Monday, November 12, 2012

Goya Prints Defaced

During the Napoleonic occupation of Spain the Spanish artist Francisco Goya created a series of powerfully evocative prints – The Disasters of War.  Goya’s The Disasters of War provides us with an unparalled, brutally realistic rendering of the horror that is war, including graphic depictions of executions, rape, torture and dismemberment.
Goya: The Shootings of May 3rd 1808
 We don’t know what Goya’s exact intentions were when he created The Disasters of War. It certainly did not serve as anti-French propaganda, like his painting The Shootings of May 3rd, 1808 (see above), because he never published the prints during his lifetime, nor did he attempt to.  Indeed Goya’s The Disasters of War series was only first published in 1863, decades after his death. Since then, the prints have become among the most renowned and influential depictions of war in art and an inspiration to the likes of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and others.

Jake and Dinos Chapman: The Disasters of War

The British contemporary artists Jake and Dinos Chapman provided an addition to the legacy of Goya’s  The Disasters of War when they exhibited their own The Disasters of War in 1993 (see above).  They had created three dimensional plastic sculptures based on Goya’s eighty scenes. They then went on to produce a life-size version of one of these: Great Deeds Against the Dead, which was based on one of Goya's particularly brutal prints, of dismembered male bodies.

Jake and Dinos Chapman: Great Deeds Against the Dead

So far so good, the Chapman’s work, though grotesque, seemed to be a homage to the work of the truly original artist, Francisco Goya. The Chapmans continued to achieve attention and a great deal of critical acclaim with a variety of provocative work, for instance mannequins of children with genitalia instead of faces and work that referenced Nazism.  Their piece, Death, which showed two sex dolls having oral sex in the 69 position, almost won them the Turner Prize, Britain’s most prestigious art prize.

The original print - Goya's Great Deeds Against the Dead
In 2003 they exhibited their Insult to Injury.  For this postmodern intervention they took an entire set of Goya’s The Disasters of War and systematically defaced every print by drawing the heads of clowns, mice and other funny faces on Goya’s work (see below). Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones commented “in any terms, this [Goya’s The Disasters of War] is a treasure - and they have vandalised it.”

Jake and Dinos Chapman; from Insult to Injury

I am reminded of this now. I recently wrote a post about how a self-styled artist walked into the Tate Modern last month and defaced a work of Mark Rothko. For his pains, he will have his day in court. But the Chapmans have been widely celebrated for their defacement of Goya’s work. Is this a case of rich and famous artists being praised for defacing the work of another, while a poor and unknown artist is jailed for doing so? Does it matter that the Chapmans owned the copies of the prints that they vandalised, while the Rothko vandaliser did not?


  1. Tough questions you ask! Also, is there a difference of intent - to make art or to simply deface? Or does intent matter? Or do we/will we know the intent of the Rothko defacer? I think ownership makes a difference, but don't like it that I think so.

    I once saw an exhibit about animals and how we abuse them, but in order to make the pieces, the artist had either killed animals for his work or used animal carcasses. Is the concept greater than the individual?

    As I said, tough questions.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Actually the intent of the Rothko defacer was to make art (he says). Read yesterday that the Rothko was valued at 80 million dollars (a ridiculous price) and is reckoned to have lost 13 million dollars value though the damage (though I don't know how they came up with that total. Anyway, restooring the Rothko will be a long, labourious and expensive process.