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Scenes of War

As every good writer must be, from time to time, I'm obliged to back down with regard to a statement made in haste. I recently declared, in discussing the work of Francisco Goya and his unforgettable The Third of May, 1808, that this work had few precedents and few antecedents. Further study and research indicates I spoke somewhat without regard to the facts. In thinking and reading I find I was wrong on both counts. I categorised The Third of May as a "journalistic/propagandist" work citing only Picasso's incredible mural-size Guernica (done some 130 years later) as being on a par with Goya's painting. I think I was right on that count, but on the subject of journalistic/propagandist painting, I was wrong. Goya, being a Spaniard, could look back on some of Velázquez's work for some inspiration along this line, but the real experts on this sort of thing were the French. French art is literally "full of it," (pun intended).

I guess where I erred was in thinking of The Third of May mostly in journalistic terms, which, in large part, as the title would suggest, was certainly the intention of the painter, very much akin to a news photographer snapping a picture for the front page of The New York Times. However the painting was commissioned by the Spanish court for no other reason than to remind the populace surviving the regime of French puppet ruler, Joseph Bonaparte, how brave, loyal, and patriotic were the resistance fighters gunned down by Napoleon's murderers--pure propaganda. And, it was painted in 1814, some six years after the event so graphically depicted. If that's "journalism," it certainly would win some kind of award for procrastination. Maybe it should more rightly be called history painting, though still, it looks and "feels" like "news."

As recently demonstrated by the Balkan bloodshed, the line between journalism and propaganda is terribly much so we now call much of such reportage "spin." The Third of May was spin. But beyond that, it was also a turning point in how wars were painted. In the manner of Nicolas Poussin's Rape of the Sabines, painted in 1637, for instance, there was much organised chaos and noble posturing but little in the way of bloody horror. Goya chose not only to depict such carnage, but also to emphasise it, over all else. From that point on, whether you call it journalism, history painting, or propaganda, war was painted in red. Eugène Delacroix in his Liberty Leading the People (1830), Manet in his Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1868) and Meissonier, in his Siege of Paris (1870), literally seem to have bathed in the stuff. Only Picasso was self-assured enough in his moral outrage to abandon the blood in favour of pathos, and to do so in such a timely manner that, whatever propaganda value Guernica may have had, it certainly wasn't stale news.

contributed by Lane, Jim

11 July 1999

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Napoleon Bonaparte on Arcole Bridge on 17 November 1796 (Baron Antoine-Jean Gros)
Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau on 9 February 1807 (Baron Antoine-Jean Gros)
Stiching the Standard (Edmund Blair Leighton)
The Black Brunswicker (Sir John Everett Millais)
The Death of General Wolfe (Benjamin West)
The Execution (Edouard Manet)
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