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

Disasters Revisited: Modern Images of Atrocity and Photojournalism

Francisco Goya’s print series the Disasters of War is revered as the “beginning and unrivaled climax of modern graphics” (Licht 128). The Disasters’ unflinching depictions of war have often led the series to be compared to modern war photography. Fred Licht wrote that “like a news photographer, Goya seeks to bear witness to the fundamental nature of man’s eternal warfare against himself...to bring to the attention of the fatuous and the forgetful the fact that the world is divided into two races: the complacent and the wretched” (130-32). Licht’s sentiments are echoed by Robert Hughes who writes that Goya’s prints

…are incomparably the more dramatic and varied in their narrative, more piercing in their documentary power, more savagely beautiful, and, in every way, more humanly moving: nothing to rival them has been done since, and they are the true ancestors of all great visual war reporting” (Hughes 265).

The prints are a testament to themselves in that after nearly two hundred years they remain relevant. In the modern era critics and viewers continue to eagerly apply analogies of war photography to Goya’s print series. But this inclination to compare the Disasters to war photography often overshadows exactly what the association implies and, subsequently, how such an association can affect the modern viewer, especially in an image-saturated environment. This current practice of situating Goya and his Disasters of War as a kind of “documentary realism” or photojournalism, however, tends to obscure the art historical tradition within which Goya was working. Comments that place Goya’s Disasters of War as an ancestor to modern war photography invoke an unspoken cultural framework that guides the reception and perception of images. There must be recognition that prints in the Disasters of War, while supporting war photography characterizations and the cultural framework such a characterization entails, also supercede such characterizations. These characterizations are the result of modern attempts to understand and place Goya’s unique print series within the realm of art history.

Historically, Goya is not the first artist to address war in a print series. Over one hundred years ago, art historian Charles Yriate compared Goya’s Disasters of War (1810-20) to Jacques Callot’s Miseries of War (Les Misères et les malheurs de la guerre) (1632-33) (Cuno 9). Indeed Callot’s prints are often compared to Goya’s for their choice of themes as well as medium. Callot’s Miseries of War is comprised of twenty-four prints separated into two series: the Small Miseries of War (c. 1632), which consists of six prints discussed as preliminary sketches to the larger, second series, the eighteen prints of the Large Miseries of War (1633) (Fig. 26). The Miseries of War is a meticulous, wide-angled perspective of a war that was a product of increasing political and economic pressure experienced in the duchy of Lorraine as a result of the prolonged conflicts of the Thirty Years’ War (Goldfarb, “Callot” 15). Familiar with the military subject, Callot painstakingly details the life of the soldier, in all aspects, be it “receiving their first pay to their deaths in war or justice for their transgressions and misdeeds, ending their lives; or else becoming aged and impoverished, conquered by infirmities and misery” (Goldfarb, “Callot” 16). Callot’s stylistic treatment of the subject includes birds-eye views of large crowds and public executions, with almost startling right-in-the-midst-of-day brightness, all framed within lavish, ornamental borders.

Although there have been many interpretations of Callot’s intentions and his intended use of these prints, it has been a standard critical response that the Miseries of War provided Callot a means to display his technical abilities: “The subjects also provided a suitable format for the depictions of large crowds, animated figures, genre details, and displays of technical bravura, all of which were important characteristics of his art” (Goldfarb, “Callot” 18).  However, even though Callot may deal with similar subject matter, his series is a distant second to Goya’s Disasters of War in terms of its influence and relevance.

Placing a Disasters of War print and a Callot Miseries of War print side-by-side clearly demonstrates the differences between the two series. Callot’s Miseries are smaller in scale, often meticulously detailed, and incorporate some of the stylistic –most notably the decorative - preferences of his period. These differences cause some art historians to give little consideration to the comparisons, or pairing, of Goya and Callot’s prints series. Janis Tomlinson writes, “[a]lthough often compared with Callot’s Misères de la Guerre, Goya’s etchings share little other than a theme with Callot’s objective view of wartime horrors” (Goya 191).  Nonetheless, it is unwise to disregard the artistic tradition from which Goya was working when he began his print series. Such an analysis divides Goya from his predecessors and places him in an elevated position for which there seem to be no criteria. Without understanding what and who came before him, how can one understand what makes his prints so remarkable? Licht writes, “It might be argued that the violence and intransigent brutality of Goya’s subject matter are what give his work its peculiar modernity and inescapable directness… [O]ne need only revert to Callot’s magnificent Troubles of War (Misères et malheurs de la guerre) to see that subject matter itself is not sufficient to explain the extraordinary power of Goya’s prints” (135).

