s use of animal symbolism in the caprichos enfáticos was directly influenced by the writing of Italian satirist Giambatti Casti.  In Plate 74, This is the worst of it!, Glendinning observed that the text which the fox figure is writing translates as “Miserable humanity, you are to blame for this.”  This text is nearly identical to a phrase in Casti’s The Talking Animals, which was likely available to Goya at the time (Glendinning 187).  Completed at the turn of the century, The Talking Animals uses animal symbolism similar to that in Goya’s caprichos enfáticos in order to criticize the crown, among other powers, for its suppression of the majority.

Applying metaphors used in The Talking Animal to the caprichos enfáticos, Glendinning suggests that the owl in Plate 73 would represent priests while the cat would represent “court circles” or the monarchy (Glendinning 189).  The deceitful looking she-wolf in Plate 74, likewise, would represent a cruel minister who has gained much say in the decisions of the monarchy (Glendinning 188).  These two prints convey, along with the rest of the caprichos enfáticos, the deceitfulness of the monarchy and the church.  The lack of reason represented throughout the Disasters of War extends beyond the actual depiction of war.  While the caprichos enfáticos show that war is fought to the advantage of a few, as Tomlinson suggests, the caprichos enfáticos also reveal systemic problems in the societal structure of post-war Spain (Goya 201).

The caprichos enfáticos are Goya’s penultimate questioning of human nature, second only to his “Black Paintings” of the 1820s.  The caprichos enfáticos extend beyond a depiction and criticism of the Napoleonic War in Spain; allegory and fantastical imagery inextricably link them to Goya’s other art works in the early nineteenth century.  The perplexing images of the caprichos enfáticos, for example, are closely related to the images of his concurrent print series La Tauromaquia.  In Plate 21 of La Tauromaquia, titled Dreadful events in the front rows of the ring at Madrid and death of the mayor of Torrejon, a bull rams straight into the audience, producing an image of man being overcome by beast.  As often depicted in the caprichos enfáticos, the unbelievable portrayal of beast dominating man creates a dialect of reason and chaos, invention and reality.  Regarding the caprichos enfáticos as an integral part of Goya’s creative lineage validates Gwyn William’s brazen claim that the Disasters of War could be seen as a “second installment” of the Caprichos, a continuation of a debate between reason and chaos (59).

Plate 78 is a confusing print, depicting a horse defending itself against a pack of wolves as dogs stare idly at the commotion.  This is a print whose specificities, like the rest of the caprichos enfáticos, seem impossible to decipher.  Sayre suggested that the dogs were those employed by Madrid to protect animals from preying wolves (Eickel 93).  Yet these dogs stand with absolutely no concern for what they are observing.  It seems the wolves hold the same connotation as they did in Plate 74, and, according to Glendinning, could represent religion directly influencing the monarchical rule (188).  The dogs are purposely complacent, perhaps suggesting an apathy among the people of the monarchy’s decree to let the church take over.  Whatever the horse represents, be it Spain’s nationhood, the lower class, or humanity, it is left to fend for itself.  And given the sheer number of wolves, the horse looks rather hopeless.

The chaos and calamity of the series are suddenly silenced in Plate 79, Truth has died.  Here enters a new character, Truth, gloriously emitting light.  She lays limp with a face of agony, as a caped clergyman towers above her giving a hand gesture mimicking that of the creature in Plate 74.  Another figure, that of Justice, grasps her seemingly discarded scale in disbelief.  This print suggests the demise of these two obvious signs of reason, as they are overcome by chaos.

Truth has died is followed by the final plate (Plate 80) in the series, titled Will she live again? (Fig. 30). Plate 80 brings into question the revivability of Truth and, further, humankind’s capacity for reason.  Truth lies bare-breasted, emitting light in a circular manner onto a mostly unidentifiable audience.  Above and slightly to the right of Truth is a cat-like creature holding a book above its head.  The dichotomy of chaos and reason, creature and book, continues to persist, and suddenly we are left to wonder whether reason has been crushed.  This official closure to the series suggests an apathetic response to humankind’s ability to grasp reason, allowing both an ambiguous optimistic/pessimistic reading of Goya’s believed closing to the Disasters of War.

Goya’s moral perspective in the Disasters may be highlighted by Plate 69 (Fig. 13), a piece that seems to function outside of its placement in the series. The title of Plate 69, Nothing. The event will tell, like the title of Plate 80, Will she live again?, suggests ambiguity on Goya’s part.  However, Nothing. The event will tell is not Goya’s title, but the title the Royal Academy of San Fernando gave the print when it published the first edition in 1863.  The proof of Plate 69 that Goya himself sent his friend Ceán Bermúdez indicates that Goya’s original title was Nada. Ello lo dice, translatable as “Nothing. That is what it says” (Wilson Bareau 57; Sanchez & Sayre 349).  Goya’s original title furthers the sense of despair already visible in the image of Plate 69.  The skeletal figure’s agonized torture amidst unidentifiable chaos yells of absurdity.  The figure to the left behind holding the scales of Justice proves feeble, for how are we to even know it is actually Justice holding these scales, especially given the theme of mockery explored throughout the caprichos enfáticos?  The masses hidden by dark scratches of ink appear to shout through contorted mouths, but the implication is that they shout for nothing.  Plate 69, Nothing, seems to be humanity’s last scream in the caprichos enfáticos, Goya’s recognition and statement that humans lack the capacity of reason, and therefore are ultimately subjected to folly amid chaos.  A resounding statement from a deaf man.

—Alfredo Rivera

Last Updated: September 2, 2004