The art of Francisco Goya is not something to love or hate. It is something to decipher. The Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale presents "The Caprichos Etchings and Aquatints (1799)," 80 of the artist's cutting edge copper plate prints, in a rational, eye-level format, to soften the impact of the emotive and chaotic imagery.
The walls of the gallery are lined with etchings along with three centralized pillars containing significant works. This suite of prints is encrypted with moralistic, allegorical, satirical and political messaging that is delivered in a style that prefigures photojournalism. Goya's Caprichos are populated with freakish characters behaving monstrously.
The set was a propagandistic tool to inspire critical thinking during the Age of Enlightenment. Reason was the platform for enlightenment but hypocrisy reigned in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the church and monarchy conspired on the notorious Spanish inquisition. Goya unmasks society for turning a blind eye to abominations that had become customary. Viewers should not judge these grotesque images on sight but analyze, put them in context, comprehend Goya's warnings, and see Goya's truths. They were his quest for human rights.
Goya (1746 to 1828) lived a modest life and aspired to become court painter to the kings of Spain. Amid the burgeoning revolutionary enlightenment movement, a life-threatening illness left him deaf. Having faced mortality, Goya was struck with urgency to produce his Caprichos etchings. He was emboldened with notions of truth and conscience, which resulted in severe imagery, presented as a dream sequence. He hated the inquisition and felt shame for serving those who perpetrated it.
The etching titled "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" is identified as a self-portrait. He dreams, draped across a cube, haunted by dark hovering demons that are not quite in focus. It is self-indicting and a commentary on the absence of reason in Spanish society.
Goya attacks his contemporaries in a satirical image titled "Neither More Nor Less." A monkey paints a portrait of an ass, altering reality by leaving out his long donkey ears and dignifying him with formal dress. The artist convicts both patrons and painters of deceit and hypocrisy. The suite of etchings is stuffed with witches. An etching titled "Pretty Teacher" depicts two witches, one old and one young, naked on broomstick. The elder teaching the younger refers to the perpetuity of the inquisition committee. Embedded is a twist in which, witch hunters in service to the inquisition committee are depicted as witches. Who are the bad guys?
Deciphering good from bad in the Caprichos is aided by a style that is precursory to photojournalism. Contrasting values; light is good and dark is bad; representation is truth and abstraction is deceit, are qualities that will become characteristic of photographic technique a few years after Goya's death.
He is also considered a modern art pioneer for using art as a form of expression. Art served as political propaganda for popes and kings. Art could lie. Goya objected to false recordings; he imbued art with a conscience. He expressed truth by depicting his kings and queens with warts and all.
Goya wanted to improve the human condition and courageously used his art as a weapon. He can be likened to modern photojournalists who report the world condition as it is. It was only Goya's position in society that allowed his public judgments to go unpunished. There is no resolving Caprichos, just understanding Goya's warnings to be vigilant.