By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
At the Freedom Tower, Goya's caustic vision has lost none of its power to unnerve.
In fact, for some, Goya's brush with state-sponsored terror, rabid religious fundamentalism, brutal conquests, and antagonism between social classes will seem woefully relevant for our age.
Therein may lie the brilliance of the Spanish master's skull-staving series of etchings created during the later stages of his career and on view in "Goya: The Engravings of the Caixanova Collection" for the first time in the United States. Miami Dade College and Caixanova, a Spanish bank with offices worldwide, are presenting the must-see exhibit.
The four series include Los Caprichos (The Caprices), 1799; Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), 1810-1814; Tauromaquia (The Bullfighting), 1814-1816; and Los Disparates o Los Proverbios (The Follies), 1819-1823.
These remarkable series, a combined 218 works, are separated into four rooms, each with an individual setting. They reflect Goya's penetrating powers of observation and explain why art historians now recognize him as the first modernist.
Francisco Goya (1746-1828) was the first artist to give the Academy the finger, turning his back on depictions of mythology, religion, and history to focus on man's hidden demons instead.
Although his remarkable talent had earned him an appointment as the Spanish Crown's first court painter, and a lordly salary by 1799, it didn't stop him from going public with Los Caprichos that year.
He took out an ad in a local newspaper offering the editions of 80 prints for sale at a perfume and liquor store beneath his apartment on La Calle del Desengano (the Street of Disillusionment) in Madrid.
You might think that by biting his master's hand, Goya would have convinced like-minded thinkers to covet these works at the peak of his career; instead, astonishingly, buyers were scarce.
Few could stomach Goya's merciless satire, which skewered a Spain crippled by political, religious, social, and economic rot, not to mention the rampant crime terrorizing her streets. It was as if Goya was twanging a chord too close to home — one the public refused to hear. Apparently it was a world with which he was starkly familiar.
As an adult, Goya had lived under two Spanish kings — Carlos III and Carlos IV — one more venal than the last. At the time, the final vestiges of the Inquisition still strangled the populace with fear.
That Goya had become increasingly disgusted with the hypocrisy and corruption of the aristocracy and clergy is apparent in these works.
The artist, who had been struck stone-deaf by an illness, appears to have immersed himself in a dark inner world to focus his gun sights on Spain's social morass.
Los Caprichos remains one of the most powerful indictments ever made on man's inhumanity to man. Some scholars have even hailed it as the greatest single work of art Spain has coughed up since Cervantes's writings or Velázquez's paintings. Evidence for this point of view jumps unapologetically off the wall at viewers here.
Perhaps the best-known image in the series is El Sueño de la Razón Produce Monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters), in which Goya himself is depicted hunched over a worktable and sleeping while bats, owls, and blood-sucking ghouls swirl around his noggin. Goya seems to be telling us that he may be a man gripped by demons and doubts, but he can still grab hold of inspiration from the maelstrom.
His disdain for the clergy is encapsulated in several pieces in which avaricious monks are rendered with subhuman features.
In one work a trio of fat friars happily gorge themselves on porridge. In another a decrepit prelate tries to hide bags of coins from onlookers even though he is dying and can't spend his money.
Duendecitos (Hob Goblins) depicts monstrous friars living fat off the hog in a monastic cellar. One of them waves a huge, gnarled paw and bears his fangs in Goya's take on the Church's predatory nature.
Trágala Perro (Swallow It, Dog) is another work in the same vein in which a cackling friar attempts to hose out a kneeling soldier's posterior with the contents of a battering-ram-size syringe, all while the other members of his religious order cheer wildly. Behind them appears a veiled woman with horns — symbolic of the cuckolded military man whose wife has become the priest's mistress.
Other subject matter ranges from loose women, superstition, and the Inquisition, to animals masquerading as pedagogues. Goya's deformed and addlepated characters all defy belief from their shadow realm between fantasy and reality.
In A la Casa de Dientes (Out Hunting for Teeth) the chiaroscuro effect gives an unearthly pall to one of the better plates in the series, in which a recoiling hussy is seen pulling teeth from a hanging cadaver. Goya, who assailed superstition relentlessly, is commenting on a popular belief in which the teeth of a hanged man were thought an effective ingredient in love potions.
Another piece captures a man in a dunce cap, being tried by the Inquisition for grinding aphrodisiacal powders for his lonely-heart clients. Next to it a bare-breasted woman, accused of being a witch, sports the same headgear as she rides a donkey on her way to a public whipping.
Some of the funniest works in Los Caprichos is a handful of plates in which educators, portrait painters, and aristocrats literally get made over as asses. In one, Goya knocks the starch out of the pretentious Prince of La Paz and his bogus genealogical pedigree. Asta Su Abuelo (And So Was His Grandfather) depicts the noble ass as he entertains himself by looking up his bloodlines.
Spectators might find Goya's fire-in-the-belly portrayals of war to be the most eye-blistering among all the works on display.
Created during the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, the 80 prints in his Los Desastres de la Guerra series raise the bile to the craw. They also might draw the most comparisons to a post-9/11 world.
In these works Goya's wretched countrymen fight the French for their lives with a barbarity that's unfathomable.
He brutally depicts the violence between the combatants, doling out forests of corpses along the way. Women fall under volleys of musket shot while babies cling to their backs; others attack soldiers with stones or their bare hands.
The French cut their prisoners' gullets while the Spaniards hack them to bits in return. Rotting body parts sway from stout oaks like ornaments on a Christmas tree, never revealing to which nationality they belong.
A choking sense of suffering wafts like gunpowder from these images, making it clear Goya condemned war as winless for all sides.
His warning reminds that even to the victor ruin will come. It's a message that grows only more chilling with time.