Goya: The Original Photojournalist?

Admittedly, Goya never actually took photos. But replace his pencil and etching tools for a camera and Goya was predating the practice of objective war photojournalism by centuries. During the terrible Peninsular War of 1808-1814, the artist visited the Spanish countryside and witnessed unimaginable horrors. His recordings of these became the powerful series Disasters of War, which would go unpublished until thirty years after his death.

Grande Hazaña ! Con muertos ! (Great deeds! With dead men!), c. 1812-1815, Disasters of War, plate 39, etching with wash, 15.5 x 20.8 cm
Grande Hazaña ! Con muertos ! (Great deeds! With dead men!), c. 1812-1815, Disasters of War, plate 39, etching with wash, 15.5 x 20.8 cm

Goya completed these works for himself, recording simply what he saw and what drew his attention, rather than what any patron wanted to see. Although taken individually they could be powerful propaganda, as a whole the series takes no sides. Goya portrays with equal attention and vivid realism the atrocities committed by both French and Spanish guerrilla troops. A look at the Disasters of War will leave you horrified by the things that humans are capable of, no matter the cause or allegiance.

Y No Hai Remedio (And there is no help), c. 1810, Disasters of War, plate 15, etching, drypoint, burin and burnisher on paper, 14.5 x 16.5 cm. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.  Image: http://www.nationalgalleries.org/
Y No Hai Remedio (And there is no help), c. 1810, Disasters of War, plate 15, etching, drypoint, burin and burnisher on paper, 14.5 x 16.5 cm. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.
Image: http://www.nationalgalleries.org/

Many of Goya’s most powerful works were uncommissoned – The Third of May 1808 is a strong case in point. However, Goya was also an official court painter for much of his life, welcomed into the heart of royal life to observe and paint its members. Add into the mix his arresting series dedicated to the sport of bullfighting and the witty, detailed social commentary of his tapestry cartoons and Goya offers us an incredibly broad view of the Spain that he knew. The Pinacothèque de Paris is dedicating the second exhibition in its series entitled Painters, Witnesses of their Time to the Spanish artist, for exactly these reasons. Goya and Modernity also takes a look at his original and highly personal style and his resolute urge to criticise the evils he saw in society. Not for nothing is Goya famously know as the ‘first modern artist’.

To read more about this fascinating artist, check out Sarah Carr-Gomm’s book on Goya, or Jp. A. Calosse’s from our Mega Square collection.

Goya and Modernity is showing at the Pinacothèque de Paris until 16 March 2014.

G.A.