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

Moral Action/Guilty Conscience:
The role of the witness in Goya's Disasters of War

To witness is not the same as to look. To witness an event implies assumptions about the event itself—that perhaps it was a crime, perhaps it was wrong, and perhaps, in the name of justice, one must testify against this wrong. There is, therefore, a moral implication associated with the role of witnessing. The witness must watch carefully, speak truthfully, and act responsibly, in his or her good intention to do the right thing. Yet there can be a shade of resignation and voyeurism attached to witnessing, which connotes none of the righteousness of its moral aspect. That witness is silent, detached, cowardly, and worse, even treacherous in his refusal to intervene. Throughout the eighty complex, disturbing, and often gruesome prints that comprise Goya’s Disasters of War, the theme of witnessing in both these manifestations is ever present. The prints themselves depict angry masses, complacent crowds, individuals in anguish, and perpetrators of horrific violence. The diversity of imagery within the prints necessarily renders a discussion of the role of witnessing therein to be two-fold, and raises two crucial questions: Firstly, what was Goya’s conception of witnessing and the witness? And secondly, how is this concept thematized within the prints themselves?

The simple claim, I saw it, which appears as the caption on Plate 44 of the series (Fig. 3), is remarkable for its function as the most direct claim to the act of eye-witnessing throughout the Disasters of War. The print shows a multitude of panicked people, at the forefront of which lunges a woman, baby slung over her left shoulder, right hand horridly grasping her young child’s arm, in an attempt to pull it to safety. The child steps towards the mother for protection from the unidentified menace that approaches from outside of the frame.  To the woman’s left, two terrified men scramble into the brush, the eyes of one fixed constantly on what only he, and the rest of the unfortunate people in the scene, can see. Because the captions are from Goya’s hand, one might be tempted to conclude that they are also in his voice, which in turn becomes ours. Alternately, in the case of some prints, the captions may be read to represent the voice of the people depicted in the print itself. Goya scholar Reva Wolf addresses precisely this alternative reading when she points out the likely fact that, “He [the man whose face is in full view] just as much as Goya, might be the speaker of I saw it, yet whatever he sees is left to the viewer’s imagination” (40). Indeed, it is quite likely that the caption in Plate 44 does, as Wolf suggests, represent the voice of the man in the print, especially when one considers the slim historical possibility of Goya having been an eye-witness to most of the atrocities he depicts.

Sources are unanimous in their assertion that Goya, still comfortably in his position as First Court Painter, was not in the midst of any actual violence, certainly, at least, on no regular or intended occasion. In fact, one of the only records of his ever having attended an event for the express purpose of rendering it artistically was from 1808, when General José de Palafox invited him to Saragossa to memorialize Spain’s bitter stand against Napoleon’s forces. Accordingly, one of the only prints that may be confidently linked to an historical event is Plate 7, entitled What courage!  The plate depicts a woman in a billowing white dress with her back to us, who has mounted a pile of dead bodies in order to fire a cannon at the enemy. The woman at the cannon can be plausibly linked to what was a favorite (albeit questionable in veracity) wartime story of courage: Augustina of Aragon, a woman of Saragossa, is said to have climbed a pile of dead Saragossans, which included the body of her lover, and succeeded in single-handedly firing a cannon at Napoleon’s forces (Hughes 288).  But, once again, as Goya expert Robert Hughes points out, Plate 7 shows “a scene that he could not have witnessed while he was there, since he went in the lull between the first and second phases of the siege” (288).  Another print posited to reference a documented event is Plate 37, titled This is worse (Fig. 4). In this example, it is said that the man gruesomely impaled upon the tree is something that occurred in Goya’s brother’s parish, where Goya had earlier painted an altarpiece (Wilson-Bareau 51).  Once again, this story is by no mean factual or reliably documented; therefore, while it is likely that Goya based at least some of his prints on actual historical events, and some in his vicinity, it is clear that he did not actually see them, and thus, in the conventional sense of the word, did not witness them.  It is now, with the rejection of the conventional definition of witnessing (actually and physically seeing some extraordinary event, either good or bad, as it happens), that the identification of Goya as a witness to the events he depicts must be re-considered. Here, Wolf’s observation that “the focus is the perception of the horror rather than the horror itself” and accordingly that “[i]t was the idea of having been there that mattered” (40), seems extraordinarily apt. As Wolf points out in her discussion of I saw it, the viewer must imagine from what the people in the print are fleeing. Why not, then, take this argument of a conceptualized and mutable, rather than a concrete and un-negotiable, reality to its logical next step: if the viewer can imagine what happened, Goya may well have done the same. Goya’s invented reality, then, would be ever more potent as it would have sprung, as it must have, from Goya’s own mind. Thus, Goya was a witness insofar as he was subjected to, and perceptive of, the currents of violence and misery that characterized Spain at the time of the Peninsular War; not only is Goya’s invented reality real because the images in the Disasters constitute Goya’s personal and therefore valid reactions to the war, but also because, as Susan Sontag says, the point is that the images say, “things like this happened” (47). In short, one need not observe the actual events of a war in order to be a witness to its devastating “fatal consequences.”

Witnessing plays as crucial a role within the prints themselves as it did for Goya in their conception and creation. Here, the definition of witness takes on a more traditional meaning; many people in the prints are indeed witnesses to what they see before them. In the case of the characters within the prints, the subtlety lies in the differentiation between the dualities of looking versus not looking, and the passing of moral judgments versus the inertia and potential savagery of the crowd.

