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  • Disasters of War, still playing at a theater near you

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    The Disasters of War, still playing at a theater near you, Part 1. An ongoing series by Marcia Tanner

    Does anyone reading this know where and when anti-war art began on this planet, and which artists created it? So far I haven’t found answers to my questions about its origins. But if Francesco Goya was not the first, his series of eighty-two etchings/aquatints The Disasters of War (Los Désastres de la Guerra), 1810-1820, was certainly the most profound — and most profoundly influential — body of work to protest war’s insanity, atrocities and misery in the last 400 years.

    Although there is no evidence that Goya saw the actual events of the conflict during Napoleon’s occupation of Spain, he presents these horrific black, white and shaded images as unsparing first-hand eyewitness accounts. They’re almost photo-journalistic. His captions — incredulous, sardonic, disillusioned (he’d been a supporter of Napoleon), enraged and despairing — implicate him as an observer and commentator with no pretense toward objectivity. “Yo lo vi.” (“I saw this.”); “Por que?” (“Why?”); “No se puede mirar.” (“One can’t look.”); “Grande hazaña! Con muertos!”  (”Great feats! With dead men!); “Y no hai remedio.” (And there is nothing to be done.”)

    Goya makes himself a (partly fictional?) character in his visual narrative. His unflinching, anguished revelation of his own moral, emotional and psychological responses to the hideousness of combat on his native soil, with horrors enacted on both sides, add a dimension to his work that makes it unique — particularly in light of the fact that artists were traditionally employed by their monarchs to celebrate the glories of war.

    Picasso’s Guernica,1937, probably the most powerful anti-war artwork of the 20th Century, is also a homage to his compatriot Goya. The monumental size of his painting dwarfs Goya’s intimately scaled prints, yet both are indelibly imprinted on our collective consciousness.  But to what effect?








    Despite all the anti-war art produced between Goya and now, it’s hard to argue that much has changed in the world. Maybe that was one point of Insult to Injury, 2003, the British bad-boy-brothers/artists Jake and Dinos Chapman’s “rectified” version of the Goya series. Long obsessed by Goya’s Disasters in their work, they bought a mint collection of the prints and painted over them, replacing all the victims’ faces with clown faces and adding Mickey Mouse ears to some.












    The Chapmans’ series shocked people, as it was meant to do. It was decried as defacement, vandalism, a cultural outrage. Yet could it also be viewed as the brothers’ bitter commentary on the seeming futility of art to change human behavior? Would Goya have understood? Possibly even approved?

    Artists haven’t given up yet. In my next blog, next week, I’ll talk about contemporary art works that reflect upon the disasters of war through the media of our time.


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