January 7th, 2009

I don’t have anything useful to say about the Gaza war. Unlike the great Spanish painter Francisco Goya:

Goya cudgels.jpg

Duelo a garrotazos (duel with cudgels), 1819-23

The painting, transferred from a mural on to a canvas now in the Prado, is very large: 123 cm x 266 cm (48″ x 105″) – and brutally effective in the flesh.

What was Goya trying to say?

The work has traditionally been interpreted in Spain as a comment on the long-running political conflict in Spain between liberals and reactionaries. He painted it during the “liberal triennium”, a confused and violent period when liberals had the edge; but the stupid and vicious Bourbon king Ferdinand VII regained absolute power when a French Royalist army invaded in 1823, with the backing of the other monarchs of Metternich’s system. The same struggle continued for another 150 years, through four civil wars and numerous coups and insurrections.

I don’t buy this reading entirely. Goya was far from apolitical, and in other works – the Caprichos, the Disasters of war, the diptych on the 1808 rising against the French 2 de Mayo/3 de Mayo – he clearly identified the actors. Goya took the liberal side against the Inquisition and the patriotic side against the French, though he highlighted the dehumanisation of both sides in a people’s war. But in the Duel he carefully removed all context. The two men sunk to their knees in the swamp are nearly identical: they are not even Cain and Abel, the farmer and the pastoralist of Genesis. The background is similarly placeless and timeless. There is a patch of blue sky, but no indication whether this is meant as an ironical contrast or a faint sign of hope.

The other reason is that the painting was not intended for exhibition. In 1819 Goya, old and sick, moved to a large farmhouse in a remote town of La Mancha, and covered its interior walls with a series of huge and frightening murals. They also include the Grand Guignol horror of Saturn Devouring His Son, and the satirical The Coven. The paintings were for himself: a misanthropic genius struggling with his black vision in an isolation as terrible as Lear’s or the dying Tolstoy’s. Perhaps it was just as well that when Ferdinand was restored to power in 1823, Goya was forced to flee the monstrous Temple of Mars he’d made for himself.

To me, the pared-down Black Paintings engage with universals of human suffering and evil. Saturn represents psychopathic madness; the Coven the sheep-like human choice of superstition and folly. The Duel then depicts the Hobbesian violence of man against man: the tit for tat, eye for an eye that as Gandhi said makes the world go blind. Eyeless in Gaza.

Of course, moral and political judgement depends on context and detail. But you can also get bogged down in these, especially when there’s lots of help from propagandists. It’s useful I think to step back and let Goya remind us of the dreadful essence of war.

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