Dinos & Jake Chapman

Victoria Miro Gallery | Mayfair

Francisco Goya began work on the portfolio of etchings titled Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of war) two years after the Napoleonic invasions of Spain in 1808. Ten years latter, at the age of 75, the plates were completed. Desastres is generally thought to be an allegory inspired by the themes of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: conquest, war, famine, and death. It has become something of an icon for antiwar activists and a benchmark for so-called politically engaged artists, who claim Desastres exemplifies an esthetically competent, highly emotive, and politically effective art.

The Disasters of War by Dinos and Jake Chapman is a 1/32nd-scale model of Goya’s Desastres. Like the original portfolio, the Chapmans’ work is also in 83 parts. But here, each of Goya’s gruesome, dark, shocking images is translated into a three-dimensional tableau made up of stock toy figures that have been deformed, painted over, or pieced together from a variety of sources. These tableaux obviously do not intend to faithfully reproduce the originals. The ways in which they diverge from replicating Goya, if not the point of the work, is certainly of interest. A portfolio of monochrome etchings of individual representations, Desastres can be read as a series of broad narratives; the Chapmans’ Disasters is a circular arrangement of 83 full-color groupings devoid of the original’s occasional architectural settings, and placed on irregularly shaped clumps of simulated lawn. Despite the consistent use of available model forms, these tableaux are capable of immediately bringing the original images to mind. The effect of seeing scenes of barbarity and degradation in the round, as it were, is genuinely disquieting. At the same time that these works debunk the grand claims of a Goya-esque political art, they intensify the brutality of the representations.

There is another angle to this work, supported no doubt by the overwhelming contingency of the project. It involves a kind of erasure of the older and perhaps suspect orders of ethical weight draped around the figure of Goya. For the Chapmans, the interest in Goya was sparked by T. J. Clark’s discussion in The Painting of Modern Life, 1984, of the relationship between Manet and Goya. There, Clark argues, that Baudelaire’s enthusiasm for some plates in Goya’s Los Caprichos, (The caprices, 1796–98) is instructive to our understanding of Manet’s Olympia, 1863: both are simplified and decorous; both contain pictorial elements that are grotesque or mundane or outrageous; both are “not quite creature[s] of fantasy and not quite social fact; neither metaphor nor violation . . . neither real nor allegorical.”

Though the specific work of Goya’s used by Baudelaire and, in turn, Clark to suggest that Manet might have learned from him how to produce a picture “balanced between incompatible modes” is Los Caprichos and not Desastres, Clark’s concatenation of Goya and Manet seems to provide adequate license to justify the Chapmans’ choice of Goya. It is not simply a convoluted mind that demands the translation of Desastres into a nightmarish landscape worthy of a miniature railway, but one which finds solace in these types of representational failures.

Michael Corris