What then can explain the extraordinary power of Goya’s Disasters of War? Licht rightly points out the “modernity and inescapable directness” that are a part of the Disasters of War. Working in an entirely new tradition, Goya effectively establishes a new visual rhetoric. What emerges in his prints long before it is developed with photography is a “modern sensibility.”  Robert Hughes characterizes Goya’s modernism as,

…not a matter of inventiveness. It has to do with a questioning, irreverent attitude to life; with a persistent skepticism that sees through the official structures of society and does not pay reflective homage to authority, whether that of church, monarch, or aristocrat; that tends, above all, to take little for granted, and to seek a continuously realistic attitude to its themes and subjects: to be, as Lenin would remark many years later in a very different social context, “as radical as reality itself” (Hughes 10-11).

The Disasters engage the viewer in an “entirely new pictorial idiom” in which the viewer is recruited to make his or her own decisions about the scene, without any allowance of “recourse to logic” (Licht 136-37). At no point does Goya let the viewer forget that what one is viewing is war. Goya’s war does not appear noble or heroic. It is full of killing, famine, and rape. His prints make visible what is often beyond capturing with words. The captions below the prints – the ancestors of modern political cartoons – do not ask for a reply (Hughes 290). His words may inform a print and contain biting sarcasm, but they nonetheless become supplemental quotations to the horror and atrocity that are on display. Goya may ask questions, Why? (Plate 32) (Fig. 27), and make statements, This is bad (Plate 46) (Fig. 6), but what is remembered is the horrific, tragic, or sardonic image. Goya removes what one might call the “clutter of Callot” – architecture, fancy borders, delicate or intricate details, to reveal an image that claims the eye. Viewers cannot lose themselves in scenic surroundings; instead, they are forced to look at what is before them – mutilated bodies, executions, indifference.  They are, in the words of Licht, “to be exclusively preoccupied with the unbearable inhumanity of what is happening before our eyes” (139).

 “Fashioned as an assault on the sensibilities of the viewer,” Goya’s account of the cruelties of war taunts viewers with its seemingly unending stream of atrocities (Sontag 45). The immediacy of a Disasters print, with its ability to forcefully seize our attention, undeniably unites Goya’s Disasters of War to war photography. Such an analogy then arguably places the Disasters in a schema where a modern cultural framework for reception is already in place. This framework manifested itself as early as the initial published printing of the series. Although the Disasters of War was made by Goya before the invention of photography, its prints were not published until 1863 - after the invention of the camera. The Royal Academy of San Fernando chose to print the series rather darkly so that it would appear stylistically like the photographs that were popular at that time, and, perhaps, appear more attractive or gruesome to potential buyers (Tomlinson, Graphic 26). As modern viewers already long familiar with modern war photography, that we are inclined to see the Disasters of War like war photographs is not surprising.

It is important to recall that the first wars captured in photographs were the Crimean War (1854-56) and the American Civil War (1860-64). Rudimentary technology of the time prevented photographers from taking what would today be considered a quick snapshot. Taking photographs in those wars required complete stillness; most photos were sat for or posed, or were of landscapes or dead soldiers. Some of the most famous photographs of the Civil War era were taken by photographers working for Mathew Brady, who brought the reality and the horror of war into homes with a single image. “Dead Soldier in a Trench, Petersburg” is a photograph that features a dead soldier lying with his face to the camera, gun across his body, splayed out in a narrow, dirt trench (Sontag 63). For all of the gory reality of the Crimean and Civil War photographs, a great debate has long raged about the authenticity of a number of them, especially when it was revealed that some of the Brady photographs were staged (Sontag 54). However, it is not this author’s intention to engage in a debate on whether or not the staging of a photograph makes it any less noteworthy, but rather to stress the significance of taking war out of the distant fields and lands through images and bringing it into the homes of those who previously had never known anything like it. It is a quintessential modern experience to be a spectator of calamities and atrocities taking place elsewhere (Sontag 18).  

It was not until the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and the invention of newer, lightweight cameras that “in action” shots could be taken. The most famous of Spanish Civil War photographers was Robert Capa, whose Death of a Republican Soldier (1936) captured a soldier falling to his death as he was struck by a bullet, arms flailing, knees bent at a ninety degree angle as if he were merely about to sit in an invisible chair, not soon to be buried in his grave. Capa’s photograph strikes a particular chord because the viewer is a witness to death. Being a witness to death turns a viewer into something else, a corroborator. Nowhere is such corroboration more apparent than during the Vietnam War and Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s execution of a Vietcong suspect in the streets of Saigon. Eddie Adams’s photograph captures the moment the bullet has been fired; the prisoner grimacing, dead, not yet fallen to the ground. General Loan, who had led the prisoner out to the street where journalists had gathered, “would not have carried out the summary execution there had they not been available to witness it” (Sontag 59). In other words, photojournalism influenced this execution and “the shooting” of a photograph gained new meaning. At the instant an atrocity is committed, in part because witnesses are present, a photograph and/or photography summarily carries with it responsibility – “As for the viewer” writes Sontag, “one can gaze at these faces for a long time and not come to the end of the mystery, and the indecency, of such co-spectatorship” (60).

