Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Reasons of State

Here is the meatgrinder of modern history at work. What a contrast to that picture of dead Marat by David!
This is a plate from Goya's The Disasters of War, first published in 1863,  thirty five years after Goya's death. It shows the corpse of a man who has died horribly impaled on a tree. Words die on our lips when confronted with such a shocking spectacle. It is amazing that after 150 years of battlefield photography, Goya's prints have lost none of their power. Who was this man? Was he a French soldier, or a Spanish partisan fighter in the Penninsular War? Was he some local tyrant killed by an angry mob? Was he just some poor unlucky sap in the wrong place at the wrong time? We don't know and Goya gives us no clues. His death is all the more horrible for being so anonymous. Goya asks us rhetorically if our need for reasons for this man's death really matter. Whether we understand or not changes nothing about his fate.

History is full of such episodes. Writers going back to Thucydides have described them in vivid detail, but for some mysterious reason, they almost never appear in art until Goya comes along. The only precedent I can think of is Jacques Callot's Miseries and Misfortunes of War from the 17th century; but, the very small size and stylization of his prints creates a safe distance between us and the horrors he depicts. That's not the case here with Goya who puts us right there in front of that tree.

Goya never wanted to be a great artist.  He wanted to be a big success in Madrid as a court painter to the King of Spain, and to go back to his home village of Fuentodos in a big shiny new car (coach in those days) and throw money around.  History happened all around his ears made deaf by disease, and forced him to respond.  He made these prints apparently in secret.  No one seemed to know about them until after his death.  As I mentioned above, they were not formally published until decades after his death.  It remains an ongoing controversy among scholars as to whether or not Goya actually saw the things in these prints.  That such an argument exists is testimony to Goya's powers as an artist.  What makes this print so powerful is the apparent lack of visual rhetoric.  There is no effort to dress this man's death up as Noble Hector slain in epic battle, or as the dead Christ.  He's not a hero and he's not God.  In fact, there is a kind of animal quality, not just to the beastliness of his dying, but the fact of his lifeless corpse.  His death is the death of Everyman.  Most battle art made before, and after, Goya looks so contrived and rhetorical in comparison.

The textbooks mistakenly assign Goya to the Romantic category.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  His work is not about finding renewed vitality in encounters with the irrational or the extreme.  Goya was a loyal son of the Enlightenment.  "Voltaire is immortal" he wrote over and over in his journals.  Like Voltaire, he believed that it is our duty to be reasonable. 
Unlike the French philosophes, Spanish Goya understood the tremendous power of the irrational and instinctual, that these things cannot be ignored.  They are to be faced forthrightly or they will tear us all apart.   Goya understands that this man's brutal death was driven by frenzied passion, the passion for vengeance which is insatiable, and uncontrollable once blood is spilled.  Goya understands that military strategic explanations, political rationale, religious justifications, Reasons of State, are just so much-after-the-fact cosmetics concealing an act of brutal instinctual passion.  Goya knows that there is no such animal as "rational violence."


June Butler said...

Brutal. Published in the midst of our Civil War. Hmm. The romantic warrior is in the background looking like a complete idiot.

Can you believe that at first glance at the Callot, I missed the bodies hanging in the tree, seeing only the one on the ground? Then, shock!

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I find it interesting that even with Goya, people resort to the classic argument "Is it factual?" in order to assess the truth of an art they find disturbing. We want so very much not to believe in these kinds of horrors. Which, of course, is one of many reasons why art is so essential. It can force us to see.

it's margaret said...

I have seen this image before, and was as horrified then as I am now. And then even more horrified as I learned that there were techniques to this method of impalling on posts and trees when posts weren't available. Even Shakespeare writes about it, doesn't he?

Perhaps our desire to know the name of the man would indeed fool us into thinking that we could make sense of this war crime.

Ugh. How long, O Lord, how long...

Anonymous said...

For those that would like to see the full series, Disasters of War is available online for download as a PDF, together with the Caprichos.

Counterlight said...

Thanks for the link Kishnevi!
The reproductions are very good. Maybe I won't have to replace my more-than-30 year old Dover Books copy after all.