A preoccupation with mystery, violence and the irrational was always present in Goya’s art. As the years passed, casual observations of the foibles and horrors of the world were transfigured into a vision of life that came to dominate his work.
As he entered his sixties, Goya’s isolation from the world in which he still seemed to move so freely was increased by factors other than his deafness. In the final stage of its dissolution as a great power, Spain was in a state of political and social chaos. The libertarian idealists made temporarily effective forays against the regime, and were repeatedly and mercilessly repressed. Some of Goya’s friends were imprisoned or exiled. Goya had not yet made any overt political statements in his art and was in an equivocal position.
As the first artist of the court,working primarily as a portraitist, he was perfectly safe because his position did not require him to turn his art to political or propagandistic ends. But as a draftsman and print maker, observing society from a libertarian point of view , he could comment only in opposition to the ideals of his royal patrons. The result was that Goya began to work for himself and his friends alone.
The Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808, with its guerrilla excesses, supplied Goya with the most appalling direct evidence of man’s capacity to degrade himself through violence. Between the year of the invasion and about 1814, he created a second series of etchings with aquatint, “The Disasters of War”, scenes of sickening butchery punctuated occasionally with political allegories. Their publication during French occupation or Spanish alliance with the French was of course impossible; the plates were not printed until 1863. Except for the photographs by Matthew Brady of the American Civil War, which were just then appearing, they had no equal in their treatment of war for what it is, without overtones of the picturesque or the ideally heroic.
Goya’s single direct declaration of his political sympathies was made in two paintings done during the short-lived liberal Regency of 1814, only a matter of weeks before it fell to the reactionary Ferdinand VII. In “The Second of May , 1808″ Goya commemorated an uprising in the streets of Madrid, when citizens armed only with sticks, stones and knives attacked the Egyptian cavalry that Napoleon had sent to support his brother’s puppet throne.
The picture is a melee of forms and colors devoid of any hint of the classical tradition of history painting, a romantic fanfare more immediately apparent as an exciting battle scene than as a patriotic tribute. But the companion picture, “The Third of May, 1808″ is another matter.
The uprising of may 2 had been immediately quelled, and on the following day, batches of suspects were rounded up more or less indiscriminately, hustled off to the fringe of the town, then unceremoniously shot. Goya show half a dozen victims kneeling in a group among the bloody corpses of their fellows, while other citizens, waiting in a file to die, cast down their eyes in horror.We are at that split-second of firing. One of the condemned men hides his face; another, a monk, prays; two others overcome their terror to glare at the riflemen. The group, and the picture, comes to its climax in the figure of a young man flinging both arms upward in defiance. A man may be easy to kill, his gesture says, but the human spirit in far more unquenchable.
Jim Lane: I categorised The Third of May as a “journalistic/propagandist” work citing only Picasso’s incredible mural-size Guernica (done some 130 years later) as being on a par with Goya’s painting. I think I was right on that count, but on the subject of journalistic/propagandist painting, I was wrong. Goya, being a Spaniard, could look back on some of Velázquez’s work for some inspiration along this line, but the real experts on this sort of thing were the French. French art is literally “full of it,” (pun intended).
I guess where I erred was in thinking of The Third of May mostly in journalistic terms, which, in large part, as the title would suggest, was certainly the intention of the painter, very much akin to a news photographer snapping a picture for the front page of The New York Times. However the painting was commissioned by the Spanish court for no other reason than to remind the populace surviving the regime of French puppet ruler, Joseph Bonaparte, how brave, loyal, and patriotic were the resistance fighters gunned down by Napoleon’s murderers–pure propaganda. And, it was painted in 1814, some six years after the event so graphically depicted. If that’s “journalism,” it certainly would win some kind of award for procrastination. Maybe it should more rightly be called history painting, though still, it looks and “feels” like “news.” Read More: http://www.humanitiesweb.org/human.php?s=g&p=g&a=d&ID=39 a
As recently demonstrated by the Balkan bloodshed, the line between journalism and propaganda is terribly tangled…so much so we now call much of such reportage “spin.” The Third of May was spin. But beyond that, it was also a turning point in how wars were painted. In the manner of Nicolas Poussin’s Rape of the Sabines, painted in 1637, for instance, there was much organised chaos and noble posturing but little in the way of bloody horror. Goya chose not only to depict such carnage, but also to emphasise it, over all else. From that point on, whether you call it journalism, history painting, or propaganda, war was painted in red. Eugène Delacroix in his Liberty Leading the People (1830), Manet in his Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1868) and Meissonier, in his Siege of Paris (1870), literally seem to have bathed in the stuff. Only Picasso was self-assured enough in his moral outrage to abandon the blood in favour of pathos, and to do so in such a timely manner that, whatever propaganda value Guernica may have had, it certainly wasn’t stale news.Read More: http://www.humanitiesweb.org/human.php?s=g&p=g&a=d&ID=39