Pacifist discourse

Published : Oct 07, 2011 00:00 IST

"ESTRAGOS DE LA guerra": Bodies of both humans and animals piled up on the battlefront. Goya's etchings are very close to reality. - COURTESY: INSTITUTO CERVANTES, NEW DELHI

"ESTRAGOS DE LA guerra": Bodies of both humans and animals piled up on the battlefront. Goya's etchings are very close to reality. - COURTESY: INSTITUTO CERVANTES, NEW DELHI

The 19th century etchings of Spanish artist Francisco Goya Lucientes helps spread the message of the futility of war.

THE innumerable wars and the resultant catastrophe that they brought to humanity occupy prime space in any historical account of the world. While on the one hand wars helped in furthering the interests of absolutist empires, on the other they inflicted untold misery on people.

While many in the war zones died of hunger or were displaced from their homelands, others sacrificed their lives for their country out of a false sense of patriotism invoked by the ruling classes. Historians across the world have pointed out how the ruling classes used wars to achieve their ambitions and aspirations.

A visual depiction of the futility of wars has been documented by photojournalists of the contemporary era, who in their pictures have portrayed war themes such as mass displacement, hunger, pillaging, and the brutality of punishments. But before photography became popular, artists like Spanish painter-printmaker Francisco Jos de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) had dabbled with themes of war and highlighted the horror that followed war.

Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), an exhibition of Goya's 19th century etchings, organised at the Cervantes Institute in Delhi between July 15 and September 12 in collaboration with Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Royal Fine Arts Academy of San Fernando), depicted the horrors of war as close to reality as possible. The popularity of the exhibition is evidence of Goya's relevance in modern times, especially when the world is debating the relevance of the United States' war on Afghanistan and many other small wars it initiated on the pretext of restoring democracy.

In order to show Goya's precision in understanding the turn of events in any war, photographs showing the losses and hardships suffered in war were also on display. It turns out that the themes of Goya's etchings and the subsequent photographs from the Crimean War to the Vietnam War are, in most cases, not just similar but the same. The frames that both Goya and the photojournalists use in depicting the miseries of war are similar across different historical periods, irrespective of the political and economic logic behind the wars.

This goes to say a lot about Goya's mastery in understanding his subject, an aspect that artists of his time could not do very convincingly. Photojournalists had the frame built naturally for their cameras, but to observe and then to put it in a frame is something that only a master like Goya, who switched between the roles of painter and observer, could do.

The etchings on display were conceived by Goya after General Palafox, the Spanish commander, invited him to Zaragoza, a Spanish town, just after the war against the Napoleonic French troops. (Etching is a technique wherein strong acid is used to cut into a metal surface to render a design on it. It was used by most of the painters of the Romantic Era.) During the war of independence (1808-1814), Zaragoza was besieged twice by the French army. After his troops put up a heroic defence, Palafox invited various artists, including Goya, Fernando Brambila and Juan Galvez, to view the devastation caused by bombs on important monuments in the town. While Brambila and Galvez painted the ruins in their natural state, Goya depicted the horrors of war in a series of etchings that took him 10 years (1810-20) to complete. The Fine Arts Academy of San Fernando acquired 80 of Goya's original etchings in 1862, 34 years after his death.

Spanish sculptor Juan Bordes, curator of the exhibition, describes it thus: Three parts can be separately discerned in Los Desastres. In the first, Goya provided images for real-life events with a proven veracity; but in all prints he transcended concrete events, imbuing them with critical consciousness. In the second part, he reinterpreted his life experiences of the war on the streets of Madrid with the horrors of the Year of Hunger (1811), describing the war's presence through the impact it made on daily life. Lastly, he used symbols for some prints, which he called caprichos enfaticos (emphatic caprices). In these, Goya showed the political consequences of the post-war period with his critique of the restoration of absolutism and the rupture of the constitutional ideals. He denounced the way in which sacrifice had been squandered in a war with reactionaries appealing to the patriotism of the common people and the way in which the ruling classes unhesitatingly used the blood of innocents to reaffirm their privileges.

