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Monday, May 27, 2019

How We View War

Memorial Day, 1950s
When I was a child growing up in a small, Southeastern, Ohio, village some sixty years ago, we tended to view military duty as every young man's obligation to his country. Every Memorial Day the preteen children in our community, dressed in their "Sunday best," met in the school yard along with one or more high school bands, and a color guard from the local VFW or American Legion where we formed a parade down Main Street. Each of us carried a basket of handpicked flowers (even Dandelions) to a point on the bridge across the Muskingum River. There we threw some of our flowers over the edge to float on the water below, presumably coming to rest over the graves of our naval forces who were buried at sea during past wars. (In fact, few of our bouquets made it intact over the dam just a hundred feet downriver, much less the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.) From there we "marched" to the local cemetery where we decorated headstones decked out with a small American flag.

On a larger scale, in comic books, paperback novels, TV, and of course the movies, war was depicted as something from which heroes were made (right). Of course, Vietnam changed all that (below). Our soldiers overseas were often seen as little better than murderers, or worse, baby-killers, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." Only those shrewd enough, rich enough, and smart enough were exempt from the draft as full-time students or those suffering from "bone spurs on their heels." (Sound familiar?) TV news brought the killing fields to the American living room while draft dodgers left such a bitter taste that before long, the draft was abolished.
Heroes or hooligans in uniform?

Gulf (anti-)War poster
As for myself, I avoided the draft by enlisting in the U.S. Air Force. The military decided I had adequate typing skills and a good ear for Morse code so myself and six other guys I knew from basic training ended up in Alaska for two years. When our time was up, we were asked to indicate where we would next like to be stationed. As might be expected, each airman chose the Air Force base nearest their homes. They ended up plying their skills in unarmed "Goony Birds" (prop-driven C-47s) flying over the dense jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia. I, on the other hand, realized that there was no way in hell I would be allowed to exit the Air Force Security Service in the middle of the Vietnam War (June, 1968) so I chose Fort Meade, Maryland, flying a desk at NSA for the next ten months. Incidentally, it was while there I took my first college class in composition (I thought I knew how to write. The instructor's comments on my first assignment caused me to realize otherwise.)

The Battle of Blenheim on the 13th August 1704, painted in 1743 by John Wotton.
For centuries, artists have been commissioned to paint huge history paintings depicting victorious battles. Only the enemy is shown as dead or dying. John Wootton's The Battle of Blenheim on the 13th August 1704, (above), which dates from around 1743 (39 years after the event), is typical of such works,--tastefully balanced, panoramic, enamored with the dance-like beauty of combat. Great pains were taken in the realm of geography, troop placement, environmental factors, personages, and carefully balanced academic compositions. History painting at the time was the highest level toward which an artist might strive, and their carefully well-ordered depictions (in lieu of TV news) totally shaped civilian mental images and attitudes toward wars. Even as late as 1830 when Eugene Delacroix painted La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple (Liberty Guiding the People, below) though depicting the chaos of street fighting, the primary emphasis remained one of romanticizing and glorifying combat heroism.

 La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple, 1830, Eugene Delacroix. Grizzly, yes, but still propaganda art.
In 1814, when the provisional Spanish government commissioned the native-born Francisco José de Goya to commemorate the heroics of the most recent rebellion against the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte, the artist assured the government authorities that his painting would “perpetuate…the most notable and heroic actions of our glorious insurrection against the Tyrant of Europe.” Just six years later, with Napoleon’s empire in ruins and Charles’s son on the Spanish throne, Goya completed two large canvases depicting the events of the rebellion,: one of the May 2nd uprising and the other—the more iconic and disturbing—of the May 3rd executions. Goya was a master at convincing his patrons to sign off on one thing, and then delivering quite something else. It’s certainly true that The Third of May 1808, (below) kept the memory of the Spanish insurrection alive, but whether Goya intended this event to appear glorious or heroic is, to put it mildly, questionable.
The Third of May 1808, painted in 1814 (only six years after the fact) by Francisco José de Goya.
The Third of May’s executioners are terrifying because Goya shows us very little of them, its victims are unforgettable because we see so much. The painting’s white-shirted, wide-eyed “martyr figure,” as he is sometimes called, has been termed one of the most vivid human ‘presences’ in all art. Others have likened his pose to that of Christ on the cross. Looking closely, in fact, you will find wounds on the man’s hands, an unmistakable allusion to Christ’s stigmata. Yet Goya never lets these allusions drag his painting into sentimentality. This man is a victim, but not quite a martyr. He hasn’t chosen to die, much less die for a cause; as he throws out his hands, brow contracted in terror. He stands for nothing more or less than himself. His death is raw, incomprehensible and enraging. No amount of religion or corny patriotism can explain it away.

Goya often says more with a few strokes of paint on a few inches of canvas than many of his contemporaries could with an entire painting.
Quite apart from the martyr figure’s pose and expression. The Third of May is one of the rare paintings in which almost every square inch contains details or bears a message. Notice, for instance, the glittering curve of one French soldier’s saber (above, left) It's a minor detail on such a vast canvas--beautiful but obsolete. The weapon dangles uselessly from its owner’s hip, a symbol of the phony romanticism of war, to which The Third of May is itself the ultimate rebuttal. Notice too the painting’s distant, forlorn cityscape (above, right), linked to the foreground by a long chain of prisoners barely visible over the French soldiers’ heads. Without painting ruins, Goya evoked ghosts of towns. No one else had ever achieved that.

The Execution of Emperor Maximillian, 1867-68, Edouard Manet. 
That isn’t to say that other painters haven’t tried to achieve what Goya did. Édouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (above) dating from 1867–68, hardly bothers to hide its indebtedness to The Third of May. The Execution of Emperor Maximilian is a series of paintings by Manet from 1867 to 1869, depicting the execution by firing squad of Emperor Maximilian I of the short-lived Second Mexican Empire. Manet produced three large oil paintings, a smaller oil sketch and a lithograph of the same subject. Pablo Picasso’s most famous work, Guernica (below), dating from 1937 is The Third of May for the 20th century, right down to the martyr figure’s outstretched arms. Picasso' Guernica is certainly the his most powerful political statement, painted as an immediate reaction to the Nazi's devastating casual bombing practice on the Basque town of Guernica.

Guernica, 1937, Pablo Picasso--war in Cubism.
Goya’s The Third of May 1808 is variously described as the greatest anti-war painting, the first modern work of art, and the artist’s unquestioned masterpiece—spent most of its first 40 years in storage. The painting and its companion piece, The Second of May 1808 (below) were coolly received. Later they were transferred to the Prado Museum in Madrid. Not until 1872 did the museum bothered to list the painting in its catalogue. By that time, the horrors Goya had depicted were almost beyond living memory. But in 1814, they were as fresh for the people of Spain as the slaughter of protesters in Cairo, the gassing of Damascus, or the Boston bombing were for us today.

The Second of May 1808, painted in 1814, by Francisco José de Goya--depicts the prelude to the slaughter of the following day.

Two Old Men Eating Soup,
one of the fourteen "Black Paintings" created by Goya
between 1819–1823. By this time, Goya was in his
mid-70s and deeply disillusioned. He painted
the works on the interior walls of the house known
as the Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man).


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