Goya and the art of the print

Wisconsin Gazette - - Wigout! - By Todd Mrozin­ski Con­tribut­ing writer

The Span­ish artist Fran­cisco de Goya (1746–1828) was fas­ci­nated with bull­fight­ing, so much so that he once painted him­self as a mata­dor. Gaz­ing at one of his bull­fight­ing prints on dis­play at the Mil­wau­kee Art Mu­seum, I imag­ine him sit­ting at a wooden table, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally scratch­ing lines into a small cop­per plate. When fin­ished with the etch­ing, he would have sub­merged the plate into an acid bath, burn­ing his lines into the metal. Then the plate would be inked and used to cre­ate prints.

The set of 33 Goya prints in­cluded in the 1816 se­ries La Tau­ro­maquia (Bull­fight­ing) is the high­light of MAM’s cur­rent ex­hibit, which is ti­tled Dar­ing Tech­nique: Goya and the Art of Etch­ing. Hung chrono­log­i­cally in a red room, the works be­gin with two prints whose ti­tles leave lit­tle need for fur­ther de­scrip­tion: “The Way in Which An­cient Spa­niards Hunted Bulls on Horse­back in the Open Coun­try” and “An­other Way of Hunt­ing on Foot.”

Fol­low­ing those is an ar­ray of prints de­pict­ing scenes from the his­tory of bull­fight­ing. The mata­dors’ var­i­ous tricks and stunts are de­picted in il­lu­mi­nat­ing de­tail. Each cap­tures the mo­ments be­fore the bull’s death, yet none of the prints show a dead bull. In most of them, the bull has an ex­pres­sion of sur­prise. The works cap­ture the dance of life and death.

While the fo­cus of each print is finely ob­served, the spec­ta­tors in the back­ground are drawn more loosely. As I near the last few prints, I no­tice that the bull is fight­ing back. Print 32, “Two Groups of Pi­cadors Pinned Down by a Sin­gle Bull,” typ­i­fies Goya’s style of dra­matic com­po­si­tion. In the last print, “The Un­for­tu­nate Death of Pepe Illo in Madrid’s Plaza,” the bull wins, and we see the mata­dor pinned and life­less un­der the weight of two pierc­ing horns.

In the ad­join­ing gallery, painted a dark blue-green, are selections from two other se­ries of prints, Los Capri­chos (The Caprices) and Los Dis­parates (The Fol­lies), both of which tip­toe the tightrope of san­ity. Goya with­drew Los Capri­chos — which he de­scribed as de­pict­ing “the com­mon prej­u­dices and de­ceit­ful prac­tices which cus­tom, ig­no­rance or self-in­ter­est have made usual” — due to fear of the In­qui­si­tion. For the same rea­son, Los Dis­parates was not printed in Goya’s life­time.

If La Tau­ro­maquia is Goya as his­tor­i­cal re­porter, then the other two se­ries are Goya as po­lit­i­cally en­gaged and sel­f­re­flec­tive. In a time when our so­ci­ety is grap­pling with the over­lap of pol­i­tics into our per­sonal lives, works like “The Sleep of Rea­son Pro­duces Mon­sters” and “Sim­ple­ton” seem strik­ingly rel­e­vant.


Among the great artists, Goya is known as the ex­treme im­age-maker. Be­fore go­ing deaf at 47, he cre­ated scenes of peas­ant life, re­li­gious images and court paint­ings which, I would ar­gue, were based mainly on ob­ser­va­tions. Af­ter los­ing his hear­ing, Goya seems to have de­vel­oped the abil­ity to con­jure images in his mind. His painstak­ing ef­forts at learn­ing to de­pict anatomy and per­son­al­ity by copy­ing the great masters (es­pe­cially Velázquez) in­formed his hand and imag­i­na­tion.

The Goya rooms at MAM are flanked by two gal­leries. The first shows the art of etch­ing in Goya’s time, with ex­am­ples from such artists as Rem­brandt and Delacroix. The last gallery fea­tures prints by two artists greatly in­flu­enced by Goya, Manet and Pi­casso.

All of Goya’s prints in La Tau­ro­maquia used a new aquatint/ etch­ing combo, ex­cept for two. One is an ear­lier work cre­ated when Goya was 32, copied af­ter the Ve­lazquez paint­ing “Ae­sop.” It’s a pure etch­ing — only lines were used to cre­ate form and value. The other paint­ing, “Be­cause She was Sus­cep­ti­ble,” is a pure aquatint, which em­ploys acid to etch tonal ar­eas of gra­da­tion on the plate. It’s won­der­ful to see these two works, giv­ing us a view into how — by adding aquatint to etch­ing — Goya went from mono to stereo record­ing.

Thus MAM of­fers a rare glimpse into how new and dar­ing tech­niques al­lowed Goya to achieve an­other level of vis­ual and psy­cho­log­i­cal in­ten­sity.

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