Goya’s The Disasters of War: Making the Modernist Subject.

One can hardly glance through the pages of “The Disasters of War” prints by Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes, without wondering:  by what contraption did he capture these images?  It is no mere act of imagining, one wants to think.  It were as if, he had been present to document the events in question that make up the undulating rhyme and horrific reason behind the prints.

Goya had put them away, of course; the prints were published well after he died.  No one talked to him about the pieces; no one could, then.  He’d long been deaf.  No one can, now.  But one wonders. One wonders whether he stood on the grounds where vicious murders were being committed. One wonders whether Goya hid behind that boulder or the other when the woman was being taken to the place where she would soon be raped in front of her young son.  One should be forgiven for such inane questions, for they are appropriate.

Goya claimed in the caption of one of those great images of the Disasters, plate number 44, to be precise, that he was present at the scene of a young family’s forceful separation.  The young harried father is being pulled way by French soldier from his young, worried wife, the invaders’s dominating presence telegraphed, not just in the soldier’s brutal act, but in his young daughter left behind, panicked by the rumblings of the encroaching battalion.   In the background, a human caravan, atop mules and men is striding toward the scene even as the rear flank of this ill-shod troupe rushes toward the middle ground, panicked, just like the man’s daughter, at the sight of the on-coming pillagers.  Goya, wrote of this scene, “Yo lo vi.”  “I saw it.” It is hard to imagine in the same breath that he could not at least have seen the scavengers coming, if not stood pat there. (To be sure, it is not hard to think that Goya would have been murdered had he been present.  But that’t not our worry; our concern is that Goya’s etchings makes it seem as if he were there.)

And this is the modern turn.  Goya takes this turn–perhaps the modern turn– by forcing the audience who is viewing the printed works to think about–one step removed–what Goya might have seen.  It is this move, where the viewer gazing at the piece is in the same moment, watching the action unfold, set in a particular mise-en-scene, wind up, wind down and around the hill-tops of his local village and yours.

This is Goya’s power.  More in this set of images than in even the Black Paintings;  this particularly well-framed narrative that holds forth both as an indictment of military invasion, political impotence, social incontinence and as an exemplar of those phenomena for every epoch that has followed it.

And why?  Goya is documenting lives lived and deaths ignored.  His Disasters, 80 aquatint prints, rivals his earlier and well-received masterpiece “Los Caprichos”, “The Vagaries”, though unlike Los Caprichos, it bears witness to the politics of the day–a sudden and brave move for a court painter.  And that’s the winning argument for Goya’s work here: witness, witnessing and the specious voyeurism of the journalist stands behind the challenge to put into words the rending images he etched.

Los Caprichos is,  as it stands to public and critical regard, Goya’s meandering commentary on black Spanish traditions, its obsession with witchcraft and the weird. Jails and nightmares, suffocating all that is enlightened within himself, within his brothers and sisters.  Madness and the tremulous gathering awaiting some Satan.  The Disasters, instead, purports to annotate the facts on the ground: the beheadings and the muddled rape of Spain’s motherhood.  It is the work of a patriot who refuses to fall into rabidly unchallenged patriotism.  It is the work of the son, who has taken it upon himself to record his mother’s disemboweling.

Likewise, the last Black Paintings are nothing less than pure distillations of Goya’s ailing mind.  Whether madness painted on his walls, when deaf and despairing, they were Goya’s final attempt to collate himself into his works, the necessity of whose birthing could not have been arrested onto canvas.   They declare the frothing drive toward the modern sense.  That dog struggles to look  at you, and you acknowledge that it can expect no respite from its lost misery.

The Disaster’s declare the world, lived and murdered.  The Black Paintings, point out the dark shadows that lie underneath our best hopes.  At the end, in Goya’s deafened and bleakly alive works, we have the darkness of his world painted on Spanish walls, now Spain’s walls.  Whilst in the beginning we had social commentary; in the middle, in The Disasters, we have reportage.  That is the trigger for modernity.  The self-same  sign that here I am, in paint and print.  Myself and no other. Through his declaration, that “I saw it”, nearing, “I was there”, Goya heralds the modernist subject.

~ by Faheem Haider on July 25, 2010.

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