Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War) the complete set of eighty etchings with burnished aquatint, drypoint and engraving, 1810-20, on heavy, absorbent wove paper, with watermarks J.G.O and a Palmette, fine, early impressions, from Harris' First Edition Ia, before corrections to the titles of plates 9, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 39 and 47, printed in the workshop of Laurenciano Potenciano, published by the Real Academia de Nobles Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, 1863, all the full sheets but one plate reduced slightly at the right sheet edge, otherwise in very good condition, bound as issued in eight groups of ten impressions with pale pink paper covers numbered in stencil on the front 1 to 8, with the title page and introductory text in the first bound folder, all folders in good conditionPlates 162 x 232mm. (6 5/8 x 9 1/4in.); Sheets 248 x 345mm. (9 7/8 x 13 1/2in.) 80 Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) Los Proverbios (The Proverbs) The complete set of 18 etchings with aquatint and drypoint, before 1824, on heavy wove paper, some with watermarks J.G.O. and a Palmette, fine, richly inked impressions, printing with very good contrasts and highlights, from the First edition of three hundred copies, printed in the workshop of Laurenciano Potenciano, published by the Real Academia de Nobles Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, 1864, with the lithographic title page, the full sheets, generally in very good condition, bound within a late 19th Century calf leather and brown linen-covered boards with the artist's name and title in gilt on the spine Plates 245 x 355mm. (9 3/4 x 14in.); Sheets 333 x 500mm. (13 x 19 1/2in.)  18

War, starvation, torture – Goya turned his terrible era into visceral, visionary art, writes Jonathan Jones

In 1812, the Duke of Wellington posed in Madrid for a portrait by Spain's most eminent artist. Wellington had recently led a British army into the city, driving the hated regime of Napoleon's brother, Joseph Bonaparte, out of the capital. Over the next two years, he would complete France's defeat in Spain. Wellington had an eye for art and could hardly have been unaware of the fame of Francisco de Goya, court painter since 1789. Goya's portrait captures the magnificence of the Duke's medals and insignia, while passing over them in a blur: they are not his focus. Instead he concentrates on Wellington's moist blue eyes. They stare out of the painting guardedly, at once cold and full of secrets. They are the eyes of a man who has seen too much.

What has the Iron Duke seen? A berserk man hewing at French soldiers with an ax, perhaps. A French soldier complacently looking at hanged Spanish corpses. Fragments of flesh strung out on a tree. A naked man being held upside down as a hussar takes a sword to his groin to bisect him.

Wellington does not blink. And nor did Goya. For these are all scenes in The Disasters of War, one series of which is offered at Bonhams Prints & Multiples sale in December. Goya produced the prints between 1810 and 1820. War has an official face, regimented, strategic, disciplined – the face of a general lining up his troops like toys. Behind that mask is madness. Wellington must know this as surely as Goya. He must have seen horrors at least as hideous as those witnessed and imagined by the artist. From what he saw of the Spanish Peninsular War between Napoleonic France, a ragged Spanish resistance and an ultimately victorious Britain, Goya etched 80 scenes of war that have no equal in art for their unbearable honesty.

The things that soldiers see but must never tell; the war crimes, atrocities, rape and desecration that make a mockery of medals, speeches and even history books that treat conflict as something rational – Goya lays them all bare. The Disasters are a great blasphemy. It is not just that one of the prints portrays a corpse that has managed to write with its last strength the word "Nada" ("Nothing"), implying that the afterlife is a lie. Goya's entire series blasphemes against the Christian idea of Hell by showing how easily we can outdo it for ourselves on earth.

The second and third scenes in the series lay bare the particular savagery of the Peninsular War. Mutual hatred led to fighting without limits. A French firing squad, hunched with their faces invisible, aim their bayoneted guns at rebels at point-blank range. In the adjacent scene, the French are falling under a remorseless close-quarters attack by Spanish civilians. It is a paradigm of war with which we have become familiar in the 21st century: an asymmetric struggle between uniformed soldiers and impassioned insurgents.

