Francisco Goya was not a war artist, but his fascination with the subject is evident from the most cursory look at the paintings and etchings. Traditionally, he is viewed as the first critic of war, though there is nothing to distinguish his visual descriptions of atrocity from those of the seventeenth century, and scenes of horror are depicted in the Bayeux tapestry. Goya drew what was described to him by witnesses, or at second and third hand. Great massacres, and the less celebrated savagery of the Peninsular War, seized his imagination, just as he returned again and again to subjects like dead meat, and the spectacle of dead, dying and ravished victims of civil chaos. He gave the drawings of his Desastros and Caprichos ironic titles, which appear to suggest a detachment from the subject, and are therefore frequently interpreted as proof of a moral posture whose very earnestness is contained in their apparent coolness. But Goya’s love of the darkest aspects of humanity and its relentless cruelty are not present only in the ‘documentary’ or ‘nightmare’ visions. Portraits of distinguished subjects frequently occupy landscapes of sinister style, and his grotesque doctors are countered by attractive, cloaked men who deal in the mystical, the primitive, the irrational. It is therefore inadequate to recruit Goya into that endless stream of ‘progressive’ and ‘socially aware’ artists who dignify the Western tradition. ‘The sleep of Reason brings forth monsters’, Goya wrote, but these monsters have a special fascination, and even arrive by invitation. A beautiful young woman is led into sin by a collapsed roué. Is the subject a criticism of social/sexual relations? Possibly, or possibly not. The roué’s face is redolent of handsomeness decayed…and Goya, for all the claims made for him as social realist, was a contemporary of the Romantics, for whom pain, decline, tragedy, were subjects not for social propaganda, but for sublime feelings of melancholy, curiosity, even ecstasy.
Goya saw none of the peninsular War, but the protagonist of Terrible Mouth accidentally strays into the fringes of it. Deaf, but with an interior voice, he is at an age to ponder his own motives. The artist, for whom imagination is a substitute for lived life, experiences the ambiguities of watching. And when his loved mistress and patroness becomes herself the subject of atrocity, he finds himself a collaborator, the pencil lending him permission, absolution, the sufficient distance to both love more, and suffer more, than other men.