It is one of the ironies of art history that the destruction of World War I inspired so many painters and sculptors to be more creative than they had ever been before. We Are Making a New World (1918) by the British painter Paul Nash, who was an official war artist during the conflict, is a good example: a masterful summary of the impact of the carnage upon Western Europe, it is like a grenade lobbed into the idyllic garden of the tradition of landscape painting. In place of a pretty pastoral vista, Nash summons a desperate vision of a withered and mud-choked killing field, populated only by bomb-blasted trees that stand in for the millions of human casualties.

Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that museums and galleries around the world are mounting exhibitions and displays to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of WWI. We Are Making a New World will hang in pride of place in the new Truth and Memory exhibition devoted to art of that conflict that opens at the Imperial War Museum in London on 19 July. A section exploring the art of WWI also forms a prominent part of The Disasters of War: 1800-2014, an ambitious exhibition featuring more than 200 artists at the Louvre-Lens museum in northern France. The time frame of the French exhibition is important. Prior to 1800, the curators argue, artists often glorified war. Yet with the advent of the 19th Century, tastes shifted and war art became much darker and more condemnatory.

There are many contenders for the most powerful example of war art from the past two centuries: Picasso’s Guernica (1937), painted in response to the bombing of a Basque village during the Spanish Civil War, would be an obvious choice. For me, though, nothing quite matches the originality and truth-telling ferocity of the Disasters of War, a series of 80 aquatint etchings, complete with caustic captions, by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).

Seeing and hearing

When the great Australian art critic Robert Hughes reviewed a Goya exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1989, he wrote that “[Goya] speaks to us with an urgency that no artist of our time can muster”. He was right: Goya feels like our contemporary. In part, this is thanks to the nightmarish, abject plates of his Disasters of War, which, in hindsight, seem to anticipate the atrocities of mechanised conflict that scarred the 20th Century. For many people, Goya’s etchings even provide a pioneering example of tough, first-hand war reportage: plate 44 of the series, for instance, is entitled “I saw it”.

Although they were not published until 1863, the Disasters date from the second decade of the 19th Century, when Goya was already a mature artist with a reputation as a brilliant court painter and satirist. Years earlier, in 1793, he had suffered a mysterious illness, perhaps a series of strokes, which left him permanently deaf. This had a profound impact on his art, which became increasingly visionary and strange – arguably paving the way for the nihilistic worldview expressed in the Disasters of War.

But it was the turbulence, hardship and depravity of the Napoleonic occupation of Spain during the Peninsular War (1808-14), when Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte was proclaimed Kingking, which actually prompted Goya to make the series. In October 1808, aged 62, Goya was summoned by General José Palafox y Melci to Zaragoza, the provincial capital of Aragon not far from his birthplace where he had trained as an artist. Palafox had become a national hero after inspiring thousands of Spaniards to resist French troops who had laid siege to the city. What Goya witnessed there provided the starting point for the series, which he began two years later, around 1810.

Over the following decade, it grew into an album with a title page inscribed with the following words: “The fatal consequences of the Bloody War in Spain with Bonaparte”. This album of proof impressions, which Goya assembled for a friend, is now in the collection of the British Museum. Earlier this year, the Folio Society published a lavish, leather-bound facsimile of it, limited to 980 numbered copies.

Savagery and suffering

Even today it is difficult to look at the Disasters, because Goya catalogues the brutality and fatal consequences of war in such a stark, confrontational and unflinching manner. The series is divided into three groups: prints of wartime “disasters” responding to the Napoleonic invasion of Spain; a record of the famine in Madrid of 1811-12, in which more than 20,000 people died; and a final ‘chapter’ of so-called allegorical caprichos lampooning the repressive government of Ferdinand VII, who returned to Spain as king in 1814.

There are many scenes of savagery and suffering, including one well-known print in which three mutilated and naked corpses are bound to a single tree. Elsewhere, we see a soldier hacking with his sword at the groin of an upside-down victim, as well as another dismembered carcass, this time impaled upon a tree-trunk. All of the prints in this orgy of bloodletting are accompanied by laconic captions, which add to the generally despairing tone.

“The impact of the scenes is incredible,” says the independent art historian Juliet Wilson-Bareau, one of the world’s leading Goya experts. “Each one is a powerful, original work of art in its own right, yet linked to the others with a common theme, including the way their titles – terse comments, questions, or cries of outrage – connect them, and read on from one to another. The grouping of the series into three ‘chapters’ gives the whole a sense of rhythm and purpose.”

Goya must have hoped that he would live to see the publication of his Disasters, but the despotic rule of Ferdinand VII made this impossible. “Under his repressive and reactionary regime,” Wilson-Bareau explains, “there was no way that Goya could have published his set of prints that so clearly denounced all violence and all abuse of power.”

Still, following their posthumous publication, the Disasters proved enormously influential, inspiring artists including the German Otto Dix as well as Dalí and Picasso – and, more recently, the British brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, who bought a complete edition of the prints and ‘defaced’ them by adding grotesque, cartoonish faces. Even the war photographer Don McCullin acknowledges a debt: “When I took pictures in war, I couldn’t help thinking of Goya,” he has said.

The genius of the Disasters is that they transcend particularities of the Peninsular War and its aftermath to feel universal – and modern. Perhaps this is because, as the British writer Aldous Huxley put it in 1947, “All [Goya] shows us is war’s disasters and squalors, without any of the glory or even picturesqueness.”

So should we consider the series as the greatest war art ever created? Wilson-Bareau certainly thinks so. “For me, yes,” she tells me. “I have lived with these prints, which many people consider too shocking, absolutely unbearable, and I find in them – besides the heartbreak and outrage at the unspeakable violence and damage – a great well of compassion for all victims of the suffering and abuses they depict, which goes to the very heart of our humanity.”

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