Francisco de Goya’s ‘caprices’ are regarded as one of the most significant artistic endeavours of the last three hundred years. A savagely satirical attack on the many vices he saw in late 18th century Spain, his etchings combined humour and horror to outrageous effect as he jabbed at every level of society and its culture of corruption and stupidity.
But while the Los Caprichos prints now seem a profound achievement, and are widely regarded as perhaps the most important turning point in Goya’s career, their public reception was cut short almost immediately after they were put on sale in 1799.
Published at a time when the political right and the Inquisition were at their most vehement, Goya feared that these images and their all-encompassing condemnation of seemingly every corner of Spanish society would attract unwanted attention from the powers-that-be; with the prevalence of anti-clerical imagery throughout the series, one can hardly blame him for the decision to withdraw them from public release, though their commercial failure – only 27 of 300 sets being sold – was catastrophically costly.
Begun around 1792, the production of the series coincided with Goya becoming seriously ill (though it is unknown what he suffered from, it is believed to have been the cause of the severe deafness which remained for the rest of his life). Whilst recovering, he spent time reading papers on the philosophy of the French revolution, and, having recuperated, had become a changed man. The result was the electrically political Los Caprichos.
The eighty images that make up the set are each accompanied with short explanations, detailing the criticisms Goya described as the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilised society. The images themselves are dark and disturbed; men, women and children are bestial, and his satirical sentiments are conveyed with a mixture of acerbic wit and terror: one devil calmly clips another’s toenails as a third looks on above the caption ‘Se repulen’ – ‘They spruce themselves up’.
Unfortunately for Goya, the very audience who might have had the means to buy a set (and indeed interpret its scenes) – the wealthy, educated, political upper-classes – were those most lampooned. Many of the most ominous characters share similar robes and caps to the Catholic clergy while mad Hell-bats hang in the background.
Goya’s ordering of the plates betrays his anxiety at their publication: instead of plate 43, the nightmarish self-portrait of the anguished artist and his diabolic visions, which he had originally intended to open the series, now a sombre but comparatively tame self-portrait in profile takes first position in the series.
Yet as superficial a change as this could not soften the suite’s biting force. It would not be an exaggeration to say that much of the output of future satirists and modernists – especially the angry energy of German Expressionism, of Grosz, Beckmann, Gleichmann and Dix – owed a debt of existence to Los Caprichos and its menacing cavalcade of monsters. As with the literary work of Swift (a near contemporary), Goya offers us images so outrageously distorted that their humour, black as his etching line, remains only so long as we fail to see in them a semblance of reality.
The Caprichos are fantastic and allegorical. They are images of moral depravity at every level of society, and the final message of the final plate – ‘It is time!’ – is perhaps the darkest of them all. The term ‘caprice’ is usually redolent of bright fantasy, a happy vision; Goya’s, on the other hand, are as savage and merciless as the hob-goblin people they depict.