Turbulent times beget strange and disturbing artworks, at least in the case of Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, some of whose prints are currently on display at the Hermann Struck Museum in Haifa.
On loan from the Israel Museum are the complete set of “Los Disparates” (The Follies), also known as “Proverbios” (Proverbs), a selection from “Los Desastres de la Guerra” (The Disasters of War) and several etchings from “La Tauromaquia,” Goya’s scenes of bullfighting.
All the prints were executed approximately 200 years ago and are, given recent events in the Middle East, as relevant and powerful as ever.
According to the curator of the exhibition, Irena Gordon, “All four sets of Goya’s prints were gifted to the Israel Museum by a collector and are rarely shown in Israel. Each series has a significant place in the history of the print medium and were extremely influential on modern art and the role of photojournalism.”
As viewers we are used to seeing images of war in the media, yet much of what we see is sanitized and rarely are we given a glimpse of its true horror and brutality.
In the “Disasters of War” series Goya doesn’t spare us. Indeed, one shudders to think what he must have witnessed.
In the most shocking scenes severed limbs, torsos and heads are bound and impaled on tree stumps; bodies are hewn apart and hung from trees; corpses litter and are strewn about the earth. Elsewhere, groups of people cower and huddle among themselves in pitiful scenes of distress and misery.
Throughout the series Goya’s unnerving eye never relents, nor is the viewer given recourse or refuge.
None of Goya’s characters are spared; man, women, child, beast, all are seen to suffer terrible ordeals.
The face or image of war we are confronted with in “The Disasters” is at variance with how war is seen and represented in our own culture. Goya’s stark black and white etchings, the striking contrast and play of dark and light, the rough shading and dense linework, all create a visceral, raw impact, and are the very antithesis of the color images of conflict zones that flicker across our television screens.
Any glamourous or romantic notions of war we might have, encouraged by the high-tech weaponry and soldiers in full combat gear often seen in the media or on movie screens, are quickly dispelled by the actions of Goya’s characters, who pierce and hack at flesh with spears, sabers, bayonets and axes.
“The power and modernity of Goya’s work lies not just in the realistic depictions,” said Gordon. “These works force the spectator to look at what is happening.
Goya confronts the Enlightenment’s expectations of reason and order with images of chaos, cruelty, injustice and superstition,” she further elaborated.
The titles or captions given the prints add another aspect to these much-written-about works. Goya saw and wrote about the role of the artist as being one who should bear witness and not simply copy from nature. Titles such as Bury them and keep quiet, Rightly and wrongly and One can’t look, when considered in context with the accompanying print, serve as a kind of ambiguous commentary, and point to the very act of looking itself.
As the painter to the Spanish royal court Goya was mainly expected to paint portraits of noblemen and religious scenes. The controversial subject matter and graphic realism of “The Disasters” would have been political dynamite in Goya’s age, and this was the primary reason for the series not being seen in the public domain till after the artist’s demise.
Although Goya was advised not to publish the etchings, and thus would not be able to benefit financially from them, this did not prevent him from creating more works, in the medium of print and paint, of a similarly disturbing nature.
The war and strife that racked Spain and fed into Goya’s work can also be seen in “Los Disparates,” a series of prints every bit as dark and remarkable as the aformentioned “Los Desastres de la Guerra.” According to Gordon, “the works are still not fully understood.”
Goya’s life had changed radically in 1792 when he contracted a serious illness, never diagnosed, that weakened and left him deaf. Historical accounts also relate that this period was one of great introspection on the part of the artist.
Goya’s lack of a sound-world, an inner life already agitated by the troubling events in his homeland, likely played a part in the strange and distinctly elemental visions manifested in “The Proverbs.”
The supernatural, the carnivalesque, folklore, war and the Spanish Inquisition all appear to mesh in a dark interplay of bizarre scenes and outlandish characters.
Men and women dance in circles with twisted smiles as if performing some pagan rite. Groups of people – an eerie cabal, are seen perched on trees, and men become gods and soar through the skies.
In “The Disasters” Goya rendered acutely realistic scenes, but in “The Proverbs” the scenes appear other- worldly, a kind of freakish netherworld which had its greater mirror image in The Black Paintings, which he created around the same time.
Goya is an acknowledged master of the print medium and this exhibition, although not for the faint of heart, is well worth a journey to Haifa.
Perhaps more pertinently, said Gordon, “We have the opportunity to look at these works here and now, in Israel in 2014, not as a detached historical experience, but rather as a thrilling, disturbing, and more than ever, relevant encounter.”The Goya exhibit runs through till December 15. For more info visit www.shm.org.il