In this essay I will compare work created in response to war by Goya and Picasso, and then examine how the Chapman brothers, Jake and Dinos, brought art of this nature to a generation in recent years.
I find this area of art fascinating due to the fact that while war is a terrible thing it is clear that beautiful and fascinating works of art can be produced in reaction to it. I aim to find out precisely why war art is produced, and exactly what this selection of artists were aiming to achieve with their art. By examining three artists from different time periods and cultures I hope to be able to examine and discuss how their responses differed due to the resources available to them and their intentions.
One of the things that was at the opening of my research an interesting side note, but as time elapsed has in fact become an integral part of my discussion, is understanding how “media-exposed” the different cultures were at the times these artists lived, and how this affects their work. While Goya and other artists of his time had a complete monopoly on the imagery widely available to the public in those days, the Chapman’s sit at the other end of the scale, working in a time when the internet and TV enables everyone to choose exactly what they want to see. While art still has the power to influence and engage the public it doesn’t possess the stranglehold it once did, and it is therefore a lot more difficult for contemporary artists to display their ideas to a wide audience, as the Chapman’s would discover.
Widely considered to be the first artist to create war art with the intention of bringing the true horror of it into the public consciousness, Francisco Goya’s lifetime spanned a period of massive political and social upheaval in his native Spain. Born in 1746, Goya, like many others, fled the country before the end of his life, going in search of peace and seeking to escape from danger. Determined to display his work and awaken everyone he could reach to what was taking place in Spain, his controversial paintings and drawings ensured he was never far from trouble, regularly being called in front of the inquisition and often escaping unharmed only due to his connections to the King. Goya was able to achieve his aims with portions of his work, while others were swiftly withdrawn or unreleased entirely until after his death as an exile in 1828 in Bordeaux, Southern France.
It was during his time in Spain that Goya, specifically between 1810 and 1820 that he created his “Disasters of War” series, etched onto plates as they were the only resource widely available to him. They display the atrocities performed by both sides, by citizens and military figures, although certain etchings show the courage and pride that arises from some people during these horrific times. Despite the controversial nature of this and many of his other works, Goya managed to retain his status as “Court Painter to The King” for a large part of his adult life.
Even in our present age it is easy to see why these works were so shocking and controversial, what with the dismembered bodies and scenes of murder that are apparent in them. The displays of honour are few and far between, but they are there, a reminder from Goya that it war is not completely about horror and disgrace, that there are stories of good to be told as well.
During the 10 years he spent on the “Disasters or War” series, Goya also took time to create a painting entitled “The Third of May” which was completed in 1814 (seen on the right). It documents a public execution that took place in Spain during the six-year occupation by the French. The shocking thing about this painting is the attention to detail and the stories behind it all. Are the onlookers who are shielding their faces just bystanders, or are they Spaniards who are watching their friends being executed in front of them for the beliefs they upheld? Are they innocent, or are they guilty of not being as steadfast in the face of adversity as others were? The juxtaposition of courage and cowardice is fascinating, along with the light that is shining at the dead and soon to be dead, illuminating the horror for all to see.
Goya’s work has since become famous, a starting point for all future political and war-related art. As we will see next his work inspired, but was surpassed a century later, by another Spanish artist.
More than a century after Goya came Picasso, another Spanish artist who would live through times of war and social unrest in his homeland. Born in 1881, Picasso would come to be acknowledged as one of the greatest artists to ever live. Like Goya he left Spain for France but did so to develop his cultural and artistic understanding, rather than to flee troubles. He developed Cubism with George Braque in the early 20th century, and this was the style of art he would use for his famous anti-war painting, Guernica.
Picasso painted Guernica as a response to the German bombing of Guernica, a town in the Basque country, during the Spanish Civil War. This was an atrocity Picasso felt compelled to make the world aware of, and had the perfect opportunity at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, France. Critical response was not favourable at the time with many believing Picasso had missed a major opportunity to make a powerful statement.
However, the fact that this is still talked about as one of the great pieces of Art of the 20th century is a testament to how wrong critics can be. Intended to bring the horrors of the Spanish Civil War to light, Guernica has since become an international anti-war symbol, being used by protesters in wars ever since. Picasso stated his intention that Guernica should be displayed in Spain, but should not go there while the oppressive dictatorship of General Franco was in charge. Picasso died in 1973, with Franco’s death 2 years later signalling a new beginning for a free Spain. The painting now resides at the Reina Sofia in Madrid, finally becoming a part of Spain as Picasso intended.
Dinos Chapman was born in London, England in 1962, his brother 4 years later in Cheltenham. In the course of their career they have earned a “bad-boy” reputation in the art world due to the largely irreverent nature of their work. However, they were not always focused on shock and awe, as shown with their first major work.
Created in 1990 “Disasters of War” is a 3Dimensional reworking of Goya’s etchings. Jake and Dinos were fascinated by the great man’s work, and felt compelled to at their own slant to his masterful series. The figures almost represent children’s toys, providing a fascinating take on the horrors of war. By giving them a look and feel so alien to what is normally considered War Art the Chapman brothers somehow breathed new life into the ideas displayed in Goya’s famous work, and brought the horror of war to a new generation of art viewers. The figures look simple and lifelike, but upon closer inspection it is revealed that they are horrific scenes of death and dismemberment. However, as shockingly powerful as this was the Chapman brothers were not finished, and their next step was in the minds of most art critics, a step too far.
Continuing on from “Disasters of War” the brothers took 2 shop-window mannequins and re-created Goya’s most horrific etching “Great Deeds Against The Dead”, but life-size. The awful scene of castrated figures covered in blood outraged critics as they completely missed the objective and slated the brothers for being irreverent. In a quote taken from Creativetourist.com Dinos explains his viewpoint;
“It’s considered morally correct to show horror and tragedy on the news… but not in film or art. The most horrible things I’ve seen are not fiction.”
The brothers were attempting to display the true reality of conflict to a public saturated with images of blood and gore, even if the critics failed to realize it.
The main problem the brothers faced when displaying their work was that, although their aims were the same as Goya’s in that they wished to show the public aware of atrocities against humanity, they were doing it in a completely different age from the Spaniard. Whereas he, and other artists of the time, had a monopoly on public exposure to media, Jake and Dinos had to appeal to a public that is used to seeing horrific scenes, and almost takes a morbid pleasure from seeing such things. Goya could shock so easily with his work, whereas the Chapman’s had to go overboard to even make any sort of impact on popular culture, and in doing so managed to make the completely wrong one in the art world.
Only with time will in become clear whether Jake and Dinos’ work will go down as masterpieces, or whether they will forever be considered infamous for taking things a step too far. Goya achieved his aim of displaying the reality of war through his work, and Picasso was arguably even more successful, as he achieved his aim and managed to create a piece destined to become a symbol against war and oppression. While the Chapman’s cannot yet be considered in the same breath as these two masters it shows the enduring quality and fascination of war art that contemporary artists are still working in this context in the present day, two centuries after Goya first thought of it.
© Peter Hine