No tags :(

Share it

My abiding interest, since I left the US Navy after too many images of mayhem and suffering during the Vietnam war, has been why war is so attractive to so many, despite all the evidence.  Is there something in the stories we tell ourselves internally and share with those around us that, whatever the carnage, displays a silver lining that draws men, and often women, to go to it again?

Just today, glowing reviews followed President Trump’s sending of 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian airbase.  It was a Presidential thing to do. One week later, the response to the first combat use of “the mother of all bombs,” a single 21,000 pound bomb, the largest non-atomic weapon in the arsenal, elicited similar responses. Wow! Humongous! Pride, regard and righteousness pervaded the remarks of letter writers and talk-show callers.

It’s not even the necessary-or-not-necessary question that bothers me here; it’s the spontaneous approval of the use of massive armed force — 59 Tomahawk missiles, at a cost of about 60 million dollars for the missiles alone, not to mention the cost of the platforms , the fuel and the human effort; 59 missiles with 1,000 pound explosive warheads each with a lethal blast range of almost a football field.  Lethal.  Dead.  Dismembered.  Cool! seems to be the general response.

Perhaps, given two million years of small-band hunting and killing, the human response to the destruction of others would be the same, with or without the influence of art and stories.  Perhaps not.  We are enormously influenced by what we see and hear of the world. Have fine art and popular art — fiction, film., photography, painting– all ways we tell stories –contributed to our constant return to war, even, let it be said, to our longing for it, a cure for boredom, confusion and anxiety? How is it that war has persisted not only as a possibly necessary act, to defend from others, but as something thrilling, glorious, ecstatic?

Having seen Milos Forman’s  2006 movie Goya’s Ghosts by chance a week ago brought me to wonder how Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War” or his “Third of May, 1808“, affected those around him? If at all?  Often said to be a turning point in the portrayal of war and sensibility to it, the beginning of the modern era, have they affected any  in our time, or earlier, to truly reflect on the conditions and costs of war?


No one who has seen Goya’s etchings “The Disasters of War” has likely forgotten them.  With them, image matched the reality of war for almost the first time in 40,000 years of human art.  Even now that photography and film have made human catastrophe real and present in our lives, Goya’s work continues to stun.

Lo Mismo / The Same

With few exceptions — Leonardo’s lost painting of the Battle of Anghiari (1505), Ruben’s The Consequences of War (1639,) Callot’s engravings, The Great Miseries of War or The Miseries and Misfortunes of War) (1633, of The Thirty Years War) —  artists before Goya produced images of war which were, in the main, celebrations of a biblical story, of a great victory or a winning general.  Images and stories were being represented but so was art itself —this is art–  and so the paintings were stylized and sanitized. [See Velasquez The Surrender at Breda, for example.]   Even when weapons and falling bodies were shown they were meant to be exemplars of courage and sacrifice, to produce awe, to trigger contemplation of religious figures. If men were fighting they were often far off in a distant scene – elements of a composition. If injury, or torture was shown it was often of the Crucifixion, or suffering saints. Death might appear as a cadaverous image, as in Durer and Baldung’s work (300 years before Goya)  but clearly, for the viewer, this was imagination represented, not the here and now.

Even Callot’s engravings, two hundred years before Goya, (and which he apparently had a set of) with titles such as The Pillage, The Hanging, The Strappado, and which were surely a shock to viewers, were composed and formalized.


When Goya, Court Painter for Carlos IV and Maria Luisa of Spain found himself in Madrid, in May of 1808 as citizens attacked invading French soldiers in furious mobs, he had no time for formalities, no time for composition.  He began sketching hundreds of red-pencil images of what he saw, and what he was told by other observers.  Six years later these would be turned into the engravings now known as Los Desastres de la Guerra.  They were not published and sold, however, until thirty-five years after his death in 1863.

Y no hai remedio / And it cannot be helped

Converting hastily done, in-the-act, sketches to the engravings of The Disasters took much technical time, time to contemplate and consider, but he left the original haste — caught in the act, out of focus, agony.

Even more powerful, if possible, is a single painting.  Titled The Third of May, 1808, it was not seen by the public for decades after its completion.  Once it became known it, the radical content, style and presentation brought it to be called the first painting of the modern era. Manet and Picasso both used it for inspiration in their own portrayals of political murders (Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximilian and Picasso’s Massacre in Korea).  Painters following WW I seldom showed the manly, glistening glory of what they had seen and, whether influenced by Goya directly or not, almost all of them were immersed in the visceral, blood, bones and sinews lost to heavy, mechanized assault.



Even today, when blood and fallen bodies are familiar to us in magazines, newspapers and television Goya’s Third of May retains its power.  These may be French soldiers on the right and Madrileño victims on the left but it is not a paean to patriotic resistance, or even a generalized anti-war statement.  Light and shadow, figure and detail are  a resolute look at the personal, small-scale horror and pity of war.  Remember, he did not snap this in an instant and then move on; he worked and reworked it, holding the image in his mind and by so doing, forcing us to hold our gaze.


My happenstance  viewing of Goya’s Ghosts several weeks ago (reviewed here) reminded me of a book which had long occupied the read-next shelf in my library: Evan Connell’s 2004 Goya: A Life.

I had greatly admired his 2001 Deus Lo Volt: A Chronicle of the Crusades, a stunning conversion of actual manuscripts from the 11th century crusades into a readable, immersing novel.  He had also written Son of the Morning Star: General Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn which, if I had wanted to read about Custer, would have been the book I’d have picked up. I could count on him not to sanctify the scene.  Joyce Carol Oates has called Connell “‘one of our most interesting and intelligent American writers.”

