The Patron Saint of War Photographersby Sean O'Toole / 03.05.2009
A brief history lesson, I promise. On May 2, 1808, Spanish loyalists in Madrid rebelled against invading Napoleonic armies. The French, whose language gave us the word aristocrat, were not amused: “The population of Madrid, led astray, has given itself to revolt and murder. French blood has flowed. It demands vengeance.”
The following morning, on May 3, the Spanish rebels were summarily executed.
What can we learn from a painting of war that we haven’t already seen in countless photographs of conflict? It is a fair question, especially since photography records the truth of experience with far greater accuracy than a painter’s brushstroke. The short answer: vision.
Painted in 1814, nearly a half-century before the earliest photographs of war emerged – one thinks of Roger Fenton’s Crimean work from 1855 and Matthew Brady’s photos of the American Civil War in the mid 1860’s – Goya made this painting commemorating the massacre of his countrymen.
Making clear the invisible thread that connects all photographs of conflict to Goya’s painting, Robert Hughes in 2003 wrote: “His genius for telling the truths of suffering without false heroics has made him the patron saint of every war photographer.”
Hughes, in case you don’t know, is to art criticism what Jeremy Clarkson is to motoring journalism: a legend. He is also an Aussie, which is not as weird as how he got into writing about art. “You’re the cartoonist,” snapped his editor at the Sydney newspaper he worked at before heading for New York. “You ought to know something about art. Good. Well, now you’re the fucking art critic.”
But enough about one of the Spanish painter’s more colourful biographers.
Even though Goya died 181 years ago, and this painting has only left Madrid once, briefly in the late 1930s, Goya’s influence has loomed large over the consciousness of succeeding generations of artists, from Manet and Picasso to local artists like Diane Victor and Karl Gietl. It is for this reason that Goya is often referred to as the “first of the moderns”.
Speaking of pioneering moderns, the novelist J.G. Ballard passed away on April 25. He once wrote a book called The Atrocity Exhibition. I’m sure Goya (wherever he is) would have smiled, secretly regretting he hadn’t thought of it first.
The painting: The Third of May, 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, 1814
The artist: Francesco de Goya y Lucientes