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Goya’s art makes us look in the mirror

(The following is from one of Latina Lista’s regional newspaper partners — Hawaii Hispanic News)
By Arantxa Ascunce, Assistant Professor of Spanish, University of Hawaii
(Ed. Note: The Honolulu Academy of Arts, for the first time in decades, is exhibiting a selection of Francisco Goya’s prints until August 9th)
HONOLULU, Hawaii — When Napoleon’s troops invaded Spain in 1808, the majority of Spaniards fought tooth and nail to expel the foreign invaders. Much to the French dictator’s surprise, the war dragged on much longer than expected. Even though the French had superior numbers and weaponry, after six bloody years, Spain came out of their War of Independence victorious.
The Spanish painter, Francisco Goya, chronicled Spain’s war against France, from beginning to end, through a series of 82 etchings. At the Honolulu Academy of Arts exhibition, visitors can see 37 of these first-edition prints, which all belong to the museum’s permanent collection. In order to truly appreciate these images, it is helpful to understand a little about the etching process.
Etching was first used in the Middle Ages by metalworkers to engrave armor and household items. Eventually, it developed into a popular form of printing book illustrations. It’s an elaborate process. First a metal plate is covered with wax. Then the artist uses a sharp tool to draw an image thus leaving lines of exposed metal. The plate is then dipped into a bath of acid where it sits for several hours.
The acid bites into the metal leaving behind the lines of the image. The plate is cleaned, covered in ink and cleaned again. The process leaves ink inside the etched lines. The artist places a piece of paper over the metal plate and passes it through a printing press. When the paper is removed, the desired image appears on the page. Once the artist is satisfied with the image, the metal plate can be used over and over again to print the image.
Understanding this complicated process helps the viewer appreciate the mastery of Goya’s images. In other words, not only do these representations of war explode with imagination, they also demonstrate his etching expertise. These are not just drawings. Each picture we see involved an entire series of complex, sophisticated and methodical steps.

As a child in the rural town of Aragon, Spain, Goya dreamed of becoming a famous painter. Once his father saw that his son had a special talent, the family moved to the city of Zaragoza, where Goya attended a fine arts school. His ultimate goal was to work in Madrid. He applied to the San Fernando School of Fine Arts twice, but was rejected both times.
Determined to be the painter he wanted to be, Goya started at the bottom. His first job in Madrid was drawing images for carpets that were to be hung in royal palaces. Eventually, through hard work and determination, he became not only the favorite painter of Spain’s monarchy, but also a faculty member at the school that originally denied him admission.
While Goya is especially well-known for his portraits of the Who’s Who of Spain’s aristocracy, we get a deeper sense of who he was through his etchings. Portraits were what he was paid to do, but his etchings show his true passions. Through his etchings he expressed his deepest thoughts and feelings without worrying about anybody’s approval. Over the course of his life, Goya produced four major collections of etchings. The ones on display at the Academy belong to his second: The Disasters of War.
When the war with France began, Goya enjoyed a high status in society. He was in his early sixties and could have turned his deaf ear to the conflict. He could have continued to paint portraits of the rich and famous, but he did not. Instead he documented the fighting, suffering and dying of thousands of men, women, children, priests, soldiers, peasants, French and Spanish.
These etchings are like snapshots revealing man in his most criminal and dehumanizing state. They depict stabbing, puking, raping, looting, castrating, hanging, starving, crying, defecating and dying.
These are not idealized images of war or their heroes. We see no flags of Spain flying high. We see no grandiose monuments in the background. We see no symbols of victory or patriotism. These images capture the essence of the limits of man’s nature when he, or she, is brutally attacked by another in mass. They document man’s inhumanity to man – all for the love of country.
What would you do if your town was suddenly set on fire by foreigners? What would you do if outsiders raided your home and raped your sisters in front of you and your neighbors? What would you do if you saw your brother executed and then hung? Would you pick up a large stone, a long stick or sharp dagger and fight for your family, community and country?
Would you leave the fighting up to the others? Would you run away, like the King and Queen of Spain? Would you hide? What would you do if war came to you? Would your race, gender, class or age matter? Would you fight alongside your brother and sister?
Through this collection, Goya forces us to ask these questions. Instead of looking through the magnifying glass at the magnificent details of each of his etchings, are we not really looking into a mirror? Is this the reason we are so disturbed when we are finished looking at the series?
So often the mainstream media ignores the really tough questions. If anything, we should encourage, believe and support the arts for just this reason – because they force us to be really true to ourselves in ways that nothing else can.



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