Francisco de Goya
Los Desastres de la Guerra

May 15 – September 13, 2008
at Peter Blum SoHo

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes The Disasters of War

The Brooklyn Rail
July 1, 2008

Two hundred years ago last May, the population of Madrid rose up in a spontaneous revolt against the occupation forces of the puppet King of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon. The crowds were inflamed by the rumor that Prince Francisco, the thirteen-year-old son of the deposed Bourbon monarch, Carlos IV—and the last member of the Spanish royal family still remaining in the country—was about to be abducted to Bayonne, France, where his parents lived in exile.

The rebellion erupted at flash points around the city, with no leadership or coordination, and within twenty-four hours it was ruthlessly crushed. Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, who was present in Madrid at the time, memorialized these events in “The Second of May, 1808” and “The Executions of the Third of May, 1808,” his transcendent masterpiece.

These paintings were commissioned in 1814, after Napoleon’s forces had been driven out of the country by relentless guerrilla fighters (with significant military assistance from the British) in a six-year war of attrition. In contrast, scholars have determined that as many as sixty-three of the eighty etchings in The Disasters of War were completed during the height of the conflict. Thus, the journalistic aspect of the folio has been in the forefront of most of the writings about it. However, only two of the plates (numbers 44 and 45), both of refugees fleeing the famine gripping Madrid, bear captions that reflect firsthand experience: “I saw it,” “And this too.”

The remaining etchings were made when Goya—pushing seventy, stone-deaf and broke—was holed up in his farmhouse (coincidentally nicknamed La Quinta del Sordo, The House of the Deaf Man, by the locals before he moved in) where he later produced his most cold-eyed indictments of human folly, the Black Paintings and the etching suite, Los Disparates. The prints comprising the final section of The Disasters of War are sardonic allegories of religious fanaticism and willful ignorance that speak directly to the arch-reactionary regime of the restored Bourbon king, Fernando VII, whose corruption and authoritarianism were so extreme that in 1824 Goya fled Spain for France, the land of the oppressor, never to return.

The ironies and contradictions afflicting Goya’s postwar circumstances were no less intense at the beginning of the insurrection. Despite his day job as the court painter to Carlos IV, Goya admired the principles of the French Enlightenment as a corrective to Spanish absolutism, and he later became an ardent supporter of the Constitution of 1812. This bold document, written by the democratic Central Junta during the power vacuum created by the exile of the Bourbons and the impotence of Joseph Bonaparte, put forth such sweeping guarantees of personal liberty that it signaled a more radical break with the past than either the American Constitution of 1789 or the French Constitution of 1791.

In hindsight, Goya’s liberal sympathies, as well as his conflict of loyalties, have been inferred from his “Family of Carlos IV” (1800), with its astonishing spectacle of royal imbecility, and the postwar “Fernando VII” (1814), a portrait of the young tyrant as a sweaty-browed thug, seething with insecurity and resentment. These are qualities Goya witnessed with his own eyes (“I saw it”) and he created the most trenchant political paintings in the Western canon simply by showing his subjects as they were, without exaggeration or editorializing.

And yet, despite his belief in the Enlightenment, once the French army and Egyptian mercenaries (the turbaned fighters attacked by Spanish patriots in “The Second of May,” also known as “The Charge of the Mamelukes”) turned Spain into a charnel house, with the artist’s homeland of Aragon as the locus of some of the most severe devastation, Goya’s heart was with the people—even as they fought to restore the symbol of their country, the treacherous and sycophantic Fernando (who was living off Napoleon’s tab in Talleyrand’s Château de Valençay while begging to marry a Bonaparte niece) to the throne.

Upon his return, Fernando banned the Constitution, thus investing himself with absolute power, reinstated feudal economic structures, and revived the Inquisition (which Napoleon had abolished) as the prime instrument of political repression and social control. The Spaniards, therefore, had suffered mass executions, famine, mutilation, and rape, while returning atrocity for atrocity, to ensure their own enslavement. The pessimism experienced by Goya and his fellow adherents to the Enlightenment, who were known as the ilustrados, couldn’t have been blacker.

