White Cube Gallery, London
19 October-3 December 2005
This title holds a grain of truth, in that the new work is a meditation on familiar themes and employs familiar techniques. This show is not full of radical new ideas - but does not claim to be.
Again, Francisco de Goya is both inspiration and collaborator. In their last major series of etchings, the Chapmans 'reworked and improved' Goya's great 'Disasters of War'. During the Napoleonic occupation of Spain, Goya witnessed extreme violence and suffering first hand. The Chapmans incorporate modern exemplars of disgust and anguish, and emphasised the distance of both time and physical reality between Goya's experiences and their own.
This time, they have tackled Goya's first major work of social commentary, 'Los Caprichos' in which he observed, mocked and attacked the follies of his time (the end of the 18th century). Spain was still in the repressive and corrupt grip of the Inquisition, while northern European intellectuals were exploring the possibilities of the Enlightenment. Goya's homeland was displaced from church to court and peasants to aristocracy. 'Los Caprichos' ('capricho' is 'caprice, imaginative fantasy, whim') is a heavily ironic title for a vicious satire; probably influenced by the English caricaturists. Spain, its priests, monks, nobles, children, prostitutes, animals, and the land itself, are possessed by monsters, goblins and evil spirits.
'Los Caprichos' is a wider canvas than 'The Disasters of War' and allows the Chapmans to find parallels between contemporary society and a crumbling Spain, and between a modern psychology of the subconscious and an arcane medievalism. The faces of aristocrats are replaced by grinning monkeys, the heads of peasants by strange mice, clerical garb by fascistic military uniforms: some comparisons are direct and evident, others more obscure, some may be pure fantasy. All of them, however, sustain or intensify Goya's barely suppressed fury and redirect it at present-day obsessions - the abuse of childhood, hypochondria, age, censorship and Britain's seemingly never-ending overseas military interventions.
The other major new work in the exhibition is a series of hand-coloured etchings titled 'Etchasketchathon.' Here, the 'raw material' is a fantastical colouring/connect-the-dots book of the Chapmans' own invention, but the influence of Goya is everywhere. A cute, freckled, curly haired boy in striped pyjamas hangs - dismembered - from a tree; a happy gnome becomes a skeletal master-of-ceremonies watched over by a recognisable credit card logo; a teddy bear has been gored by an unseen monster; a boy and a huge rabbit collaborate to decapitate a corpse.
As a portrait of childhood, 'Etchasketchathon' might be thought a nightmarish vision - the sign of a disturbed mind. A child who turned in one of these to the teacher would be under sedation in a maximum-security kindergarten before the bell rang for naptime. Children of early school age are fascinated, but confused by, the concept of death. Their parents and teachers (usually) find such fascination disturbing and discourage exploration of the issue through art and play. The 'Etchasketchathon' series has a superficial shock value for the staid and conventional, and a gross-out appeal for the immature, but also works on a more profound level. The myth of childhood purity is a cherished totem of our age yet is battered and eroded all around us - we regret it but perpetuate it at every opportunity.
Perhaps the brutality of the real world is a consequence of the tyrannical conformity imposed on the young … or perhaps not. Either way, the Chapman brothers are luminous analysts of the adult world; yet remain in touch with the 'dark side' of childhood innocence. They make you proud of what British art can do.