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Saturday, 21 November 2009

Exhibitions – Fantasies, Follies & Disasters – the prints of Francisco Goya – Manchester Art Gallery

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The vast collection of prints among the 26,000 piece collection at Manchester Art Gallery are only allowed to be exhibited for a few months every 5 years as they are so fragile and need to be preserved. So this is a rare chance to see this very interesting collection of prints by Goya. Goya is well known as an important Spanish artist, and as principal painter to King Charles IV. But as well as his famous portraits of the great and the good of the age, there was a hidden private side to this man.

The prints in the collection fall into three distinct groupings, and show how disaffected and introspective Goya was behind his public image. The pieces reflect his concern about social and political issues in the Spain of his day, including poverty, and corruption. And some of them are indeed very disturbing. So disturbing were they that many were only fully revealed publicly after his death in 1828.

The first set of prints are entitled ‘The Caprices, or Fantasies’, and Goya uses them to reveal what he considered to be the ignorance and hypocrisy of Spanish society. The frequent robbery of prostitutes by the police is shown in ‘How they pluck her’, where the pathetic half-bird, half-woman figure is the victim. He challenged the authority of schoolteachers in ‘Might not the pupil know more?’, where the teachers are portrayed as asses.

‘The Disasters of War’ is the second set of prints, which reflect the aftermath of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1807, and the imposition of his brother Joseph, who ruled for 5 years to 1813. Goya is also railing here against the church and repression by the state. He gave these prints to the Spanish Royal Academy in 1824, but they were considered far too controversial to be displayed, and indeed remained unpublished for another 40 years. They depict scenes of systematic torture and murder, including the clear involvement of women in these activities; and the plight of starving beggars. The corruption of the justice system is shown is ‘The consequences’, where the wretched victim is attacked by a blood sucking, human-faced vampire.

The final set of prints which completes this collection, ‘The Follies’ is by far the most fantastic and dreamlike of the three. Images of death, carnival figures, and monsters are all quite disturbing. One of the less disturbing prints, ‘A way of flying’, shows winged creatures in flight.

Overall the prints leave a feeling that you have had a private glimpse into the dark side of Goya’s mind – a place which is brutal and extremely unsettling. These prints are weird and wonderful, and show his talents as an artist, but I certainly would not want to be inside his head.

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