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

Reviving the Reality of Goya’s Disasters of War

Representations of scenes, whether literary or pictorial, spark the imagination. Audiences consume and appropriate images to make them their own. The pleasure of viewing a still image is to animate it by providing narrative or context within one’s mind. Aside from being pleasurable, however, the process of contextualization is a highly effective method of transmitting meaning and provoking a reaction. Once the image takes siege of the captive viewer’s imagination so does the message. This is certainly the purpose of Goya’s Disasters of War. However, Goya’s endeavor was uniquely radical for his time and this complicates our reading of the series. For decades, scholars have debated whether the images in the series should be examined as representations of witnessed events, or if they may be considered imaginary scenes created to convey a specific message. Does knowing that the events depicted were witnessed, as opposed to imagined, change how we read them? Does it change their effect?

The posthumous title of the series, The Disasters of War, was assigned by Spain’s Royal Academy of San Fernando in 1863, thirty-five years after Goya’s death. This title informs our reading by implying, through its curt directness, that the images contained within the series are fact — that they represent what war looks like. However, the title that Goya gave to the set of working proofs that he left to his friend Ceán Bermúdez in 1824, Fatal consequences of the bloody war in Spain with Bonaparte and other emphatic caprices in eighty-five prints. Invented, drawn and engraved by the original painter, Don Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, presents the viewer with a different set of information. First, the addendum “and other emphatic caprices” suggests that every print may be considered an example of ‘emphatic caprice,’ not just the final sixteen images. As defined by the Royal Academy of San Fernando in the eighteenth-century, ‘capricho’ refers to “that which is done by the power of invention rather than observance of the rules of art” (Rosand 3). Elaborating on this definition, Janis Tomlinson, a leading Goya scholar, explains that we should understand Goya’s use of the word ‘emphatic’ through the lens of the rhetorical definition of ‘emphasis,’ which means “to make a point or give a warning by insinuation rather than by direct statement” (Goya 199). The use of “emphatic caprichos” in the title thus reinforces the idea that Goya took certain liberties in creating his images. The second line of the title further supports this claim with insertion of the word ‘invented,’ which leaves the viewer to infer that Goya did indeed use his interpretive faculties in creating the Disasters.

Goya also may have sardonically commented on his inventiveness within the series, not just in the title. One example is the hyperbolically punctuated caption below Plate 39, An heroic feat!  With dead men!  (Fig. 29).  Perhaps one of the best-known images of atrocity within the series, the image depicts a tree callously decorated with three dead men’s body parts. While scenes like this may have existed, Tomlinson suggests that the image should be understood as a critique of the neo-classical cult of the destroyed figure (Goya 193). Goya’s caption, therefore, may be a reflection on his own work rather than that of the perpetrators of the crime; that is, the arrangement of bodies is of Goya’s own design, making the heroic feat his as well.

However, considering that the Disasters of War print series is prized as one of the greatest testaments to the terrifying reality of war, as well as an influential predecessor to photojournalism, it is troubling that events and people depicted in the series may have been imagined.  How, one might ask, can “invented” images truthfully represent a specific reality?  In asking this question it is important to keep two points in mind.  First, by informing his viewer that the prints are the product of his imagination, Goya sends the message that they are not representations of actual occurrences.  In making this statement, Goya levels with his viewer and honestly presents the series as a collection of imagined images. Unlike so many modern photographs that we assume are authentic only to learn later that they have been staged, these images make no such claim of reportage.  Second, informed by the definition of “emphatic,” we may conclude that Goya did not employ invention whimsically, but rather in order to send his viewer a clear and powerful communication grounded in truth and honesty.  The meaning and sentiment conveyed by the Disasters are real, even if the scenes are not.

Because the viewer is not led to believe that the images offer ostensibly objective illustrations of real events, the series is able to present itself as an honest and sincere meditation on the terrifying potential that resides in all humans. In blurring the line between the real events of the Napoleonic War and the scenes that comprise the Disasters of War, Goya constructs a unique reality that is complimentary yet distinct from the historical reality of the war.

