Goya/Chagoya is currently on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Goya, the 18th century Spanish painter, is paired with the contemporary Mexican-American painter Enrique Chagoya. This makes for an interesting show spotlighting politics, satire and similar artistic outputs.
Eight prints from Goya’s Los Caprichos series hang next to a corresponding print from Chagoya. Los Caprichos is series of 80 prints that used allegory to satirize and decimate the follies, societal trappings and politics of his era. They became hugely popular but Goya had to eventually hide them as the Inquisition raged in Spain.
Goya was not able to explicitly call out people and name names. Inquisitions and religious fanatics don’t enjoy their foibles and hypocrisy being called out, so Goya resorted to allegory and fairy tales. Chagoya in turn, uses Goya’s work as the basis for his own allegories, but unmasks the demons as Senators and Christian leaders.
This Modern World
Enrique Chagoya masterfully reproduces the Goya prints (down to plate numbers and collection stamps) but updates the prints to the modern world. One of the best examples of such is one of the most famous prints from the collection. ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ features a largely assumed self portrait of Goya slumped over sleeping on a desk. Over his shoulder is a collection of menacing owls and bats, representing the mystery and evil of life without reason.
In Chagoya’s corresponding print, he deftly recreates the print line by line. Chagoya introduces infidelity to the print by swapping out the dark monsters with a more contemporary analog: stealth bombers swirling overhead. The dark shapes perfectly mimic the original bats and an updated element of destruction and madness has been integrated into the work.
It could be very easy to faithfully duplicate the series on strictly formal terms. That becomes a technical issue and would drop the new series to the level of simple illustration and cartooning. It’s a testament ot Chagoya’s careful study of Goya that he is able to include Goya’s humorous twist to the work. The technical print combined with Chagoya’s ability to match the depth of Goya’s tone allows the work to rise above a simple allusion and modern reproduction.
Catching up with the modern villains
In another work, ‘Here Comes the Bogeyman’, Goya’s original features a cloaked being harassing a mother and her frightened children. Lit from behind, the bogeyman has a dramatic range of sharp values. The cloak and hood are spotlighted against the dark background. Chagoya again reproduces the background, mother and children, but turns the bogeyman around to face the crowd. Republican Neo-Nazi David Duke is shown to be the dullard in the cloak . His visage is completed with a dumb grin on his bespectled, mindlessly self assured face. The decision to reveal the bogeyman does a couple of things. It pointedly shows the enemy, and it also is a nod to the humor inherent in Goya’s original series.
Christian exhorter Jerry Falwell appears alongside Republican dirtbag Jesse Helms in ‘Se Repulen’ (They Spruce Themselves Up). Helms takes the place of a demon trimming the toenails of another beast (Falwell) in the Goya original. The Goya references the Spanish expression about long nails and greed. Cagoya interjects Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby which Falwell famously denounced as ‘gay’.
The ease with which Chagoya can interject such villains affirms the timelessness of Goya’s original work. The appearance of such awful modern figures fits perfectly. This transposing of demons over the centuries does raise a valid question about the reasons the new work exists. Artists have repainted older paintings as far back as art history goes. Countless works allude to other works, updating images for a new century, with common themes. Chagoya’s work continues this tradition, necessarily placing those worthy of debasement put in the line of fire. It also becomes a heavy critique of today’s world that it is filled with the same unsolved problems and nefarious leaders as the preceding centuries.
Chagoya started this avenue of investigation in 1983. This explains the wide range of characters, from Jesse Helms to Linda Tripp. The march of time does not diminish the work, instead points out how long the culture war and demagogery has been front and center in America. All of these images could just as well use Donald Trump, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz and be as relevant.
History and Goya/Chagoya
History repeating itself becomes a mantra of this exhibition. It is also true that history first appears as tragedy, then farce. Imagine the Spanish Inquisition being announced in the parking lot of the Four Seasons Lawn Care.
Goya’s series of prints are acclaimed and among the greatest of his works. I recently had the pleasure of basking in the grandeur of Goya’s works on a recent trip to Madrid. There’s an undeniable power and heaviness to Goya’s work. He has an almost supernatural ability to provoke emotion with every image he created. Chagoya’s work is a nice compliment to the Los Caprichos series. Technically, tonally, and more important, politically, Chagoya’s innate ability to use allusion and satire to skewer makes a natural connection to Goya.
It’s a testament to the grandeur and depth of the Nelson-Atkins Museum that they were able to pull every print for this show from their collection. Chagoya’s work is a worthy part of the Nelson’s collection and its satisfying to see them displayed together. The show runs through February, 2023, so make some time to get out and see it!