Jake and Dinos Chapman

Jake and Dinos Chapman have been pleasuring themselves on Goya's dismembered corpses for some time now. As if seeing him through the eyes of J.G. Ballard, they turn viewers into spectators at an Atrocity Exhibition of impaled, decapitated and strung up bodies.

The scenes of charnel house horror that Goya engraved in response to the Spanish Peninsular War began a tradition of war reportage in art that includes Manet's The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1868), Don McCullin's war photography and, as a last desperate attempt to convey the truth of war in art, Chris Burden's Vietnam era performance Shoot (1971). A few years ago, the Chapmans translated the intense textures of Goya's etchings into the pornographically smooth surfaces of fibreglass modelling. But the bodies they built and suspended from a tree were no longer pitiable like Goya's; the sadism was explicit, the spectator complicit in a detached examination of expertly simulated wounds.

When Goya made his engravings, printmaking was the most modern and journalistic medium in which any artist could work - it's only since the birth of photography that prints have acquired a patina of fine art preciousness. For their series of prints after Goya's 'Disasters of War' (1999) Jake and Dinos learned the engraver's art then spent 30 days in a studio turning out image after image, infecting Goya's plates with the contemporary anachronisms and pretensions of printmaking. But their travesty of printmaking doesn't just insult Goya: they also sneer at the Modernist originality of Picasso, as exemplified by the 'Vollard Suite'. In his engravings, Picasso depicts his sculptures of Marie-Thérèse; in theirs, the Chapmans depict their mutant mannequins. 'Four anuses, sixty penises - it must be a girl', observes a spectator in one.

The Chapmans' etchings inhabit a parallel universe to the current vogue for comic books and cartoons, but whereas other artists might relish the cheap and cheerful aesthetic of cartooning, Jake and Dinos complicate it with High Art references and expensive-looking prints. Invoking a tradition from Goya to Robert Crumb, they demonstrate a genuine graphic skill, sharply delineating contrasting textures, and their watercoloured etchings often possess a weird beauty. But then they defecate all over fine art by scouring a Swastika across their accomplished Goya copy.

Ah, that Swastika. One of the prints shows the Chapmans' current modelling masterpiece in progress: a Nazi death camp in the shape of a Swastika emerging from a smoking volcano. If Goya was transfixed by the Napoleonic wars, then Jake and Dinos are transfixed by the Holocaust. In this series, they look not so much like sophisticated artists reworking art history as traumatised outsiders coming to terms with an unnameable atrocity, even though we know this is not the case - the ironic nature of the work is too emphatic. Nonetheless, you might mistake the Chapman brothers for people who cared. Their dream-like image of a boy running through the gates of Auschwitz could have come from a very effective comic book about the Holocaust, but it's undermined by the playful obscenities that mock any hint of sentimentality.

As this exhibition was opening, Robert Benigni won an Oscar for his performance as a clown who cheers up death camps in the life-affirming holocaust comedy Life Is Beautiful (1998). The cinematic representations of the Holocaust that everyone in the West has by now experienced have done nothing to prevent a new catastrophe in Kosovo. If modern history has taught us one thing it's that we can aestheticise any horror. The Chapmans' playing with the personae of different artists - Goya Crumb or the holocaust artist Charlotte Salomon - enables them to hold this aestheticism up to scrutiny. They caricature people looking at their own sculptures as if their own success were itself a Disaster of War.

Issue 47

First published in Issue 47

Jun - Aug 1999