How much of this Goya discerned while the war was raging, given his deafness and isolation, is impossible to know. It is telling, however, that his images of hackings, hangings, molestations and pointblank shootings, and of the war’s consequent deprivation and famine, lead directly into the concluding allegories without warning. The folio’s well-known first image, the Gethsemane-like “Sad presentiments of what must come to pass,” is from this later group, and it is assumed that plate number 40, “There is something to be gained,” showing a man struggling with a saber-toothed beast, is from the allegorical section as well. Intriguingly, this sheet, coming as it does at the suite’s halfway point, acts as a divider between the last print depicting the war’s carnage (“Great deeds! With dead men!”—the familiar but still-shocking icon of butchered corpses hanging from a tree) and the first of the refugee images. And so the metaphoric is deliberately inserted into the realistic; even the caption of the second refugee print, “Everything is topsy-turvy,” points toward a global (i.e., symbolic) sense of chaos. The years between the initiation of The Disasters of War and its completion witnessed a complete reversal, from the presumed perspective of the artist, of what the struggle was all about. This span of time must be taken into consideration when regarding the work, since Goya himself seemed to concede the series’ changing context by including his pessimistic allegories at its beginning and center as well as the end. Taken as a whole, the folio is as absurd and caustic as the great Black Painting, “Duel with Clubs” (1820-1824), of two men cudgeling each other bloody while sinking into a bog.

If the political dimensions of mounting an exhibition of all eighty prints of The Disasters of War (from an edition published by the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, in 1906) weren’t already apparent, the announcement issued by the Peter Blum Gallery makes an emphatic enough statement. It contains nothing about the work’s art historical importance, only an enlarged detail of “Great deeds! With dead men!” and a quote from George Santayana’s The Life of Reason that begins, “It is war that wastes a nation’s wealth, chokes its industries, kills its flower, narrows its sympathies, [and] condemns it to be governed by adventurers…”

Some facile parallels can be made between the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and the Iraq War, but a credible analysis would be far too complex to be undertaken here. Yet beneath any comparison lies the hard truth that the arrogance of power breeds stupidity. Napoleon may have deluded himself into believing that his brutal subjugation of a rival empire, itself beset by struggles of liberation in its American colonies, was an act of deliverance from a hated despot, just as Bush could have bought his own PR that his Middle East power grab would somehow carry with it the seeds of democracy. Napoleon was a strategic genius and Bush is a callow, unlettered hustler, but both used the façade of the Enlightenment, however faded and debased, as a cover for their wanton acts of aggression. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, after all, was followed a few short years later by the Reign of Terror; the events of 1808 to 1814 proved to Goya that this was not an aberration, but rather the nature of the state.

It should be remembered that Romanticism, which Goya helped usher in, was as much a reaction to the collapse of the Age of Reason as it was a triumph of the emotions. The strong diagonals of the two hanged men swinging from a gibbet in “The way is hard!” topple the formal rationalism of Jacques-Louis David and desecrate the classical ideal. The barbarity of this image and others in The Disasters of War is hardly remote. The Spanish War of Independence launched the modern plague of total war, with all of its ever-intensifying efficiency and cruelty. The mutilated bodies Goya drew with such compassion could be from Iraq, Darfur, Rwanda, El Salvador, Nicaragua or Guatemala, to cite just a few of the conflicts from the past quarter-century. The hanged men on the gibbet could be Saddam Hussein and Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, whose head was snapped off by a miscalculated rope length. And the writ of habeas corpus as a basic human right in this country hangs by a single vote in the Supreme Court. Goya’s sad presentiments of what must come to pass were not for the ensuing six years, but for the next two hundred.

THOMAS MICCHELLI