Circulating Los Caprichos

March 22, 2019

A large part of my work on the Factory project has been cataloguing what was once the collection of the Circulation department of the V&A. Founded in 1909 with the transfer of objects from the main collection, Circulation became a crucial part of the museum, going on to collect further prints, drawings, photographs as well as many other types of objects which are now in the permanent collection. During its peak in the 1960s and 1970s the Circulation department was often seen as a ‘museum within a museum’. While its curators had a strong reputation for collecting contemporary work, interests were broad, and I have been cataloguing objects ranging from the 16th century engravings to 1960s Op-art prints.

The department also curated and coordinated free loan exhibitions to travel and ‘circulate’ to regional museums, art galleries and public libraries, allowing people all over the country to draw influence from innovative art and design. Over the years the Circulation collection grew to over 32,000 objects before the department’s closure in 1977 (you can find out much more about the history of the department in the research of Joanna Weddell, which this post builds on). In the years that followed, objects were dispersed to relevant departments around the museum and over the last few months I have been researching and cataloguing the pieces that came to the Word and Image collections.

One set of objects I like particularly is a set of prints by Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes called ‘Los Caprichos (‘The Caprices’), first published in 1799. In creating this series of etchings Goya built on the work of the highly acclaimed painter-printmakers of the Renaissance such as Dürer, and Rembrandt. With Los Caprichos, however, Goya brought printmaking into a new era.

There have been many responses to and interpretations of Los Caprichos over the centuries, and they occupy an important place in the history of art. In fact, the poet Charles Baudelaire once wrote that a viewer of these works would experience ‘a sharp shock at the core of his brain, as result of the artist’s original manner, the fullness and sureness of his means and also of that atmosphere of fantasy in which all his subjects are steeped’ (Goya’s Caprichos: Aesthetics, Perception and the Body, p. 4) . However, in these prints Goya does more than simply create a fantasy. 

The series critiques and satirises some very real aspects of Spanish society of 1799, including the Church, marriage and the role of women, rising crime levels, violence and war. Goya was careful to deny any critique of specific individuals in his works, stating in an advertisement for the series in 1799, ‘In none of the compositions which form part of this collection has the author proposed to ridicule the particular defects of any one individual’ (Graphic Evolutions, The Print Series of Francisco Goya, Janis A. Tomlinson, p. 12) . More generally the works present a view of Spanish society in chaos, mirrored by the huge variety in etching techniques (including the relatively new method of aquatint) and the lack of a coherent narrative.

El sí pronuncian y la mano alargan al primero que llega (They say yes and give their hand to the first comer) by Francisco de Goya, 1799, Museum Number CIRC.620-1966, © Victoria and Albert Museum. Goya’s commentary as included in the Circulation Department’s label: ‘The readiness with which many women are inclined to get married, hoping thereby to live in greater liberty’

For example, in this plate from the series, El sí pronuncian y la mano alargan al primero que llega (‘They say yes and give their hand to the first comer’), Goya satirises his society’s ideas around marriage. Disastrous marriages were a common theme for satire in Spain at the time, and in the print the faces of the suitors are distorted caricatures, the woman being led blindly to her wedding. Throughout Los Caprichos, caricature is used to show the true character of Goya’s figures, and as the series progresses the figures become more and more frightening.  The depth of Goya’s imagination is clear in perhaps the most famous print from this series, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’). This etching has been interpreted as depicting Goya himself, haunted by the grotesque characters and monsters which would emerge in the following plates of Los Caprichos.

In plate 50, entitled Los Chinchillas, Goya critiques Spain’s ruling classes by depicting them as monsters, their ears closed with padlocks, rendering them deaf to the problems of the people (Goya, Sarah Symmons, p. 168).

The inclusion of monsters, witches and goblins in the later part of the series allows Goya to blur boundaries between satire and darkness, reality and fantasy, the irrational and the real. This can be seen in works such as Se repulen (‘They spruce themselves up’) and Buen viaje (‘Bon voyage’), which were originally displayed by the Circulation department with Goya’s original, slightly bizarre, and often humorous captions.

Se repulen (They spruce themselves up), Francisco de Goya, 1799. Museum number CIRC.1149-1967. © Victoria and Albert Museum. Goya’s commentary as included in the Circulation Department’s label: ‘The business of having long nails is so pernicious that it is forbidden even in witchcraft’
Buen viaje (Bon voyage), Francisco de Goya, 1799, Museum number CIRC.350-1966. © Victoria and Albert Museum. Goya’s commentary as included in the Circulation Department’s label: ‘Where is this infernal company going, filling the air with noise in the darkness of night? If it were daytime it would be quite a different matter and gun shots would bring the whole group of them to the ground; but as it is it is night, so no one can see them’

The series shocked audiences for its frightening and subversive nature but has also been a huge influence on artists and designers ever since. Even in my work cataloguing the Circulation department’s collection I have found many examples where the influence of Los Caprichos can be seen. For example, the influence of Goya’s social satire can be seen in Honoré Daumier’s humorous 19th century lithographs, while the unsettling nature of the supernatural forces and the blurring of boundaries between human and animal can also be seen in the work of the Surrealists, such as in this heliogravure by Max Ernst from 1934.

The characters in Goya’s Los Chinchillas are also said to have influenced the costume and makeup for the monster in the 1931 film ‘Frankenstein’, and Los Caprichos have directly influenced the work of artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, who have used Goya’s images to embody their similarly anarchic aesthetic style.

All Circulation objects (recognisable by the prefix ‘Circ’ at the beginning of the object number), including the collection of Los Caprichos prints, are available to view in our Prints and Drawing study room by appointment. We hope you too can come in and be inspired by Goya’s incredible visual imagination.

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