At the end of the 18th century, Francisco Goya , aged 51, shortly after serious illness had left him deaf, began work on a series of 80 etchings known as “Los Caprichos” (the caprices) that were to influence artists and writers into the 20th century, particularly the Surrealists.
All 80 of these works are celebrated at a small but perfectly formed free exhibition at Palazzo Pigorini in Parma called ‘Goya – Due Secoli di Capricci‘ . On two floors of this elegantly restored gallery you get the chance to marvel at Goya’s works which are accompanied by displays of illustrated books and a selection of works by the many artists he influenced – including George Grosz, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali with works spanning the period from 1800 to 1950.
What struck me was how contemporary the themes of these satirical prints seem. Western society may have progressed to the point that we can enjoy a more comfortable lifestyle and technologically sophisticated existence but the hypocrisies and cruelties underlying human nature which Goya and his followers expose are all too recognisable.
Goya’s works are vicious and uncompromising attacks on the Spanish aristocracy,the clergy and human vanity in general. The images of monsters, ghouls and other supernatural figures are full of horrific detail and accompanied by acerbic captions.
The message of the most famous print (The Sleep of Reason produces monsters’) certainly is all too topical in our age of heightened religious intolerance and rigid adherence to irrational dogma:
“La fantasia abandonada de la razon, produce monstruos imposibles: unida con ella, es madre de las artes y origen de sus marabillas.” (”Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels).”
Another image shows a teacher depicted as a donkey (ass) alongside the caption “When the teacher is an ass the student learns only how to bray“.
More radical still is the open distaste towards organized religion with print 52 (see left)- ‘Lo que puede un Sastre!’ with the lines “It is superstition that makes people bow and pay trembling homage towards a plank of wood dressed up as a saint” .
The exhibition offers an insight into one of the primary inspirations for Surrealist artists and a sobering reminder that blinkered attitudes towards belief have changed little over the last two centuries.