The U.S. has been at war for 15 years. Reactions to the ongoing war have largely been absent in the art world – aside from notable exceptions like the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum’s “To See Without Being Seen.” The St. Louis Art Museum’s “Impressions of War,” curated by Elizabeth Wychoff, contributes to the countervailing trend.
The exhibit is built around Spanish artist Francisco de Goya’s “Fatal consequences of the bloody war in Spain with Bonaparte. And other emphatic caprices” (known as “The Disasters of War”).
Goya worked on “The Disasters” from 1810 to 1820 but the 80 prints went unpublished in his lifetime. Goya’s earlier series, “Los Caprichos,” was pulled from circulation after threats from the Inquisition. “The Disasters” would have proven even more controversial.
Although Goya served as a court painter he opposed the absolute monarchy and supported the ideals of the French Revolution. He was initially sanguine about the liberal reforms France brought to Spain during the Peninsular War.
But the occupation turned brutal. In May of 1808 uprisings roiled Madrid. Goya sympathized with the rebellion (even though he continued as court painter for the “Intruder King” Joseph Bonaparte). When the French were expelled from Spain the absolute monarchy and the Inquisition returned. The liberal Constitution of 1812 was banned. One set of atrocities replaced another.
“The Disasters” expresses Goya’s disgust with the brutality of war – making the viewer an eyewitness – but also his deep investment in it. He sometimes depicts heroism, but mostly shows fanaticism, brutality, torture and rape.
While he was not the first to show such barbarism he was among the first to do so in an intimate manner. The horror is not far away. It is close and immediate. As such it is sublime, as described by Edmund Burke, both beautiful and terrifying.
It is unlikely that Goya, aging and deaf, saw much fighting directly. Only a few plates indicate that he himself was a witness. Many are based on others’ accounts – and many images are taken from art history. “This is worse” (plate 37) depicts a naked man impaled on a tree – based on a fragmented Hellenistic statue.
The three distinct sections of “The Disasters” reflect the evolution of Goya’s thoughts on the war – from hopeful supporter of the French, to rebel sympathizer, to despair at the return of absolutism and religious fanaticism.
The first focuses on the French war against Spanish civilians. “And there’s nothing to be done” (plate 15) depicts a soon to be executed rebel in a Christ-pose. The second deals with the Madrid famine of 1811-1812 in the waning years of the French occupation. The reprised Caprichos are surreal allegories of Goya’s antagonism to the re-established status quo. This, along with his “dark paintings,” established him as a Romantic – opposed, in some way, to a utilitarian view of other human beings.
“Impressions” also includes work by 17th century artist Jacques Collot, Daniel Heyman’s contemporary Amman Portfolio, and Max Beckmann’s Hell lithographs.
Like Goya’s “Disasters,” Beckmann’s Hell focuses on a moment of great hope and barbarity. Beckmann produced them in the wake of World War I and the revolution that ended the war – mutinies and strikes of German sailors, soldiers and laborers.
In 1919, the communist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was murdered in Berlin – immortalized in Beckmann’s “Martyrdom” (plate 4). Beckmann shows Luxemburg, like Goya showed martyred peasants, in a Christ-pose. The men who killed Luxemburg wore swastikas on their uniforms. In 1937, Beckmann fled similar men – eventually finding himself a refugee in St. Louis.
“Impressions of War,” curated by Elizabeth Wychoff, featuring prints from Francisco de Goya, Max Beckmann, Jacques Callot and Daniel Heymann is at the St. Louis Art Museum through Feb. 12, 2017.