What does it then mean to view horrific images, to be a witness to atrocity?  Goya’s Disasters of War inflame and bring the viewer to this very same dilemma. They don’t like it (Plate 9) shows a woman struggling against a man who is trying to rape her; Barbarians! (Plate 38) shows a man tied, face-first, to a tree, about to be executed at close range.  What is the use of a cup? (Plate 59) depicts weak, starving men and women huddling around a single cup, no relief, no chance of survival in sight. These prints uncompromisingly present an act of atrocity being committed, and it is the viewer, the beholder of the image, who ultimately experiences the outcome; whether it is grief, horror, disgust, or fascination. As with photography, “even more than in painting, it is not so much by the [artist’s] eye but in that of the beholder that the experience is decisively shaped…” (Kozloff 289).

In the modern era, war is chiefly produced, shaped and understood through images. The American opinion of war in Vietnam was shaped largely because of the non-stop, day-after-day contact through television cameras and newspaper photographs. Viewers in that time experienced images of dirty, haggard soldiers in the midst of combat, young men being rushed out of battle with lost limbs and injuries that would soon prove fatal. Today’s students of history remember the Vietnam war through the famous images taken, such as the Eddie Adams’s photo and the “signature Vietnam War horror-photograph” taken by Huynh Cong Ut of a young girl, crying and screaming in pain, running naked away from her home after it was accidentally bombed and she was doused with napalm (Sontag 57).

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, non-stop news coverage filled newspapers and airwaves for days with images of the attacks and the aftermath. Americans who had watched the World Trade Centers fall on the morning of September 11 were able to “re-live” that experience time and time again. For those who were not in Manhattan on that day to witness the events themselves, images were the only relatable way by which to connect themselves with their fellow Americans who had suffered through the horror and tragedy. The question might be asked, “As they viewed the images of the towers falling for the first time, and then the tenth, and then the twentieth, what were their reactions the twenty-fifth time they viewed that image? Was it the same as the first?” 

One of the most recorded and reprinted images from that day captured three New York City firefighters raising the American flag in the rubble of the towers. Ironically, this image evokes another iconic war image, Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima, from World War II, February 1945. As photographers rushed to capture the history-making events of September 11, it seems, at least in this one instance, that history visually repeated itself. While some may suggest that these two images are, at the very least, meant to commemorate heroic actions and heighten patriotism, they are nonetheless the images that define these particular events.  In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag effectively addresses the significance of images as the medium through which many create memories and remember, especially in an image-filled era:

Nonstop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has a deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image. In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for memorizing it. The photograph is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb. Each of us mentally stocks hundreds of photographs, subject to instant recall (22).

Sontag makes a valuable point. Images become the memories for events that have taken place. However, what does it mean when images of atrocity recall images of atrocity? When images, not significantly patriotic or otherwise, bring to mind another image of horror? In April of 2004, in the midst of the American fought Iraqi war, four American contractors were murdered and car bombed by insurgents and then mutilated by an angry mob of Iraqi citizens in Fallujah. The mob took the burned bodies of two of the men and, after the crowd had finished decimating the bodies, strung them up from a nearby bridge. The horrific images that were a result of this day instantly bring to mind Goya’s Disasters of War Plate 28, Rabble (Fig. 25); Plate 33, What more can be done? (Fig. 28); and Plate 39 An heroic feat! With dead men! (Fig. 29).  Rabble depicts a man on his stomach, stripped from the waist with his feet tied together, being mercilessly beaten by a woman and a man with sticks as a crowd watches in the background. What more can be done? shows a man, his eyes closed, possibly dead, being held upside down and legs stretched open to be castrated.  An heroic feat!  With dead men! is an illustration of three men dead, tied to a tree, castrated, dismembered, with one of the unfortunate men having his head stuck onto a tree limb like a pike and his hands and arms tied next to it. The atrocities that Goya depicts in the Disasters of War could very well be the narrative of the atrocities photographed in Fallujah. Two hundred years after the creation of the Disasters of War and one hundred and fifty years after their publication, images in the Disasters tragically recur in modern photographs.

The contemporary analogy between Goya’s Disasters of War and modern war photographs generates endless avenues for reflection and interpretation. In questioning what it means to view images of atrocity, specifically in an era that is saturated with images, there is no one, all-encompassing answer. In a time when, unfortunately, images of atrocity are so prevalent and the ability to capture such images has never been easier, it is hoped that the Disasters of War, with its breadth and scope of vision, will continue to provoke and inspire viewers to take the time to contemplate the stirring scenes that Goya presents and not simply to dismiss them as more images in a long line of images.

—Kimberly Theodore


Last Updated: September 2, 2004