Monday, March 31, 2008

Master of Disaster

For a man who painted much of his life for the rich and powerful, Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes depicted the plight of the poor and powerless with a tenderness and unwavering clarity that still shocks us today. Born March 30, 1746, Goya painted The Third of May 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid (above, from 1814), perhaps the most stirring depiction of an execution made in the nineteenth century. I’ve always found the white shirt of the central figure to be almost hypnotic in its ability to draw the eye directly to the center of the picture. Goya literally highlights the plea for mercy of this individual, whose outstretched arms echo the pose of the crucified Christ. King Carlos III and later Charles IV may have provided the patronage that allowed Goya to paint, but it was the Spanish people caught up in the endless power plays of the age of European revolution that provided Goya with endless inspiration.

After some kind of encephalitis robbed Goya of his hearing and nearly drove him mad in the early 1800s, he became infatuated with the dynamics of cruelty. In the last four years of his life, Goya covered the walls of his final home with paintings now known as the Black Paintings. In Saturn Devouring His Son, Goya shows the pagan god tearing apart his son and eating him. Another Black Painting shows two more mundane figures beating each other to death with clubs. These Black Paintings distill in the abstract the gloom that Goya kept locked up inside after years of witnessing the madness and inhumanity around him. A decade earlier, in The Disasters of War (Los desastres de la guerra), Goya took the specific atrocity of the Peninsular War and created universal images of the human cost of conflict. It’s hard to look at the outstretched arms of the individual in Goya’s Gloomy Presentiments of Things to Come (above, 1810-1815) from The Disasters of War series and not look back to The Third of May 1808 and forward to Satar Jabar, aka, the “Hooded Man” of the Abu Ghraib torture photos.

Stephen Eisenman’s The Abu Ghraib Effect (my review here) hails Goya as one of the few artists who offered resistance against the overwhelming tide of cruelty embedded in the course of Western Civilization. It’s a common trope to call Goya both the last of the Old Masters and the first of the Moderns, but I see it as a disservice to Goya to lump him in with the majority of Modernists who rarely speak truth to power. Goya’s ghoulish Bury Them and Be Silent (above, also from The Disasters of War, 1810-1815) speaks for the silenced as it documents the code of silence agreed to by the survivors. Eisenman sees complicity with this code of silence as participation in the pattern of violence. Goya’s powerful humanity provided him with the courage to speak out in images and refuse to be party to the death and destruction. In our image-maddened society today, we can learn a lot from a man who made these images two centuries ago. Goya, a man who could not hear himself, still has the ability to stir us to hear the cries of the war-inflicted suffering around us today.

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