On the 3rd of December Adam Richie (a fellow student) and I took the train to London to see Goya’s set of proofs at The British Museum. When we arrived we had instructions to ring the door bell behind the Michelangelo cartoon in ‘Gallery 90’, which seemed very mysterious. We were buzzed into an anteroom, part of the museum which is only accessible by appointment. We were then asked to lock away drinks and pens prior to gaining access to the study room (pencils were allowed).
The museum assistant made it quite clear how careful we had to be, however, to my surprise cotton gloves were not required. She impressed upon us the importance of the works, and reminded us of the permissions which had been sort on our behalf enabling us to see Goya’s album.
This is the only known set which Goya printed and handed to his friend, the dealer Ceán Bermúdez who Goya had tasked with editing the captions. The prints never got editioned in Goya’s lifetime, and Bermúdez’s daughter presented these to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando after her father’s death in 1862. The plates which the Academy had received via Goya’s son, Javier (found whilst clearing his fathers house sometime after the artists death) were updated with Bermúdez’s captions and finally printed 35 years after Goya’s death. The Disasters of War, Goya’s critique of inhumanity during conflict was fittingly first published during the year of the inaugural Red Cross Geneva Convention, which was ratified a year later in 1864.
It was amazing to handle the prints, the reason that gloves weren’t required was they reduced dexterity and could actually result in more harm coming to the artwork than that from oily fingers. The detail that you could see by tilting the prints and getting close up enabled us to analyse the work, and in some cases review earlier interpretations of certain images. The delicate binding of the album was interesting to me, I also noticed the repair work to some of the prints (pieces of tape and glued paper). This made me curious as to whether the Chapman brothers had been to the Museum too, as they had shown a similar piece of sellotape in one of their prints analysing Goya’s set. But on reflection they had their own set, so maybe the repair was on their copy.
The Chapmans’ prints (from 1999 which the museum also made available to us) were quite a contrast, they seemed to capture Goya’s intent from a modern perspective. The brothers have parodied Goya’s hard hitting prints in many ways, during 1999 they made a set of 83 plates which they printed on various papers, overpainted and later overprinted (see My Giant Colouring Book, 2004). The order seemed to be unimportant, both to the Museum’s curator (whom I asked, and was told not to worry about the sequence, just to ensure that the tissue paper protected the image) and to the Chapmans’ whose website shows the sets in various, seemingly random arrangements. In the prints the Chapmans align Goya’s imagery with earlier works of their own, they also seem to analyse Goya’s prints from behind and close-up. Another means of interpretation the brothers used involved simplification, reduction, redrawing of familiar images using a naive, a child-like style embellished with eyeballs in the tree, presumably witnessing atrocities. Another example is that of soldiers who seem to be wearing ‘deely boppers’ wired into their brains, transmitting some messed up thoughts, whilst others soldiers are literally subjected to x-ray scrutiny.
My gratitude goes to the British Museum and their kind staff for their assistance in this study. This was a great experience which I’d heartily recommend if you have the opportunity.