Goya in Politics and War

Francisco Goya is considered by many to be the first modern painter, next to Velazquez or, superseding him, the standard bearer of the ascending line  of great Spanish painters, those chroniclers of things run through with blood, nightmares and sex.  However, he is also the first war correspondent, the first documentarian of narrated and lived lives.  His set of late career prints, the Disasters of War, set the stage for all future war documentary and photography.  To the interested viewer, the prints appear to document  the gruesome facts on the ground during the onset of Napoleon’s campaign against Spain.

However, there is no proof that Goya was ever present at the front lines to document any of the graphic violence he later reported in his prints.  In fact, a close inspection of the prints suggest that were a partisan or journalist actually present to document any of the slaughters, rapes and lynchings represented in the prints, his career surely would have ended at the sharp end of a sword.  (Moreover the Disasters of War prints were published posthumously, so it beggars belief to think that Goya, during his lifetime, took a dogmatic stance on our contemporary worry about the slippage between fact and truth). Indeed, the intensity of action at hand, the mannerisms of the guilty–and everyone is forever guilty–and the sheer scope of the pessimism the prints imply could only be constructed line by line, fancy by fancy.  Nevertheless, the prints ring true and hurtful in a way that would shock even the most sophisticated modern audiences.  After all, a proposition need not be a fact in order to be true.   So, similarly, why should an image of the world undone have to rely on facts on the ground in order to be true?   This is the question to which modern art claims to offer receding answers.

Consider Mathew Brady’s haunting images of Gettysburg.  We now know that many of the most memorable images were art directed and many of the dead soldiers repositioned to compose the photographs we remember.  The image is somehow false; the world it identifies is true, through and through.  A careful critic would find that some of the compositions are mirror images of Goya’s work.  Consider, as well, the art practice of Jake and Dinos Chapman.   Their contemporary version of the Disasters is less knowingly ironic, than a plea for an image catalog that might have existed had Goya never painted.

And Goya painted his life away.  He painted under a patronage system that holds sway even now in New York’s Upper West Side and London’s May Fair.  The contemporary artist John Currin owes his career to his matrons perched high above Central Park, dominating a system of transactions  that Goya, knowingly or otherwise, fought to disestablish.  Of course, he did all this not only as the most prominent painter in Spain, but also as a lost and lonely artist–the sinecure of the moderns.

At the height of his career as the middle-aged court painter to the King of Spain, Goya took severely ill and, as a result, permanently lost his hearing.  He then began a series of paintings of the imprisoned and the mad in the local jails; a series on witches and warlocks in old, pre-modern and superstitious Spain shows Goya keenly aware of  a brutal past, a shining now and a searching future, all at the same time, often in the same painting.  His pessimism reared forth in his Los Caprichos prints and crested, in old age, in what we now call the Black Paintings.  Now, when we look at the black paintings, the best of us, the most erudite and considerate thinks Picasso an infant, his entire oeuvre the scratchings of a barren mind and an unkind soul

This is where, to me, Goya stands in the history of art.  The wealthy court painter who infused into his art his heady distance from the world and the dislocation he must have felt when, after going deaf, he claimed, “I am standing up, but feel so ill that I do not know if my head is on my shoulders.”  It is not much to think his famous etching “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” was just this attempt to find himself in his own preferred world.

The other lodestar that guides my art is the work of Leon Golub, the late, politically committed Chicago based artist who, by painting false images, relayed to his audience his deepest convictions, and showed anyone who might glance at his paintings, the dissembling wretch that post-war American politics and policy had become in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  So it was with considerable joy that I watched him pass knowing commentary on Goya’s art.  The documentary is “Crazy like a Genius” and it benefits immeasurably from being written and presented by the effusive Australian born critic and scholar, Robert Hughes.  I can’t claim to know or even feel, now that I write you, one hair’s weight of what I knew and felt about Goya’s world when Hughes, walking stick in hand, a slight limp teetering under a gourmand’s girth, showed me, in his loving presentation, the things modern art could say and be.

~ by Faheem Haider on August 6, 2009.

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