Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Above is another print from Goya's The Disasters of War.  It's part of a series of strange allegories toward the end where Goya attempts to find some kind of sense in all the suffering he's depicted in the previous prints.  This print shows a corpse in the darkness writing the word "nada" (nothing) on some kind of a tablet.  This is usually interpreted as Goya's confession of atheism.  I don't think it's quite that simple.  We don't know or understand where this scene is taking place.  The darkness is far from empty.  It is filled with howling shrieking faces that dissolve back into the darkness.  This image is a powerful rebuke to the easy answers of religious orthodoxy.  It is also a decisive rejection of facile atheism.  The mysteries of life and death are too vast and terrible to be contained in any rationalization, religious or otherwise.  In the face of such things, language breaks down.
One of my students suggested that the corpse represents the "noble war dead" always invoked in political oratory to this day.  The dead are always summoned to bear witness to some national cause.  My student believes that what Goya is saying is that ultimately the dead have nothing to say to us.  They have no answers for us.  I like this idea.

While Goya painted lots of religious work on commission, he was not a believer.   He despised the Spanish Church as a bastion of superstition, corruption, and reaction.  In his private prints and paintings, he savaged it.  What I think he suggests in this print is that the traditional language of religion is now forever broken, that this new world of modernity has no reliable precedents to guide it, that institutional religion is too busy preserving its identity to have anything meaningful to say.  And yet, Goya shows us that those original stirrings, that ancient fear and reverence for the dead, those dreams and powerful intimations that gave rise to religion in the first place, are still very much with us, looking for new forms in which to manifest themselves.

Goya gives us one of the greatest and most powerful images of doubt in art.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I had never seen this particular image - it isn't one of the more commonly reproduced ones. There's something unique about the black in etching / drypoint and some lithographic printing methods that is not achieved by paint - something about the depth and texture of the black that suits the mysteriousness of the image.

Nothing to say to us? Nothing we deserve to hear? Nothing worth dying for? Nothing after death? Nothing good after death? Nothing comprehensible after death?

(A long time ago I got a chance to take a printmaking course given by a local artist. I'd love to have the time and space to set up, or find a common-use facility to rent time with, and try more. A tray of nitric or sulphuric acid, forget which used, is not exactly something easy and safe to keep in a living space.)