Art critic Robert Hughes claims in his 2003 biography of the great Spanish Romantic Francisco de Goya that The Disasters of War has never been surpassed as art about mass violence, and that it's not likely even to be challenged. Those who have dared to face these eighty-odd forbidding, still-shocking images of the brutal Peninsular War between the French army and the Spanish guerrillas would be hard-pressed even coming up with a second-best. Goya defined — despite Picasso's pastiche, Massacre in Korea, and despite the Chapman brothers' egregious overpainting of one set of the prints with clown and puppy heads — how war could be depicted artistically: with unflinching realism, unstinting emotion, and without a whiff of exploitation, theatricality, or condescension.
Unlike his followers, Goya was a witness: Yo lo vi (I saw this), is one of his laconic titles; another is Todo va revuelto (Everything's going wrong). Living in Madrid, and journeying to Zaragoza, he certainly observed some of the harrowing scenes he depicted later, between 1810 and 1820, but some he must have contrived from earlier motifs from his long career. So rich was his visual and emotional imagination, however, that he was able to synthesize his impressions seamlessly, giving them density and drama without sacrificing reportorial immediacy. Eschewing earlier art's glamorization of noble chivalric combat (which survived, atavistically, in less independent artists until after the Great War), Goya combined Realist objectivity and Romantic subjectivity, forging searing images of grim, gray twilight struggle amid burned ruins in blasted landscapes: the French murder, rape, and butcher the Spanish; desperate peasants rise against the invaders with knife, axe, and pitchfork to wreak horrific vengeance; and we viewers, stunned survivors, survey the aftermath: human debris, mass graves, scavenging animals, famine, and starvation. Goya's sympathies as a liberal humanist may have been with the culturally and politically advanced French, but his feelings lay predominantly (but not exclusively) with his backward countrymen, despite their servile loyalty to corrupt nobles, king, and church.
Beyond the historical and documentary value of the works lies their moral stance: they powerfully indict the stupidity and cruelty of old and new orders alike, the Age of Reason's "rational" wars between rival nation-states revealed as more efficiently heartless than the old feudal boundary disputes. In the end, Goya refuses us propaganda's easy tribal adrenaline rush, proffering instead a tragic depiction of violence as virus (white-on-white and Christian-on-Christian, in this case, for the record). The Disasters of War reveals martial glory to be vainglory; it is an Iliad without exaltation or exultation, a theater of cruelty without meaning or end; it's news, unfortunately, that has stayed news. "Goya: The Disasters of War" runs through March 2 at the Berkeley Art Museum (free admission from entrance at 2621 Durant Ave., Berkeley). BAMPFA.berkeley.edu or 510-642-0808.
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