Home Arts Piranesi & Goya ~ Exhibit ‘hauntingly familiar’

Piranesi & Goya ~ Exhibit ‘hauntingly familiar’

by Archives October 24, 2001
On Sept. 11, tragedy scattered shadows over humanity. The public began to rent more movies about hijackings. Postcards of the World Trade Center became items of nostalgia. And we became a culture hungry to understand why? and how? Such questions without answers indeed are frustrating. And so, when an artist is able to express these abstract anxieties in a concrete sense, people are comforted.
Enter: A collection boasting some 300 images masterminded by two of the 18th and 19th century’s printing-making greats: Giovanni Battista Piranesi and Francisco Goya. (Currently exhibiting at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts). While present day war continues to raid our televisions and our minds, Piranesi and Goya’s grave concepts of lost grandeur and the ugliness of humanity have found a solid place in this millennium.
Formally trained as an architect, Piranesi’s technical skill is obvious in his attention to perspective and detail, as well as in his artistic workmanship contrasting light and dark. His most celebrated collection Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome) features 135 perspectives on the ruins of this famed Eternal City in its final chapter of faded glory.
Apparently, these works proved to be profitable with tourists also keen on nostalgia. To see Paranesi’s interpretation of the Coliseum in decay or the faltering walls of the Pantheon today, is to relive the recent demise of New York’s Twin Towers.
Even Goya’s series Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War) rings hauntingly familiar. Originally a response to what Goya labeled, “the fatal consequences of the bloody war in Spain against Bonaparte”, his 80 or so prints eerily mirror the current events surrounding America’s Most Wanted: Oussama Ben Laden.
Certain images depicting dead bodies strewn about in defeated piles or victims of famine could double as commentaries of Afghanistan. Providing his own headlines, Goya’s titles included, “This is the Truth” or “Ravages of War.” Unfortunately for Goya–once Appointed Painter to the King, Charles IV–this series was never published in his lifetime.
As an interesting finale to the Goya works, a parallel collection by British contemporary artists, brothers Jake & Dino Chapman is displayed. It is aptly titled Disasters of War II. Their colourful, sometimes garish, sexually graphic images of war are mounted on three separate walls, arranged in domino fashion in the center of the room. Enclosed by perimeter with Goya’s prints, their influence and connection of past to present is duly noted.
Judging by the title, it is doubtful that the Piranesi~Goya exhibition was ever intended to serve as a backdrop to modern issues. Nevertheless, the implications remain. Other parts of the collection, such as Piranesi’s works Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons) and Goya’s Los Caprichos (Caprices) and Los Disparates (Follies) similarily deal with the darker faces of man.
Despite the celebrity of Piranesi and Goya, one tends to leave this exhibition more focused on the grim messages it evoked, rather than on the famous messengers themselves. In this way of restating the perils of humanity from the past into the present, Piranesi and Goya prove once again to be masters of their trade.

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