George Santayana famously said that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (in The Life of Reason, Vol. I: Reason in Common Sense). The question, of course, is which past are we supposed to remember, immediate, middle distance, ancient? And what are we to do with our memories?
This show was born in response to the media craziness during the months immediately before the Gore-Bush election, in the chaotic weeks that followed election day, and in the period since then, a craziness born, at least in part, by a collective amnesia; the pasts I choose to remember are those imaged in five great series of prints. The eighty etchings that make up Goya’s most important series of prints, Los Caprichos (1799), have long been recognized as one of the supreme monuments of European art. Goya, royal painter to the kings of Spain during the late eighteenth-early nineteenth centuries, eventually died in exile, both of his major print series having been "donated" to the crown to protect him from the Inquisition. A believer in the potential power of reason, his works show what happens when reason is trampled underfoot by individual human follies and corrupt social customs. In these works Goya looks at his country and memorializes it as a monument to desperation, folly, arrogance, incompetence, and the need that some of his subjects have to try to control the uncontrollable. Spaightwood has a complete set (from the sixth editionan edition we first saw presented in an exhibit of Goya’s works at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany); we will show the entire series of 80 plus several impressions from the Disasters of War and one of the Proverbios.
Shortly before Goya began work on the Caprichos, David Deuchar, a Scots artist, published a number of etchings based upon Hans Holbein’s early 16th-century series of woodcuts on the theme of the Dance of Death. Holbein, working shortly after the Reformation had thrown all Europe into chaos, was a congenial inspiration to Deuchar, working shortly after the American revolution had forced the world’s greatest military power, England, to abandon the colonies it had recently fought a war to keep safe from the French. It was a war that may have contributed to the dissolution of the French Monarchy, itself shortly to experience revolution and an outbreak of terror, pushing all Europe into a series of wars that led to a revival of French power under Napoleon and then its destruction at the battle of Waterloo at the hands of the British Army and supported by the British Navy. If the revolutionary William Blake had thought that Satan was the hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost and that Milton "was of the Devil’s party," John Martin, writing after Waterloo, has no such illusions: his mezzotints for an edition of Paradise Lost depict a war between light and darkness, and leave us always with the memory of the light shining in the darkness that cannot extinguish it.
We are also showing 24 woodcuts Durer executed for one of the first European best sellers, Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools, a humanist work in which wisdom condemns the follies she sees everywhere she looks. First published in 1494 as the reform movement begun in the North as an attempt to renew a rather corrupt church was about to find its true leader, Erasmus, whose Praise of Folly (1508) leaves us to wonder whether Wisdom should really condemn folly if Folly is actually condemning folly though her mock praises. Like Goya’s, Durer’s works also illustrate human follies, but from a rather different perspective: unlike Goya, who forces us to see from the perspective of participants in the world’s follies, Durer, following Brant’s lead, invites us to play spectator from the perspective of Wisdom, to mock the fools who never manage to get it right rather than to realize that we too live in a world that always get it wrong. Most of our impressions are from the 1511 edition (though at least one is from the 1497 edition); all are in remarkably good condition (especially considering that they were made before most of Europe even knew that Columbus had discovered what we like to think of as a "New World." (As Shakespeare's Prospero, who remembered more of his and the world’s history, says to Miranda, when she, seeing a group of "goodly creatures" for the first time, hails the birth of a "brave new world": "’Tis new to thee.")
Rounding out the show will be selections from two early 20th-century masterpieces, selections from the Miserere by Georges Rouault and Marc Chagall's Dead Souls. Rouault's works were inspired by the devastation caused by the First World War (one of the etchings takes its title from a line in Lucan’s Pharsalia describing the effects of the Roman Civil Wars, "Even the ruins are ruined") and the corruption of the society that had produced the Dreyfuss affair and seemed to many to have made France ready for another revolution. The Dead Souls etchings are Chagall's farewell to the Russia of the Czar and his nobles and the Russia of the Bolcheviks. His targets appear to treated more in loving laughter than in anger, but the picture of a country ruled by credulous and rapacious land-owners and officious petty beaurocrates is nonetheless not a happy one: we are reminded once again of Benedick's final judgment ofo his society at the end of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing: "Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion."