Francisco de Goya might have created the series Disasters of War (Los Desastres de la Guerra) in the early 1800s, but the 82 aquatint prints can still cause distress to the contemporary observer.
Hilliard Goldfarb, Associate Chief Curator and Curator of Old Masters of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, spoke this Saturday at the Battat Contemporary gallery, where Goya’s series, together with Jacques Callot’s Miseries of War (1633), is being displayed until Feb. 20. The series is an uncensored exposÃ© of atrocities that took place during the invasion of Spain by Napoleon’s French Empire, which explains Goya’s only words about the series apart from the subtitles on each print: “Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices (Fatales consequencias de la sangrienta guerra en EspaÃ±a con Buonaparte, Y otros caprichos enfÃ¡ticos).”
For Goldfarb, there is an explanation for the fact that even after being daily exposed to violence on newspapers, television and the Internet, the images from Disasters of War are still shocking to the modern individual. “The resonance that it has [is due to] the universalization, which contributes to the stark appeal,” said Goldfarb.
But Disasters of War is far from any war or catastrophe coverage we have today, embellished with emotions and contextualizations. Susan Sontag, in the novel Regarding the Pain of Others, says that in the series “all the trappings of the spectacular have been eliminated: the landscape is an atmosphere, a darkness, barely sketched in. War is not a spectacle.”
If in the early 19th century war was a strictly male affair, in Goya’s plates many women are portrayed in situations just as “brutal and vicious,” comments Goldfarb. In plate seven we see the only allusion to a specific event – Agustina de AragÃ³n, the heroine of Zaragoza, fires a cannon while stepping over the dead bodies of soldiers. De AragÃ³n brought food to the soldiers at the city walls during the battles, and when all of them had been murdered, de Aragon loaded and fired cannons herself.
The prints have unusual subtitles, written in pencil by Goya on the bottom of the original set, and later incorporated into other editions.
Disasters of War is divided in three groupings: war and brutality, famine and fantastic depictions. The first plate of the first group, of a man kneeling in the shadows with arms outreached, reads “Sad forebodings of what is going to happen” (“Tristes presentimientos de lo que ha de acontecer”). Other, more violent ones, have subtitles such as “This is bad,” “This is worse” and “One cannot stare.” Some are sarcastic comments, like plate 39, which reads “Great deeds! Against the dead!” and depicts three bare male cadavers around a tree, two of them castrated, one of which was also decapitated and had his arms amputated and hanged next to his own head and body on the tree.
Goya’s comments in the subtitles may make it hard to believe that the series was produced almost two hundred years ago, but the truth is that the images are just as impressively modern. For Goldfarb, “Great art speaks to us in many levels, even over social changes.”
Disasters of War is on exhibit at Battat Contemporary Gallery (7245 Alexandra St, #100) and open to the public from 12 to 5 p.m. until Feb. 20.