Art and history buffs have over two months to take in an exhibit at Instituto Cultural Cabañas of 80 scathing, book-size, aquatint etchings first published in 1799 by a preeminent artist of Spain during one of that country’s darkest eras.
Though the crowds of tapatios surging through “Los Caprichos [Caprices] de Goya” didn’t appear to be reaching Mona Lisa levels Tuesday (the Cabañas’ day of free entry), they did indicate near-rock-star standing for Francisco Goya among Guadalajara’s young intelligentsia. After all, Goya was Spanish and his groundbreaking painting, The Third of May 1808, showing the execution of Spaniards by Napoleon’s invading army, was the source for Manet’s equally famous work depicting the execution of Mexico’s short-lived Emperor Maximiliano.
But atrocities by authorities are only one of Goya’s dark themes that hit home in Mexico. Perhaps even more cogent here are the motifs chillingly depicted in “Los Caprichos” (Goya’s own title for the set of prints), which can all fit under the umbrella of abuse – from the monstrous to the silly – committed by priests and the powerful (including royalty, politicians, teachers and even matchmakers).
The prints are not easy in any way. Commentators have long noted that artistic vagueness was a virtue in many eras, especially the Inquisition (which, incidentally, was enthusiastically carried out in both Spain and Mexico – another probable reason for the popularity of Goya here). Thus, Goya’s critical prints are typically not easy to interpret. A few in the set, such as the most well known, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” are crystal clear critiques of superstition and the conservative religious forces that were arrayed against the Enlightenment, of which Goya was a fan. But most are not this clear. Indeed, in the prints that depict priests and monks, it is often hard to figure out exactly what is going on, although the leering expressions and ungainly physiques speak volumes.
On a practical level, the prints are not that easy to see, since they are book-size, intended for close inspection and have many areas that are either very detailed or very dark. Admittedly, this edition was not printed until 1905, (from Goya’s plates, which he donated to the king and have been under royal protection ever since) and so the earlier impressions, when the plates were in better shape, were probably easier to discern.
But most importantly, the prints are not emotionally easy. Looking at them is no romp through one of Monet’s sunny fields of flowers. They have been called bleak, macabre, monstruos, full of rage. In one shocking print, said to be a critique of pedophilia, a little boy’s anus explosively spews out something, amidst a tangle of human figures.
Goya began as a court artist producing tapestries and royal portraits. Even his portraits moved away from the pretty – he has been called the first of the modern masters and some of his royal portraits were far from flattering. But later, with Napoleon’s invasion and attack on the Spanish crown and people, which occurred around the same time that Goya suffered a mysterious illness (perhaps lead poisoning from mixing paint) that left him deaf and fearing for his sanity, he became withdrawn and began abundantly producing much darker images – prints that were intended to publicize his political beliefs and fears. (Tellingly, the prints soon had to be withdrawn due to Goya’s very real fear of the Inquisition.)
Another reason the Goya exhibit seems at home in Guadalajara is its placement in the Instituto Cultural Cabañas, where, a few feet away, Jose Clemente Orozco’s famous and equally sizzling critique of authority graces the central chapel. If Orozco’s huge murals could speak to Goya’s comparatively tiny prints, they would probably say “Bienvenidos.”
Los Caprichos de Goya shows until September 23 at Instituto Cultural Cabañas, Plaza Tapatia (Cabañas 8) about five blocks behind (east of) Teatro Degollado. (33) 3818-2800, 3668-1800. Cost: 70 pesos for adult foreigners, 20 pesos for seniors and children 6 to 12 years old. Officials say that showing “Residente” cards gets foreigners in for the normal price of 45 pesos. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.; Tuesdays free. See www.hospiciocabanas.com.