El Tres de Mayo de 1808 en Madrid o Los fusilamientos en la montana del Principe Pio (The Third of May, 1808, or The Executions on Principe Pio Hill) by Francisco Goya, oil on canvas, 1814, on permanent display at the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Click photo to enlarge.
Today I was re-reading excerpts of Robert Hughes' 2003 book Goya and was reminded of Goya's powerful war paintings at the Prado in Madrid. With his brushes, Goya painted the stories that today would have been captured in photographs. He eloquently showed his abhorrence for war in a series of paintings known as the Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War).
When the Peninsular War (1808-14) began, Goya was already 60 years old and "too deaf to hear a gunshot," as Hughes writes. "And yet, it is not too much to claim that his Desastres created a form of their own: that of vivid, camera-can't-lie pictorial journalism long before the invention of the camera, of art devoted to reportage, claiming its power." While Goya wasn't actually present at many of the events his paintings describe, he inscribed Yo lo vi - I saw it! - under a plate in which refugees from a country village are fleeing Napoleon's advancing army. Y'esto tambien - And this as well! - is the caption beneath another portrait of three exhausted women, weighed down by babies and household possessions, refugees of war.
"...Goya's ...martyr-of-the-people is one of the most vivid human presences in all art," Hughes writes. "In an age of unremitting war and cruelty, when the value of human life seems to be at the deepest discount in human history, when our culture is saturated with endless images of torment, brutality and death, he continues to haunt us. He is a 200-year-old equivalent of those few photo images that leaked out of Vietnam into long, emblematic life: the screaming naked girl running away from a napalm strike, toward the camera; the chinless police chief blowing out the brains of a plaid-shirted suspect at point-blank range with his kicking .38 on a Saigon street." And now, the photographic images from Southern Lebanon, from Beirut and from small towns in Israel.
So long before war photographers, Goya reported the news with his brushstrokes. While the medium has become more technology-oriented, the madness hasn't diminished since Goya's day, as evidenced in the bitter Israeli-Hezbollah fight with Lebanon as the battleground. Plus ca meme, plus ca meme chose, as the French say (The more things change, the more they remain the same).