Goya’s Prints Present Perpetual Traits of Humanity
By Daniella Bassi ’14, Section Editor
The Mead Art Museum is currently exhibiting 22 of romantic Spanish painter Francisco de Goya’s 80-aquatint-print collection, Los Caprichos. The prints are perfected versions of similar drawings that the artist made between 1796 and 1797, a few of whose thumbnails the Mead also possesses, and were made by the process of intaglio printmaking.

In this process, the image to be printed is carved into a metal plate by way of etching (using strong acid to create grooves for the design in the metal, later using a needle to make lines print in a certain hue), engraving (using a special tool called a burin to make indentations in the metal for the design), aquatint (a variant of etching which, instead of using a needle to create lines that print in a certain color, uses an acid-resistant powdered resin within the marks to create the effect of different shades depending on how much acid exposure is received), drypoint (etchings made with a needle — more like a pencil and easier for the artist), or mezzotint (avoids having to hatch, cross-hatch and stipple with a needle by roughening the metal plate with myriad small dots by way of a small-toothed tool — makes medium tones on a print possible and easier to achieve). The chosen ink is then poured over the metal plate, seeping into the indentations of the design; the excess is wiped away and the metal plate is passed through the printing press together with a sheet of paper, transferring the ink to its surface.

Goya’s prints use the aquatint and etching techniques of intaglio printmaking, showing the painter to be quite dexterous and skilled with his hands, as he did not resort to the easier drypoint method. In fact, the prints are so well-made and detailed that the exhibition room has a set of magnifying glasses hanging by their tassels at the entrance so viewers can closely examine the pieces and criticize the techniques used in their creation.

Beyond the technical aspects of the prints, Goya’s intention was to satirize various aspects of humanity through the pieces, thinking of them as folly and, in doing so, has left us with vivid renderings of the culture and idiosyncrasy of 18th-century Spanish society, although he does not focus on any particular social class so much as he does on the universal mind, its ideas, logic and its beliefs. Goya’s opinion can be shared confidently and without fear of a lack of accuracy, as he revealed the message behind each print in the form of a few lines of his opinion, each of which the Mead has included in the caption of its respective piece. One very prevalent theme is the people’s belief in witches, monsters and other apparitions, which Goya both portrays and criticizes in a large portion of the prints displayed. In his “Que Viene el Coco (Here comes the Bogey-Man),” a woman and her two young boys are portrayed shrinking in fear at the approach of a cloaked figure; Goya’s opinion is that it is ridiculous and harmful that children are taught to fear phantoms and apparitions more than they fear their father. The image is indicative of the time when the mother alone was with the children, caring for and, in this case, guarding them while the father, in all likelihood, conducted business and worked in the outside world as was the approved sphere for men at the time. The fact that there is a tangible manifestation of this feared apparition, and that true fear is seen in the countenances of the mother and boys, is a representation of the very sincere and abounding fear of mythical and legendary creatures that even many of the most educated members of the society of the time still possessed. Goya’s accompanying opinion is indicative of the familial hierarchy of the time, in which the father was the superior and most respected person in the household and also of the coming and possibly already started onset of the Enlightenment, which rejected such irrational and ungrounded beliefs.

Another prominent theme is that of the behavior and choices made by society and the logic behind them, which Goya often criticizes. For example, in his print “Lo Que Puede un Sastre! (What a Tailor Can Do!),” in which many figures are depicted kneeling on the ground and looking up in admiration at a bulky, robed figure that stands, appearing to be much bigger and grander — but kind of clumsy at the same time, to make a point. Goya asserts that a tailor can make any fool look good and that people are very ignorant and silly for believing in appearances and making much of such people. This criticism on such obsequious behavior based solely on presumed notions on appearance is as applicable now as it was then, though in a different context, as is to be found with many of these prints. The details of dress, postures, the tone and perspective of Goya’s thoughts and, for Spanish speakers, even the wording of Goya’s original titles, are sources of knowledge and enlightenment about the era the painter lived in, its appearance, traditions, beliefs and social norms.

It is interesting to note that, despite the relatively helpless social position and lack of power and independence of women in particular during this time period, Goya’s print, “Que se la Llevaron! (They Carried Her Off!),” in which two cloaked men carry a helpless and unhappy-looking woman away, says in its caption that a woman who is not strong enough to defend and fend for herself will belong and be under the control of whoever carries her off, encouraging women to be strong and better in control of themselves, if merely to a physical extent.

Goya’s Prints of Darkness have many lessons to divulge and many cultural and historical riches to reveal about late 18th-century Spanish society, and are currently on display at the Mead.

Issue 10, Submitted 2010-12-01 00:50:09