Plate 26 of the series, titled One can’t look (Fig. 5), shows a dark cave in which nine people kneel huddled in abject fear, pleading with wrung hands for their lives, before eight needle-nosed bayonets that close in on them from the right edge of the print. Faces are turned away, buried in hands, shrouded in hoods, or contorted with squinted eyes. In fact, only one person, the man in the foreground, who faces the bayonets head-on, has opened his eyes to stare at their steely blades. Should the caption be taken to mean that, physically, one cannot look at people begging for mercy before their slaughter? Or is it an admonishment to the viewer, letting us know that we should not witness a scene such as this, that it is horrible beyond our capacity to comprehend it?

This moral dimension of witnessing is best illustrated by scenes in the Disasters that are more private, where the one cannot find anonymity and collective purpose in the chaos of a crowd. Plate 46, titled This is bad (Fig. 6), shows a collapsed monk being impaled by a sword. The soldier responsible for his death has an earnest, focused look on his face—as if the monk’s rib cage were harder to penetrate than he had expected. The two soldiers behind the monk smile proudly and openly stare out at the viewer—a smile and a pose one would expect from a fisherman after an unusually successful catch. It is the look of satisfaction. In this instance, the caption seems very clearly to be in Goya’s voice. While the monk must certainly agree that his murder is “bad,” he seems in no state to relate as much to the viewer. Rather the judgment comes from an outside party, a witness who is not featured in the print itself. Because the witness is removed, and is not a part of any crowd, the pressure for passing a moral judgment is heightened. Thus, This is bad, and there are no two ways about it.

Conversely, crowds depicted in the Disasters circumvent any such moral commitment, and can be divided into two groups: crowds engaged in violence and crowds as witnesses. Plate 29, He deserved it (Fig. 7), epitomizes the savage violence and immorality of which Goya knew they were capable. The print depicts anonymous peasants engaged in the brutal beating of a bound, life-less form. The stick is raised, askew, and the rope creates a tense line that shoots out of the frame suggesting great force at the other end—great determination. This print is confusing, sketchy, shadowy, and momentous—it depicts the crowd at its worst.

Plates 34 and 77 are good examples of the alternate state of the crowd, as removed witnesses to events which they either refuse to morally evaluate or toward which they are apathetic.  Plate 34, titled On account of a knife, features a garroted member of the clergy in the center of the print, his stiff tongue indicating that the screw driven into the back of his neck has done its job. Behind this central figure, and much lower than the level of the platform, is a rather indiscernible crowd of people. They are watching him, but that is all we know. They are not active, they are not violent, in short, they are inconsequential in their shadowy mass, except for their potential to transform into a terrifying force (as seen in Plate 29, He deserved it). Similarly, in Plate 77, titled May the cord break, Goya depicts the crowd as unengaged witness. Many in the throng stare up at the teetering clergyman with open mouths and exaggeratedly goggly eyes. They seem neither morally vindicated nor guilty of conscience—only surprised. The crowd once again is rendered as utterly incapable of delivering a moral judgment—it is not its domain. The crowd for Goya is at once the removed spectator and the guilty accomplice—but always, still, a witness to the atrocity of the unfolding events. However, the witness as either a perpetrator of violent and immoral crimes, or as a passive observer to atrocities, is not always pictorially present in the Disasters.

Many of the prints in the Disasters do not have internal witnesses. These are the prints in which everyone is blindly involved in the action and drama of the scene. The clearest examples of prints that do not feature interior witnesses are the rape scenes. The series of prints 9, 10, and 11, titled They don’t like it, Nor do [these] either, Neither do these (Fig. 8), delivers a sickening and violent portrayal of soldiers raping Spanish women. Every person in these prints is involved in the action; ruthlessly tugged this way and that, encircled by thick, uniformed arms, contorted into positions as unnatural as the acts being committed, the women seem hardly able to breathe, let alone stand back and “witness” the action. Nor do the soldiers, who are all actively and completely involved. The witnesses to these scenes are therefore identifiable only as Goya, who memorialized them in the first place, and the current viewer of the prints, who sees these scenes enacted ad infinitum depending on how long he or she chooses to look.

The questionable morality of the crowds in the Disasters is not confined to the characters rendered in the prints themselves. Goya, it seems, has thought of everything.  In a brilliant play on levels, Goya often composes the print such that the viewer finds himself or herself implicated in the scene at hand. Plate 35, titled One can’t tell why (Fig. 2), is the most pronounced example of this technique.  The scene depicts a raised platform on which languish eight clergymen, each garroted to his own wooden post. By composing the print in such a way that the viewer visually enters from the level of three feet below the platform, Goya instantly turns the viewer into a part of the crowd that we can only imagine is amassed around the stage. Clearly this technique, which identifies the viewer with the crowd, beyond its obvious visual appeal, bears with it many complex moral insinuations for the casual observer.  We find ourselves wondering why we are watching, whose side we are on, and ultimately wondering if sides even matter or could ever justify the gruesome execution taking place before us.

The witness in the Disasters of War is not a simple concept, but we may read it in the following way: Firstly, as Goya, witness to his own invented reality, capable of and willing to point to the immorality of the gross transgression of human life he depicts in the Disasters. Secondly, as the role of the crowd which can be interpreted as the ultimate and frustrating witness: one who witnesses this invented reality, and has no opinion, except in moments of unbounded and nightmarish passion, as seen in He deserved it. But there is yet a third component: what kind of a witness, we must ask ourselves, will we be as viewers? Wolf hints at this question when she says, “Goya explored most compellingly the gnawing question, for which no adequate answer can be found, of what it means to witness extremes of cruelty, destruction and suffering” (37). But, unlike Wolf suggests, Goya himself did find an answer: for him, to witness was to realize the necessity to create—he created the technically stunning, profoundly disturbing, and innovative Disasters of War. The only inadequacy here is perhaps our dilemma as modern viewers: what we will do with these images? How will we approach them? How will we assimilate them? Ultimately, how will we witness them?

—Katherine Rochester


Last Updated: September 2, 2004