It’s been said many times that art is subjective. After all, interpretation and opinion are both in the eye of the beholder. Art has provided us with beauty, romance, and an escape into the realms of fantasy. It’s also managed to capture the lowest depths of human suffering and terror that lies beyond comprehension. The surreal becomes its own reality that we find ourselves transfixed upon. No two names embody this sentiment more than Francisco Goya and Pablo Picasso. While both existed years apart from one another, both managed to capture images of war that scarred their native country of Spain. Their visions serve as a first-hand account of the incomprehensible agony that exists in war.
Some of Goya’s most notable works such as Saturn Devouring His Son and The Witches’ Sabbath merge the baroque with the fantastic. The drab colors and grotesque imagery challenge the sensibilities of the spectator. While both of these take place in a world of fantasy and folklore—The Third of May grants us a first-hand look into the crimes of oppression. While not as commonly discussed as the battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo, the Peninsular campaign was an integral part of the Napoleonic conflict. Insurgency and guerilla warfare were the tactics used to combat Napoleon’s near-invincible Grande Armée (The great army.)
Goya’s painting, which depicts the execution of Spanish rebels by French troops, utilizes a lack of color to illustrate the bleakness of the situation. In the center of the painting, light shines from a lantern on a peasant. He holds his arms outstretched to mimic Christ’s final moments on the cross. Elevating the rebels’ execution to martyrdom, those around him clasp their hands in prayer. The faces of their executioners are obscured. We look into the faces of the condemned and bear witness to the agony of their final moments. One could even think of the soldiers as forming a sort of inhuman killing machine, their bodies linked together with little distinction from one another.
Goya’s concept can be seen in Sergei Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potyomkin Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin,1925). Hailed as one of cinema’s pioneering works with its use of editing and montage, the sequence known as the “Odessa Steps” features military action against Russian citizens in revolt. Like Goya, Eisenstein places emphasis on light and shadow with close shots of the victims’ faces to emphasize their ordeal. The executioners are filmed from behind and share a similarity with the uniformity in which Goya depicts the French troops in his painting. Martyrdom is central to Potemkin’s plot of a mutiny, whose leader dies in a Christ-like pose, elevating bolshevism to a new religion. This certainly shows Goya’s prolific influence on not just other painters, but artists who practice with different forms and methods.
Years later, Pablo Picasso would reshape reality with an artistic style that would challenge conceptions of what could be accomplished. While his work with bold colors and contorted shapes have a vibrant life about them, it’s the absence of color in Guernica which captures the unrelenting terror of the Spanish civil war. Serving as a preview of the onslaught of the tragedy that was to occur in the second world war, the Spanish civil war would serve as a proving ground for the armies of Germany and Italy, who offered support to the nationalist forces of Francisco Franco.
If art has offered a voice of protest and discontent, then Guernica is a howling cry in the night. While Picasso’s more surreal works might not appeal to everyone’s tastes in art, the silent screams and visions of agony that permeate from Guernica resonate with anyone who gazes upon the work. Depicting the aftermath of an air raid, Picasso’s images are disjointed from one another and each one represents a moment frozen in time. Broken limbs and animals in the throes of death, a mother holding her dead infant as she cries in mourning. The absence of any color almost mimics a newsreel of the time period and focuses attention on the suffering of the innocent and not the soldiers and politicians who wield weapons of destruction.
Picasso turned his canvas into protest again with Massacre in Korea. His 1951 painting recaptures Goya’s technique from The Third of May by capturing the victims of genocide in a state of complete vulnerability. To contrast oppressor and victim, Picasso depicts the perpetrators with twisted and grotesque shapes, akin to a mechanism completely lacking any humanity. While the victims, stripped bare are the very essence of life. A pregnant woman surrounded by her children is the ultimate image of innocence robbed of both dignity and life.
Through Goya and Picasso, we’re able to see images that offer a vivid perspective of suffering. Even today, with modern media publishing the narrative that they wish their audience to believe, art continues to be honest, pure, and reflects the world around it with more accuracy than anything else. The inhumane cruelty that exists is reproduced in ways that reach us as nothing else can. As another notable artist of the 20th century, Thomas Gabriel Warrior once stated—“Only death is real.”