Although the series constructs a vivid representation of the Napoleonic War in Spain, the individual images are universal. This gives the viewer a great deal of freedom, for he or she is not obligated to assume a specific place or identity within each frame but rather can make associations that bring the images to life in ways that are related to personal experience. Significantly, it is the viewer’s awareness of the fact that the images are creative fabrications that allows the Disasters to develop their own reality in the viewer’s imagination.

Because the images are not tied to specific occurrences, they do not need the approval of historical referents. They become self-sufficient artifacts, developing into a different type of evidence in their own right. As Susan Sontag notes, standards for what passes as historical evidence decline with time;  “many staged photographs turn into historical evidence, albeit an impure kind – like most historical evidence” (57). The Disasters are especially well positioned to assume the role of evidence considering the fact that they are among the only visual “records” of that war.  However, this independence from subject also allows the series to impart a critique on the terror of war in general. They speak to the will and suffering that war demands and provokes and in this process become part of a grand critique on the inhumane actions of humans involved in war.  

Perhaps this generality speaks even more directly to the modern viewer. The events before the viewer are not isolated in the past or in another country; rather, the pain that the viewer witnesses is situated in a timeless continuum of suffering in which there is room for each viewer to locate an event or face with which he or she can identify and sympathize. The series says: this has happened before; it will happen again; this just is one example; it could happen to you.

As modern viewers we may be especially well prepared to accept unique and a-referential images as realities. As Jean Baudrillard argues, the contemporary conception of the image is no longer that of a mirror reflecting a real scene but is instead “its own pure simulacrum,” the creation “of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (11, 2). These hyperreal images are, according to Baudrillard, just as real as reality. Baudrillard’s framework is an appealing one from which to approach Goya’s Disasters. Indeed, Goya appears to have anticipated Baudrillard’s conception of simulacrum a century and a half before the postmodern theorist himself. The danger with Baudrillard’s thought, however, is that this new reality of the image remains distinct and unrelated to the reality of the world. Guy Debord, who argues that images have in fact replaced reality, believes this is the case. In what he has termed the “society of the spectacle,” viewers are pacified by images, finding satisfaction in their voyeurism; reality unfolds as “an object of mere contemplation” (¶2). To understand how these models of thought might apply to our example, imagine a viewer who is repulsed by the savage acts depicted in Goya’s frames but is unable to translate this emotion to similar events taking place elsewhere in the world.

Considering that Goya’s intent was to produce an effect, to awaken viewers to the atrocities of war that people live with, Baudrillard and Debord’s modes of thinking quickly reveal themselves as defeatist. If the viewer allows the Disasters to remain a series of imaginary scenes with imaginary consequences that exist only in his or her mind, then the point has been missed. The efficacy of the Disasters lies in the prints’ ability to inform the viewer’s real-life conceptions of war. The viewer’s job is to reanimate Goya’s imagined vision of war, turning it into his or her own reality. The challenge before the modern viewer then is twofold: First, to embrace a willingness to be seduced by images, and to accept images as realities; this is how the Disasters implant themselves in our imaginations and become real in our minds. And second, to recognize this capability as a vulnerability, and make sure that our reactions and responses are not also imagined realities but lived realities. If we accept that it was Goya’s intent to turn lived realities into imagined realities, then it is our job to reverse this system; to turn his imagined realities back into lived realities.

Susan Sontag, wary of the apathy modern viewers express towards images of war, holds hope that they may be revived. She implores her readers:

Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing – may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget (115).

The final image of the series, Will she live again? (Plate 80) (Fig. 30), depicts a woman lying on the ground, emitting a halo-like glow. Perhaps one of the most difficult images of the series, the figure is often understood as a representation of Truth or the Constitution of Spain. The caption makes the task of characterizing the Disasters as either pessimistic or optimistic futile, and therefore bears implications for the entire series. However, might we be able to answer Goya’s question if we treat the allegorical figure as a symbol of the Disasters of War print series itself? If so, only the individual viewer will know if the reality of the Disasters has been revived.

—Madeline VanHaaften-Schick

Last Updated: September 2, 2004