Spanish wars of Goya and Picasso
Goya’s The Third of May 1808
The Third of May is one of a pair of paintings focusing on the brutal suppression and subsequent mass executions of Spanish civilians who had risen against the French troops of Napoleon Bonaparte on May 2, 1808.
During the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, Francisco Goya began his career by working in the court of King Carlos V. Although this was the period of the neoclassical school of art, Goya’s style was quite unlike other painters of that school because of his insistence on giving free rein to his emotion and personal expression in his works. To this extent, Goya was far more akin to and an early forerunner of the Romantic school of art.
Goya’s focus on war and man’s inhumanity seems particularly apt these days and his Third of May painting has frequently been cited as the first modern war picture. Indeed, some would go further than that, to suggest that: “All modern paintings must be compared to Goya” as the art critic of Time magazine, Robert Hughes has been quoted as saying.
The dark, brooding mood of Goya’s painting, illuminated by the brilliance of the victim’s shirt – a bright light about to be snuffed out – seems to tell a universal truth which mere photography could never convey. Real commentary such as Goya’s seems to be quite literally a lost art. As the same contemporary art critic has said: “People don’t look for life truths from painting any more. You get that from photography and the media. That’s why Bush and company want to control the media. That’s why we have embedded reporters. People believe photography tells the truth.”
And it is for reasons such as this that the most well-known modern Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, developed an obsessive fascination for Goya’s Third of May. In turn, Picasso’s most famous painting, Guernica, is almost certainly heavily influenced by it.
The painting was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to hang in the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition (the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris). It is a large, not to say huge work, measuring 137.4 × 305.5 inches. The scene for the painting is set against the background of the Spanish Civil War, which erupted in 1936 (and is popularly seen as the dress rehearsal for the Second World War).
The short-lived Republican government (soon to be overthrown by Franco) had appointed Picasso as the director of the famous Prado art museum and in January 1937 asked him to produce a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris exhibition. In the event, he produced what is widely acclaimed as one of the great works of the 20th century.
Picasso’s subject is the first the world had seen of the indiscriminate terror bombing of civilian targets – in this particular case, the Luftwaffe’s devastating attack on the practically unprotected Basque town of Guernica. German Nazis and Italian Fascists were lending their active support to Franco’s forces by providing air power that the Spanish Republicans could not match. These air units were used to bomb largely undefended cities.
As Goya before him – in his horrific images of the Peninsular Campaign during the Napoleonic War more than a century before – Picasso was motivated by an intense disgust for the violence and brutality of war. He made the comment during his work on Guernica: “The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? … In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death”.
Understandably, whole books have been dedicated to the painting, its imagery, symbolism and interpretations. This is but a passing tribute to one of the masterpieces of both art and commentary on war. It is practically impossible to summarize. In terms of the sheer force and power that can be exerted by a “mere” piece of art, however, I shall end with a reminder of the painting’s very real and lasting impact. It brings the story somewhat up to date.
A tapestry copy of the painting is displayed on the wall of the United Nations building in New York, at the entrance to the Security Council chamber. It was placed there as a reminder of the horrors of war. Commissioned and donated by Nelson Rockefeller, it could be argued that it is not quite so starkly shocking as the original since the monochromes have been replaced by several shades of brown. On 5th February 2003, however a large blue curtain was erected to cover the work, so that it would not be visible in the background when Colin Powell and John Negroponte gave press conferences at the United Nations.
On the following day, it was claimed that the curtain was placed there at the request of television news crews, who had complained that the wild lines and screaming figures made for a bad backdrop, and that a horse’s hindquarters appeared just above the faces of any speakers. Diplomats, however, told journalists that the Bush Administration pressured UN officials to cover the tapestry, rather than have it in the background while Powell or other U.S. diplomats argued for war on Iraq.