Written by Jonathan Jones
Posted on The Guardian, Monday 31 March 2003
Weaned on a diet of pickled animals and unmade beds, the British public has become remarkably difficult to shock. Could that be why Jake and Dinos Chapman, the enfants terribles of Britart, bought a mint collection of Goya’s most celebrated prints – and set about systematically defacing them? Jonathan Jones on the breaking of art’s ultimate taboo
Defaced?: one of the Chapmans’ ‘rectified’ Goyas.
Poor Goya. In his lifetime he had to put up with deafness, the Spanish Inquisition and the Duke of Wellington. Now he has Jake and Dinos Chapman to contend with. The brothers called one of their earliest tributes to the great Spanish painter, printmaker and visionary Great Deeds Against the Dead – quoting Goya – in which they reproduced one of his horrific images of cruelty as a lifesize tableau featuring a dismembered mannequin impaled on a tree. Their latest work is another great deed against the dead – a desecration of the memory of Goya.
Two years ago, the Chapmans bought a complete set of what has become the most revered series of prints in existence, Goya’s Disasters of War. It is a first-rate, mint condition set of 80 etchings printed from the artist’s plates. In terms of print connoisseurship, in terms of art history, in any terms, this is a treasure – and they have vandalised it.
“We had it sitting around for a couple of years, every so often taking it out and having a look at it,” says Dinos, until they were quite sure what they wanted to do. “We always had the intention of rectifying it, to take that nice word from The Shining, when the butler’s trying to encourage Jack Nicholson to kill his family – to rectify the situation,” interrupts Jake.
“So we’ve gone very systematically through the entire 80 etchings,” continues Dinos, “and changed all the visible victims’ heads to clowns’ heads and puppies’ heads.”
The “new” work is called Insult to Injury. The exhibition in which it will be shown for the first time, at Modern Art Oxford, is called The Rape of Creativity.
Goya’s Disasters of War is a precocious modern masterpiece, a work left by its creator as his final savage bequest to the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries – it was far too anti-clerical and unpatriotic to be published in his lifetime, and the first ever edition came out in 1863, three and a half decades after his death in 1828. From the very start of its public existence, it has been experienced not as a historic but as a contemporary work, its images so urgent and truthful that they function as living, new art.
And it is this colossus whose masterpiece the Chapman brothers have chosen to defile.
“He’s the artist who represents that kind of expressionistic struggle of the Enlightenment with the ancién regime,” says Jake, “so it’s kind of nice to kick its underbelly. Because he has a predilection for violence under the aegis of a moral framework. There’s so much pleasure in his work. To produce the law, one has to transgress it. Not to be too glib in the current conditions, but there’s something quite interesting in the fact that the war of the Peninsula saw Napoleonic forces bringing rationality and enlightenment to a region that was presumed Catholic and marked by superstition and irrationality. And here’s Goya, who’s very cut free from the Church, who embodies this autonomous enlightened being, embodied as a gelatinous dead mass without redemption – then you hear George Bush and Tony Blair talking about democracy as though it has some kind of natural harmony with nature, as though it’s not an ideology.”
Whoah, step back a minute. Defacing a work of art is, perhaps, the last taboo of the liberal, Britart-loving, Tate Modern-going public. The crime novelist Patricia Cornwell’s purchase and destruction of works by the British artist Walter Sickert in pursuit of her theory that the disturbing early-20th century painter of music hall audiences and seedy interiors was Jack the Ripper nauseated many, me included. To destroy a work of art is a genuinely nasty, insane, deviant thing to do.
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