So what had drawn him to Goya, I wondered?  The charged response to the fighting in Spain in 1808, as I have been,  or to the court painter, or the madness of his last-in-life black paintings, with the impossible to look-at  “Saturn Devouring His Son?  The volume didn’t look like a full, scholarly biography, of which there were many nobtable ones in any case, (by Robert Hughes (see below for a Hughes video), and Lion Feuchtwanger  or  Fred Licht’s for a detailed look at the paintings to name but a few.)   Nor would I expect Connell to write one, given his other work.  But what, then?

I’m sorry to say that while I was informed, I was not engaged. Connell settles on a  telegraphic style of short factual statements without narrative linkage.   We get impressionistic images along with often breezy commentary.  “April 1823. Here come the French troops again.”  “During their life together Josefa was pregnant more often than not, which indicates they got a long pretty well.” “Riego was shot or hanged”  “Whether he traveled by diligence or on horseback has been argued.”

While there are references to the paintings, there is no list of them so one cannot find particular works to see what Connell has to say, or where he puts them.  No illustrations.  No Index.

“Another painting of the Infante’s wife is almost Japanese” (Which one, when? Go find it)

He takes frequent detours, though in the same flow of text, so  in the middle of one section of Goya’s life we find that Garcia Lorca (100 years later) was fascinated by him.  We hear that Connell attended a celebration  known as Tamboradas to herald in Good Friday  in Goya’s home village of Fuendotodos, but no mention of whether Goya ever participated in it, painted it or even knew of it.

If the quick mention, phrasal impressionism appeals to you, a sense of Goya, his life and times does emerge: the beauty of his patron, Maria Theresa the Duchess of Alba, her fabulous wealth, his modest beginnings in rural Saragossa, his life in court. Beggars and peasants, inquisitors, soldiers appear. Lines from travellers of the time give evidence of the scenes as they saw them, as well as Connell’s wide research. Casanova appears, and a seminarian seduced by Maria Theresa. Josefa, Goya’s wife of 39 years, barely gets a mention.

A more manageable short introduction to the Goya works from the Napoleonic invasion is from Hugh Thomas, the noted historian of Spain.   Goya: The Third of May 1808, 1972  (From the Art in Context Serie – which see) A nice short, well illustrated (but not printed well)  96 pp plus end matter.

Organized in short chapters, he begins with “The Third of May 1808 “then sets that in context with “The May Rising, “followed by “Goya and Politics.”  A historian’s brief, short and accessible with not only pertinent history but well studied views of the famous painting, the effect of the lighting, and shadows, what the costumes tell us about the figures, and what is being symbolized.

Too bad the printing is so bad


As I finish this reading, and examination of the etchings and paintings, I am forced to say, to my opening question, that no, we have not been turned, yet at any rate, from our romantic attraction to war, despite the unveiled look Goya and others following him have provided.  Perhaps it is still to early for the counter narrative to pervade the human conscience.  Massed warfare has been practiced and celebrated since history could record it. Slayers of great beasts and protectors of the tribe have been celebrated and emulated.  Goya’s work became known in 1835.  The outpouring of down-in-the-mud, unromanticized painting and poetry only began after 1918, the end of WW I.  One hundred years is not much to balance against the five thousand preceding.  And, in fact, representations of war as it really is have continued to be swamped by images of war as romance and glory.  Hollywood turned out virtually non-stop films of daring pilots, , plain spoken grunts and evil enemies during WW II.  The neo-realism of Italy showed the ravages of war in Rome and elsewhere but soon gave way to other themes and interests.  The American movies of the Vietnam War era only occasionally reflect the fervor of the anti-war movement. Millions have seen Picasso’s Guernica and, we suppose, have all been impressed with its representation of disaster and cruelty.  Has that translated into heightened resistance to similar atrocities?  See the celebration over the ‘mother of all bombs’ above.

Perhaps indeed, small ripples of resistance to war and its glories are in the stories now being told.  We hope they gain quickly in popularity and as guides to future behavior.  It’s no longer bows and arrows, or even the behemoth Big Bertha of WW I.  It’s instant communications and slow human brains, along with collections of weapons that can mean the end of stories as we know them.



The very best place to look closely at Los Desastres is here, online at the Real Academia de las Bellas Artes, in Madrid.

A date list of Goya’s paintings at Wikipedia shows his incredible talent as well as who his clients were as well as those he did with no other client than his own need to paint.  Mixing superb portraits, of the face alone, or the full body, with family groups, Catholic themes redone, from the crucified Christ to the Annunciation, .classical and pagan observation from “The Rape of Europa” to “Witches Sabbath.” Keen observation of common people, more developed and singular than those of early dutch painting of crowds, like “Fire at Night” and “Yard with Lunatics.”

For an excellent short article on a Goya exhibition in Boston, 2014-15, see this by Colm Toíbín in the New York Review of Books, December, 2014

For an hour long video of Robert Hughes talking about his relation to Goya, see his Crazy Like a Genius 

Other books with much to offer about Goya the man, his paintings, and the Spain of his time.

Joyce Carey – Art and Reality  1961

Hume, Martin  — Modern Spain  1900

Thomas, Hugh — Goya: The Third of May,  1972

Shickel, Richard —  The World of Goya, 1968,   199 pp

Victor I. Stoichita, Anna Maria Coderch  — The Last Carnival, 2000 (on the 1799 Caprichos)


Print Friendly, PDF & Email