Monday, 24 May 2010


The Prints of Francisco de Goya (27 February – 25 July 2010, Free)

Jake and Dinos Chapman (6 October – 25 July 2010, Free)

In a 2003 work entitled Insult to Injury, Jake and Dinos Chapman set about ‘rectifying’ a complete set of Goya prints, applying the faces of Tony Blair and George Bush to the heads of Goya’s grotesques. While clearly raising questions about our reverent attitude towards artworks and the extravagant prices paid for them, critical opinion remained divided. Did the work represent an engagement with Goya, expanding on themes already present in his work? Or did it simply trivialise the radical spirit of the originals? A new exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery brings these questions into focus, placing for the first time a piece from the Chapman exhibit alongside the works which inspired it. The Chapman’s ‘Disasters of War’ in displayed in the centre of the space, with Goya’s prints of the same name hung on the surrounding walls. By staging a ‘visual dialogue’ the gallery’s ‘Creative Consultants’ – a group of 15 to 18 year olds working with artist Katy McCall – aim to explore the complexities of the Chapman homage, while at the same time returning our attention to the disturbing and striking originality of Goya's genius.

Insult to Injury

The gallery’s collection of Goya prints is recognised as one of the most important holdings of his graphic work, and the current exhibition contains around 30 first-edition prints from the estate of Goya scholar Tomás Harris. The three series of prints, ‘Follies’, ‘Fantasies’ and ‘The Disasters of War’, were produced by Goya in the period between 1799 and 1824 in response to unrest both in Spanish society and in his personal life. Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) had spent most of his career at the court of Charles IV of Spain as portrait painter to the aristocracy, but by the late 1790s he was becoming increasingly disaffected with the political order and society at large. He was also recovering from an attack of cholera which had left him deaf and suffering from mental unrest. The subsequent series of prints and paintings he made explore the dark themes already implicit in his work, exposing and satirising what he called the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.’

Donkey Tossing in Follies

The earliest series ‘The Disasters of War’ responds to the French Revolution in France, along with the May Uprising in Spain and the later invasion by Napoleonic and British forces. The prints not only depict the horror and futility of war but also its absurd and grotesque quality, matched by a richly symbolic visual language which looks forward to the modernist and surrealist revolutions. The enigmatic figures depicted in the works demonstrate Goya’s fixation with madness, horror and witchcraft. In one print two witches sacrifice a child to the devil; in another the leering figure of death looks on while monks hold a drunken celebration; in another a monkey paints a portrait of a donkey, in an ironic comment on his previous work as a portrait painter. For Goya these figures not only literally represented the superstition of Spanish society, but also came to symbolise the stupidity and stagnation of church, government and society, and ultimately ‘the sleep of reason’ against which the Enlightenment fought. But they also reflect a mind in turmoil, afraid of losing that reason, and thereby blurring the line between personal and political in a highly original way.

By way of contrast, Jake and Dinos Chapman made their reputation at the court of Charles Saatchi, who bought their earlier Goya-inspired piece Hell for half a million pounds. With the proceeds of the sale, the Chapmans were able to purchase the Goya prints for their Turner Prize-nominated exhibition, in yet another ironic comment on the value of art. The piece ‘Disasters of War’ furthers the grotesque but also humorous quality of their early work, as figurine models are used to reimagine scenes from the prints. The small vignettes are themselves arranged upon isolated grassy hills; small-scale wars in which toy soldiers brutalise and murder innocents whilst various animals and monsters look on, aghast and fascinated. A particularly horrific model replicates Goya’s ‘A heroic feat! With dead men!’ in which naked and castrated men are hung from a tree - a piece which the Chapmans later replicated on a larger scale. In miniature however, the effect is shocking and absurd, playful and childlike. Looking down on the field of war, the viewer is placed in the position of an armchair general, playing with toy soldiers.

A heroic feat! With dead men!

It should come as no surprise therefore that the Chapman brothers intended the work as an explicit comment on the Iraq War. In the Guardian, they described how Blair and Bush borrowed the language of the Enlightenment in order to justify the invasion - 'spreading democracy in the Middle East' - just as the invasion of Spain in Goya's time was itself justified as bringing the light of reason to the darkness of backward Spanish society. This brings Goya's reaction to war into sharp relief, given that he is both highly critical of the 'caprice' and 'folly' of Spanish society, but resistant to the 'horrors of  war'. Presumably the main difference between Goya and the Chapmans is that Goya still believes in the power of art to expose and correct this horror - a true Enlightenment ideal. For the Chapmans, the only weapons at the hands of art are pastiche, subversion and inimitation - the destruction of artistic works which have become almost like the relics of saints. The great achievement of the Chapman intervention - and the current exhibition which showcases this 'visual dialogue' - is to both shed light on Goya's ideology, and muddy the waters with their own anti-authoritarian take on these important and timely issues.

The exhibition at the Manchester Gallery runs until the 25th July.

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