"Los Caprichos," a set of 80 etching and aquatint prints created by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya in 1797 and 1798, are considered to be among the most influential works of art in the Western world.
Strange, graphic and often cryptic, these images were far ahead of their time in their scathing depiction of Spanish social customs and used by Goya to critique everything from the rich and powerful to the excesses of the church.
The Allentown Art Museum is presenting a great opportunity to see this complete set of prized prints that, over the past two centuries, have influenced artists such as Edouard Manet, Pablo Picasso and Jasper Johns.
"Los Caprichos" — meaning "follies" or "caprices" — was created during a time when Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), already revered as the painter of Spanish kings and upper-crust nobility, was suffering from a mysterious illness that seemed to have changed not only his artistic style but also his attitude toward society — transferring his genius from stately court painter to insightful social critic.
"The world is a masquerade. Look, dress and voice, everything is only pretension. Everyone wants to appear to be what he is not. Everyone is deceiving and no one ever knows himself."
That quote from Goya hangs above the works as a Dante-ish warning for the dark narrative that lurks in these images. Plate after plate lampoons the Spanish superstitions, ridiculous social conventions and societal abuses observed by Goya — and still seeminglyl relevant today.
That relevance is illustrated with the inclusion of works by contemporary artists Emily Lombardo and Enrique Chagoya, and by Edward Hagedorn from 1925, that relate "Los Caprichos" to modern troubled times.
"It's the contemporary component that really makes the exhibition come alive," Fischer adds, pointing to Chagoya's take on Goya's Plate 51 which is captioned "They spruce themselves up." It shows two goblins engaged in the vain, everyday practice of clipping their toenails and grooming each other, not something one would expect of demonic figures in the 18th century.
"Chagoya does a little political thing here," Fischer says, "bringing Goya's message into the 21st century." In Chagoya's version, the two goblins become witches and the witches are Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp.
Originally published by Goya as an album in 1799, the set of prints at the museum is a rare first edition, one of four sets purchased directly from Goya by the Duke and Duchess of Osuna, a progressive Spanish couple who were fully aware that Goya was lampooning their fellow nobles as well as the dreaded Inquisition, which by this time in history had been reduced to the role of book censor.
This set of prints then came into the hands of Pedro Fernández Durán of the house of the marquis of Perales, the greatest Spanish collector of the 19th century and a major donor to the Prado. His collector's mark appears on all 80 prints.
The exhibition was organized by Landau Traveling Exhibitions, Los Angeles, in association with Denenberg Fine Art of West Hollywood, Calif.
The museum has organized the prints in two rows of 40 — but beware — there is so much to look at that it can be daunting, even tiring to grasp the full messages of the images. Each is relatively small — roughly 6 by 8 inches — and each features two print techniques in one — etching and aquatint — rendered in a light sepia color.
But it is the bizarre subject matter: goblins, monks, procuresses, prostitutes, witches, animals acting like human fools and aristocrats behaving badly, that pull you into each picture. A dream-like quality pervades each work as Goya illustrates the lessons of life with a dark, humorous, biting satire that contributes to the artist's status as "the first of the moderns."
"This was the time of the Enlightenment," says Diane Fischer, museum chief curator, "and people were making private books public. Goya was already deaf by 1799, due to a mysterious illness. At age 46, Goya was a court painter who had become isolated and withdrawn. It was the end of the Spanish Inquisition, there was rampant unemployment and this was a reaction to the social ills in Spain."
What the mystery illness actually was remains unknown. Speculation ranges from syphilis and polio to Meniere's disease and lead poisoning. It is known that Goya used excessive amounts of white lead paint to prepare his paintings and his progressive deafness and bouts of physical imbalance after 1792 led to a period of convalescence. Two years later, he emerged with a new purpose and once again devoted himself to painting and etching and by the late 1790s he had produced "Los Caprichos."
The series begins with a self-portrait of Goya and proceeds in no particular order. What follows is a literal chamber of horrors and satire, with captions provided by Goya to drive home his points. For example, Plate 2 "They say yes and give their hand to the first comer" shows a young woman being presented as the new wife of a very old, ugly and obviously rich man. She wears a mask both on the front and back of her head as a symbol of her two-faced nature.
Plate 12 "Out Hunting for Teeth," is a macabre illustration that shows a woman stealing the gold teeth from a corpse. She turns her head in feint revulsion as her hand reaches into the mouth of the corpse, still hanging from the rope on which he was hanged.
Plates 37 through 42, are a series where people are presented literally as asses. Plate 37 is captioned "Might the pupil know more?" and shows a donkey student being taught by a donkey teacher, the lesson being that even the wisest of us can pass on a bad education.
One of the most iconic images is Plate 43 "The sleep of reason produces monsters." Most scholars agree it depicts Goya himself, asleep at his desk with his head in his arms as a menagerie of wild animals seems to rise up and swirl around him. Goya's accompanying text reads: "The artist dreaming. His only purpose is to banish harmful, vulgar beliefs and to perpetuate in this work of caprices the solid testimony of truth."