The descent into chaos that Goya charts began in Madrid in 1808. Two early plates in The Disasters closely resemble his history paintings The Second of May, 1808, and The Third of May, 1808, both painted in 1814. In the first, he recreates a furious popular rising against Napoleon's troops that revealed the depth of Spanish popular opposition. The violence of the crowd is not glorified. For Goya, this revolt is sheer mob violence. Yet the deaths of the defeated rebels by firing squad in The Third of May are worse. Dragged before faceless soldiers in the light of a lantern, the patriots must look death in the eye.

Worse – but not the worst thing that will happen in the bloody war unleashed by those two days in Madrid in 1808. The impossibility of reaching war's 'worst' is one of Goya's themes. "Esto es peor" ("This is worse") says the inscription on Plate 37 of The Disasters. It shows a man impaled by his anus on a tree branch, his left arm severed. Despair of reaching the bottom of the pit of horrors, of revealing yet viler recesses of human malevolence, is what makes these prints so compelling, so astonishing and so distressing.

Why don't we turn away, run away, from such sickening sights? No one forces us to look, yet it is hard to stop. Not many people are haunted by the possibility of being cut in two or impaled on a tree. You just don't think about such things. The shock of The Disasters is that someone has done so – because they really happen.

Bonhams is offering a complete set of Goya's Disasters of War, together with his Proverbs, in the winter that sees the centenary of the Armistice that ended the First World War. Horrors akin to those etched by Goya were captured in photographs of skeletal soldiers in the trenches and in Otto Dix's 1924 print series Der Krieg – a conscious homage to Goya – yet our current image of 1914-18 is gentler and less direct. We know it was horrific, but cannot face the detail as Goya did. Nor do we see, in current war art, the rapes, tortures and dismemberments of the Isis caliphate or the immediate consequences of bombing civilians in Syria. Perhaps we do not need to make such art today, because we need only look at Goya's etchings.

The Disasters chronicles the destruction of reason itself. His early art, from his joyous tapestry cartoons to his portraits of The Clothed and The Naked Maja, are full of hope and good humor. Spain was changing for the better when he made his name in the late 18th century. The European Enlightenment, a movement inspired by Newtonian physics that preached the power of science and technology to improve life, reached Madrid and Goya breathed its fresh air. The tragedy of the Napoleonic Wars ended that optimism. Goya's late art broods on a world gone mad. His Proverbs reflect the deranged universe of the Black Paintings he created at home. His print of men on bat-like machines is a despairing image of reason's failure. The sick humor of the Proverbs mocks a world without reason. The Disasters shows how this Bedlam came to be.

The apparent chaos of Goya's war has a terrible logic. The tit-for-tat atrocities deepen in their evil from heat-of-the-moment violence to more calculated cruelties. Sexual abuse by the French leads to reprisals. Finally, dead bodies are sported in a psychotic carnival: "A Great Deed! With the dead!" proclaims Plate 39, in which desecrated corpses are tied and speared on a tree. By comparison, Picasso's Guernica is idealized and evasive.

Artists had portrayed war atrocities before, from a house being burned by the Normans in the Bayeux Tapestry to Baroque illustrations of brutality by Rubens and Callot. But Goya goes so much further there is no comparison. The Disasters has less in common with previous war art than with depictions of Hell by Bosch and Bruegel, both of whom were well represented in the Spanish royal collection. Today, Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights and Bruegel's Triumph of Death can be compared, in the Prado, with Goya's works. His unique achievement is to match their imaginary horrors in scenes we accept as essentially true records of real events.

Today artists struggle to move the world to pity for Syria's refugees. Goya's unfolding nightmare leads inevitably to scenes of people fleeing across barren landscapes. From there his pulverized Spain descends into starvation. Is that the worst? No, there will be worse.

Jonathan Jones is art critic for The Guardian.

Sale: Prints & Multiples
New Bond Street, London
Tuesday 18 December at 2pm
Enquiries: Lucia Tro Santafe
+44 (0) 20 7468 8262

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