That Goya was a typical 18th century Romantic Era painter is reaffirmed by his choice of subjects. He showed both parties of a war as perpetrators as well as victims of crime unlike in the preceding rationalist era, when the justification for war were mainly political and economic. His etchings clearly sought to revolt against the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and elevated the value of freedom of expression. Goya etched beyond what his patron, Palafox, demanded. In his etchings, Goya transcended the episode of the peninsular war against the Napoleonic invasion. He decided to generalise the allusions to that war and make his accusations timeless. He did not take sides, and he knew how to transform the situations he had lived through into anti-war icons, such as the terrible hunger and misery in Madrid or the tales told to him by his family members, such as the quarterings that took place in a village close to the town of Chinchon.

The images in these prints anticipate photographic language since they can be read as snapshots. They lack a careful composition that would make them seem like a simulated scene, thereby reducing the frightening message. To make us focus our attention on the most important aspects, there are empty spaces or areas without information in the frame, an effect a photographer would achieve with the glare of the flash or by leaving something out of focus. In the way photography uses captions, Goya reinforced the documental nature of his scenes with titles such as Yo lo vi, Y esto tambin, and Asi sucedio (I saw this, and this too, and this is how it happened). This aspect makes his works truly journalistic in nature.

Bordes writes: This work by Goya had few precedents in the history of art; as the war motif in painting had generally been used by artists when commissioned to do so by powerful persons, who, of course, did not admit criticism of their actions on the battlefield. But even when the artist personally chose these motifs, he always did so attracted by plastic art reasons, as he was interested in resolving a problem of countervailing forces and the clash of passions.

He further adds: War had seldom been chosen as an object of critique, and the two sole exceptions seem to be that of the French etcher Jacques Gallot (1592-1635) and the German Hans Ulrich Frank (1605-1675). Gallot had two small series, one called Les Petites Miseres (Small Miseries) etched in 1632 and published in 1636, and the other more broad-based, titled Les Miseres et Malheurs de la guerre (The miseries and the sufferings of war).... However the reduced format of the plates and the large number of minuscule figures that appear in each one minimise the visual effect of the cruelty of actions they carry out.

Ulrich Frank made a series of 28 etchings, but only with violent scenes showing soldiers attacking unarmed civilians, without reprisal scenes to offset this. However, Bordes believes that Goya's works are much more complex in nature and rich in hidden meaning. For example, in his etchings of the battlefront, Goya shows them in a chaos, where orders are disobeyed or where a slip-up puts into ridicule a great show of valour, and also brutal and irrational confrontations. The battlefront is also the place for anonymous deaths and where the wounded are cared for only so that they can rejoin the fighting.

His portrayal of victims is even more real and nuanced. In the burial scenes, Goya recreates the Biblical icons of pain. Sexual mutilation of a dead woman's body is shown to suggest a touch of necrophilia. While a woman is shown as a guerilla fighter, she is also shown as a victim of sexual humiliation. The landscape of death on the battleground is the same as in the cities where it is caused by hunger.

Goya came out strongly against capital punishment and showed the perversions of the executioners and how the trials were marred by unjust reasoning. He showed how the disorder in everyday life was a byproduct of the tragic consequences of war. In one etching, the plight of the people who are threatened by the arrival of invading troops is aggravated by the loss/burning of their homes. In his famous depiction of Madrid in 1811, Goya shows how both the Spanish nobles and the invaders were indifferent to the scarcity of food and how disease spread in the city.

The etchings, meant as a pacifist discourse, are a solid example of how gore is used to draw sympathy and eventually spread the message of the uselessness of war.

Goya's mastery of this practice is reflected well in his etchings on the disasters of war. His contribution to developing the aesthetics of photojournalism cannot be missed by photographers of our times.

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