The nightmare images come one after another: Three women, half-clothed, one with her legs spread open, lie on the floor, apparently raped; the naked body of a decapitated man hangs from a tree branch, his severed head stuck on a shorter branch; a man hauls a dead woman by her legs, her dress flipped up, exposing her underwear.
It could be the stuff of a jihadi website or documentation for a human rights report, but these particular images are engravings from more than 200 years ago by Francisco de Goya, a moving testament to a largely forgotten war and to the barbarity that human beings inflict on one another.
As someone who has covered wars closely over the course of 14 years, I found the engravings a true revelation. I have witnessed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as war and its aftermath in the Balkans, and yet each time, I find casual destruction of life and of hope something hard to bear, the images seared into memory. There was the man whose body was burned almost black by a bomb in Iskandariya, south of Baghdad, in 2004, his body no longer recognizable as human; or the three men with hungry, angry faces who robbed me at dusk, using a gun and sticks on an empty dirt road in southern Afghanistan. And there are the rare moments of survival, the heroic writ small, the baby that was born in the Sinjar mountains of western Iraq, his mother giving birth in a car and then carrying him for days over the mountain to safety.
The atrocities that war reporters record and that seem new are, in fact, centuries old, and the unsparing eye of the artist can render the experience every bit as ugly and painful as anything a camera can record. A group like the Islamic State may take advantage of modern tools: social media, the easy distribution of graphic imagery, but the atrocity, Goya reminds us, is the same. When one group of people decides to kill another, it is a horror at once specific and universal. The Goya engravings and nearly 450 works by 200 artists are part of an ambitious and thought-provoking exhibition at the Louvre-Lens, a branch of the Paris museum in the Pas de Calais region, in northern France near the Belgian border, on view through Oct. 6.
The show, The Disasters of War, 1800-2014, taking its title from the Goya series, uses paintings, etchings, sketches, wood blocks, photographs and video to trace the evolution of war images from the valedictory representations of warriors and battles in the 18th century to the increasingly realistic representations of war’s appalling toll in the 19th and 20th centuries, which paralleled the rise of photography. The last rooms of the show feature video, abstract artworks and war memorabilia.
By simply placing different works next to each other, the exhibition raises many of the same questions that those who tell the story of war — whether as artists or journalists — wrestle with every day: Are gore and blood the most important things to portray, or is it the moment of utter grief that follows? What is the truest way to show the cost of victory and the pain of defeat? How much is our understanding of war mediated and shaped by those who interpret it for us?
DIFFERENT YET THE SAME
Laurence Bertrand Dorleac, the show’s curator and an art historian, said in an interview, “I would like the visitor to meditate on those images that move them.” She placed Goya’s work near the beginning, partly because that Spanish painter “captured all the horrors of wars, past, present and future,” she said, and “did it with such effectiveness that he came to serve as a model for all artists who have striven since then to depict war’s consequences.”
The exhibition, made up almost entirely of borrowed works, brings together pieces from around 100 museums, archives and libraries, mostly in Europe, and is organized roughly chronologically.
Artists in the early 19th century still focused on the heroic. The 1802 portrait of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David that opens the exhibition depicts him as a warrior-hero, on a white horse that is rearing onto its hind legs. Both Napoleon and the horse are impeccably turned out: Napoleon’s large red cloak swirls in the wind, and there is not a speck of war’s mud on his jodhpurs.
Barely 15 years later, the conception of what was worth depicting had shifted dramatically. A lithograph by Theodore Gericault titled The Return From Russia puts a different face on Bonaparte’s legacy: It shows two wounded men, one on a horse, his head bandaged and his eyes covered as if he had been blinded, while the second man plods along next to him, both exhausted and broken.
The concentration on the devastation of the soldier goes hand in hand with artists’ newfound focus on the civilian casualties of war. There are those stunning Goya etchings and, later, an arresting portrait of the head of a Greek woman by Eugene Delacroix. Created in 1823-24 as a study for a larger painting called Scenes of the Massacres at Chios, it shows the woman looking up, her expression at once fearful and resigned, as if she sees a predator moving toward her and knows she cannot escape.
One painting from the 1879 war in what is today South Africa shows the moment when Napoleon’s great-nephew, then living in exile in England as the “Imperial Crown Prince” Louis Napoleon, joined British troops in the Natal and was set upon by Zulu fighters armed with spears and shields. The painting shows him futilely shooting as nine Zulus bear down on him, but it is his look of amazement that is telling. It is the look of the would-be conqueror who suddenly recognizes that he has underestimated his enemy.
Bringing these works together makes clear that certain images of conflict recur across the ages. The bodies lying in a Paris street from the fighting on the barricades during the Paris Commune of 1870 echo Goya’s image of dead bodies being picked up by a man on a cart. And the fear expressed by Delacroix’s Greek woman is recalled in a portrait by the German Jewish artist Felix Nussbaum of himself and his young niece in 1941. It is titled Fear (Self-Portrait With His Niece Marianne). He died three years later in the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
The vocabulary of war, whether images or words, must be reimagined by each new generation of artists as it seeks to depict the consequences of conflict. But as this exhibition shows, today’s artists are not alone. Their predecessors have given them a way to see, and to transform, even the most nihilistic of history’s moments into something with meaning.
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