Goya’s LOS DESASTRES DE LA GUERRA at Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Visitors to Boijmans’ recently opened Pure Rubens exhibition, still have a chance to also see Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra. This exhibition is to be found at the museum’s Print Room.

The complete series, also known as The Horrors of War is not often exhibited in the Netherlands. The current exhibition show the structure of the complete work.

Goya created the eighty etchings over a period of ten years. Art historians think the painter intended the project to be a protest about the horrors of war, senseless violence and hunger.

In 1808, Napoleon replaced the Spanish Bourbon monarchy with one of his brothers. The move was no success, causing uprisings and made Napoleon decide to send the French army to occupy Spain.

Goya, court painter to the Spanish Kings, witnessed the atrocities of Napoleon’s army, the uprisings and guerilla warfare of the Spanish people and the famine in Madrid. While part of Napoleon’s army fought Spanish uprisings, an English army led by Wellington invaded. The violence and suffering increased, though in 1814, the Bourbon monarchy was restored.

When Goya started the series, in 1810, he was already in his sixties. He was suffering from depression and an illness which would leave him deaf. Events in his country affected him too.

In Boijmans’ Print Room, the prints hang in a double row. They show often violent scenes, including executions, mutilations, rapes. The captions are often extremely sarcastic. Towards the end of the eighty prints, the focus is on the horrid famine in Madrid during the winter of 1811/12.

The last part of the series offer social criticism on the then political situation. By then the monarchy has been restored, but it did not bring the liberty and tolerance people like Goya had hoped for. Likely this is the reason the series was not printed during Goya’s lifetime. He left the copper plates to a friend of his.

The Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid had somehow acquired eighty copper plates from the Desastres in 1862. It decided to print 500 copies.

Goya’s copper plates were used to print more editions. As is the case with printing etchings, the plates deteriorate due to the printing process. Later editions, later prints, are always of a poorer quality than earlier ones.

The museum’s prints are from the  very first edition, published in 1863. Some of the captions still contain spelling mistakes which were corrected in later editions. In a few of Boijmans’ prints, the quality is so high, experts can determine techniques Goya used.

As practically each of Goya’s prints captures a moment of horror, this is an exhibition best visited prior to going to Boijmans’ Pure Rubens. Rubens is an artist who captures life, exuberance, festivities, abundance – and the occasional quiet landscape.   Kate Den    13th September 2018


Goya’s “Los Desastres” continues at Boijmans van Beuningen’s until  23rd of September 2018.

Photo: Goya, Los Desastres de la Guerra, plate 32: Por Que?