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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Journalistic Propaganda

The Third of May, 1808, painted in1814, Francisco Goya
As every good writer must, from time to time, I'm obliged to back down with regard to a statement made a in haste. I recently declared, in discussing the work of Francisco Goya and his unforgettable The Third of May, 1808 (above), 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 categorized 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 Velasquez 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).

The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian, 1868,
Edouard Manet
I guess where I erred was in thinking of The Third of May mostly in journalistic terms, which, in large part, 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 should win some kind of award for procrastination. Maybe it should more rightly be called history painting, though still, it looks and "feels" like news.

The Rape of the Sabines, 1637, Nicholas Poussin
As recently demonstrated by all the Middle Eastern bloodshed, the line between journalism and propaganda is terribly much so that we now call much of such reportage "spin." The Third of May was spin. But, it was also a turning point in how wars were painted. In the manner of Nicolas Poussin's Rape of the Sabines (right), painted in 1637, for instance, there was much organized chaos and noble posturing but little in the way of bloody horror.

The Siege of Paris, 1770, Ernest Messonier
Goya chose not only to depict such carnage but to emphasize it over all else. From that point on, whether you call it journalism, history painting, or propaganda, war was painted in red. Manet in his Execution of Emperor Maximilian (above, left, 1868) and Meissonier, in his Siege of Paris (directly above, 1870), literally seem to have bathed in the stuff. Only Picasso was self-assured enough in his moral outrage to abandon the blood in favor 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.
Guernica, 1937, Pablo Picasso

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