Francisco de Goya
Los Desastres de la Guerra

May 15 – September 13, 2008
at Peter Blum SoHo

Goya at the Top of His Game

The New York Sun
May 15, 2008

by Lance Esplund

In late 1807 and early 1808, French troops began to occupy areas of northern Spain, beginning an international six-year war, in which Spanish guerrillas, as well as civilians, including women and children, defended their homeland, village by village, house by house, and even floor by floor.

During forced coexistence, husbands and sons were tortured and murdered and women and girls were raped and forced to marry French officers and employees. The press was censored. The Spanish Inquisition's medieval tactics of interrogation and execution were employed by the French — at times merely to discover where the Spanish were hiding their valuables. Famine spread. Villages succumbed to typhoid — their corpses, piled in the streets and left to rot by the thousands, were eventually buried in mass graves. Whole towns were pillaged and burned. People were impaled on fences and trees, or their severed limbs and heads, as warnings, were openly exhibited. The Spanish fought for subsistence. Neighbor turned against neighbor. Spanish officials were deemed traitors and brutally murdered by mobs. The orphaned, widowed, starving, and homeless, along with hundreds of sequestered monks who were driven out of their monasteries, became refugees, set adrift in a dangerous world.

The Spanish War of Independence against Napoleon's forces would last until December 1813, and postwar repercussions — famine, disease, homelessness, political persecution, and civil unrest — would be felt at least until 1820.

Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) probably did not witness all or even most of the war's atrocities, but he saw a lot firsthand, heard stories from many, and lived with the aftermath of the war; all of which — Spain's suppression, martyrdom, revolt, divisionism, and the brutalization of humanity — inspired his masterpieces "The Second of May 1808" and "The Third of May 1808" (both 1814), as well as the astonishing, sobering, and satirical suite of 85 etchings, "Los Desastres de la Guerra," or "The Disasters of War" (1815-20).

The original set of proofs was bound by the artist and given to his friend Juan Agustín Ceán Bermúdez to review. Goya had titled it "Fatales Consequencias de la Sangrienta Guerra en España con Buonaparte. Y Otros Caprichos Enfáticos ... ," or "Fatal Consequences of Spain's Bloody War With Buonaparte. And Other Striking Caprichos ... ." It is now in the British Museum. Because of censorship, however, the prints were not published during Goya's lifetime. Finally, in 1863, the first edition of 80 aquatints was published as "Los Desastres de la Guerra." A first-edition bound copy of the prints, along with a very good complete set of the framed aquatints, numbered and arranged in order on the walls, goes on view today at the Peter Blum Gallery.

Goya was 62, deaf, and partly paralyzed when Napoleon entered Spain. He was a proud and loyal countryman, as well as a liberal and a rebel who more than once narrowly escaped political persecution. (The artist's first suite of etchings "The Caprichos" (1799), 80 biting and satirical, though empathetic, prints of human folly, probably contributed to his loss of royal favor.) Goya had been appointed Spanish court painter and was religious. Intellectually liberated, however, he more than welcomed into Spain the French Enlightenment, which was in direct conflict with the Spanish monarchy and the church. In short, Goya, like many of his enlightened countrymen, was conflicted if not divided, evident in the fact that Goya accepted a commission to paint a portrait of Joseph Bonaparte, who not only decorated the artist but set him up in material comfort while most of Madrid was starving.

But Goya's true sympathies were with his countrymen — or at least with anyone who suffered or who was oppressed. By the time he began "The Disasters of War," he was at the top of his game, artistically, intellectually, inventively; and he let out all of the stops.

"The Disasters of War" is divided into three parts. The first illustrates the direct horrors of war and its effects; the second deals with famine and displacement as a consequence of war, and the last, through allegorical scenes, explores the trauma of the postwar period.

In this series, Goya, more than any other artist, fully, fiercely, and empathetically explores the travesties of war. Treating the scenes — each of which is titled, often ironically, poetically — as a combination of allegory, firsthand illustration, political commentary, and tragicomic vignette, Goya brings bitterness and pathos to life on the page.

The series has a way of building slowly, gradually, and subtly, of wearing you down over time with its offhand truths, bits of factual information, and scenes of helplessness and of absolutely hellish inhumanity and cruelty. Goya is exacting and specific. Not since Giotto or Poussin have grand, dramatic gestures been so well-staged, humbly presented, and imbued with such full and precise personality and meaning. Goya imbues each line with emotion. We know exactly what each figure — even the dead — feels in these prints. But Goya strips the artworks of blame and nationality. His lens is completely clear. Working from drawings, in which specific places and costumes show exactly when and where the events depicted took place, Goya clears the decks in the prints. He turns this war into every war; these oppressors and oppressed become all oppressors and oppressed. War becomes a universal artistic theme in which he explores man's desperation, brutality, and inhumanity against man.

The "Disasters of War" have the weight of biblical narratives, but without hope for redemption. Goya makes us feel as if each scene, each choice and action, is immediate, ongoing — its repercussions exponential. The combination of horror and the mundane creates images of Sisyphean import. In his images, even the dead are still dying. We feel the deadweight of futility, and often irony, in nearly every image — in the severed limbs and swinging bodies hanged from trees; in the way a garroted monk is stabbed with the very crucifix he holds and worships; in the way a corpse suddenly lights up an entire dark rectangle.

In the third print, a close-quarters battle, "The Same," the head of a skull, glaring upward, appears in the wrinkled sleeve of a man wielding an ax. In other prints, trees, as well as bodies, are abruptly topped. Horses fall and crush their riders. Sorrow and smoke, like miasma, descend, wafting through and dissolving forms like acid rain. Heads, impaled on branches, sprout like surreal and gruesome flowers. Architecture and ground appear ready to dissolve and to fall away. The distraught, in the act of covering their faces with their hands, appear to penetrate their heads and to claw at dark, vacuous masses. And groups, or mounds, of people — clinging families; fighting, wrestling soldiers; heaps of the dead — are knotted together into single twisted beasts. Seemingly marooned, they drift through desolate expanses like rafts of shipwrecked survivors.

The "Disasters of War," despite their disasters, are gorgeous. And there is life among the tortured and the dead. Naked corpses, their flesh glistening and shimmering like marble, contort, revolt, and spasm. They free-fall and tumble — rather than are thrown — into their graves. There is even occasionally the suggestion of hope and humor.

In "What Can Be Done?" a nude, upside-down man is being sawed in half between his spread-eagled legs. But, as with many of the figures depicted in this series, his body appears to rotate at the waist — as if he had contorted his body completely around and, offering his bare backside to his captors, was mooning his executioners. In the last print, "Will She Rise Again?," the personification of truth, a recumbent woman, depicted like an "Assumption of the Virgin," is suspended in a coma. Strong, broad rays of light shine from her body. Yet Goya, as in all of these paradoxical images, has posed not a solution or a commentary but a question: Truth's rays of light, rather than offer warmth and illumination, are brittle, hard, frozen — waiting for the spring thaw of enlightenment, compassion, and reason.

Today through August 1 (99 Wooster St., between Spring and Prince streets, 212-343-0441).