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Goya and The Depiction of Violence

Words:

Edd Norval
July 21, 2020

Goya was known for his gruesome and grotesque works. Besides their visually realistic depictions of death, his works are also psychological, burrowing into the mind of the viewer, entering through their eyes and wrapping itself around their critical faculties. Overthrown by war's visceral energy, undiminished from their conception over 200 years ago, the Spaniard’s The Disasters of War series remains a disturbing insight into human cruelty.

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There is a saying that people will forget what somebody has said, or done to them, but never how they made them feel. Horror, the overriding sense communicated by Goya, is the defining effect that his art has. So much so, many people have been unable to even look at them. Others, unable to look away. 


With all of the twisted and mangled mutiny that is a car crash, the inclination to turn one’s neck and absorb the gory chaos supersedes the rational side that begs ‘you don’t want to see this, please look away’. Maybe, at the surface, most won’t want to look. But, at their core, most do. It’s beyond curiosity. It's an innate desire to want to be shocked, horrified, disturbed. 


Goya, with a wealth of artistic subjects, from simple murder to nightmarish monsters, chose to build an entire collection, constituting 82 prints created between 1810 and 1820, imagining the horrors of war - with all shades on the spectrum. Considering the era, and with a lack of modern weaponry, the hallucinogenic visions depicted are intense and immersive. Deceptively accessible, Goya's monochromatic prints lure curious eyes in with a false sense of security. On the surface they seem benign. They are not.

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Opting not to eat the viewer up and spit them out, the etching's delicate details makes you want to stay and be consumed by the evil that lurks within. It isn’t indulgent to spend time looking at them. If anything, it’s indulgent not to. Goya’s sharp sense of capturing torment and pain forces you to be drawn to spend time in there, less you seem dismissive of his protagonist’s plight. 


Goya’s intentions for this series weren’t known during the decade it was developed. His own repulsion at the events of war are depicted clearly and, as a result, most interpretations point to the series as a protest against war. These interpretations are contemporary though and may well be subject to interpretation through a contemporary lens. Goya’s other works seem to bask in the chaos of violence. These may be no different.


Originally created under the name Fatal consequences of Spain's bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices, Goya was potentially acting as a documentarian, not dissident. By opting for an atmospheric approach, rather than the heroic melodrama often witnessed in art from this era of war, Goya’s intentions lay not with subjectivity, but objectivity. Instead of a presentation of grandiosity that might've built a feeling of distance from the subject, his etchings are cinematic stills that have a magnetic appeal.

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