I’m currently in Spain, participating in a brief study abroad program centered around transnational social work. In the course of this program, I’ve been asked to write several essays about history, art, social work practice, and my own relationship to all of these things. I know my family and friends are the primary readers of my blog (hey y’all!), so I thought it might be of interest to post some of my work here. I cooked out this essay in just a few hours, so forgive my sloppy writing, but I hope you enjoy the art nonetheless!
Brutality, Vulnerability, and Resistance in Spanish Art
A quote attributed to German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck states that “I am firmly convinced that Spain is the strongest country of the world. Century after century trying to destroy herself and still no success.” Whether or not Bismarck said this, it provides insight into the widespread perception of Spanish resilience in the face of trauma. Spain has a long history of violence and oppression, both internally as exemplified by the Civil War of the 1930s and externally as a result of colonization and international disputes, from the North African occupation and Catholic Reconquista to the Peninsular War with France. This history of violence, dehumanization, and brutality has been captured by Spanish artists from Goya to Picasso, whose art serves both as keepers of collective memory, and as protest against the oppressive violence of the state.
Los fusilamientos (o El 3 de mayo de 1808 en Madrid), painted by Francisco Goya in 1814, depicts the execution of Spanish troops by the French during the Peninsular War of 1808. This painting demonstrates the horrors of war, the vulnerability of the human condition, and the acute danger of dehumanizing our fellow human beings. There is a sense of both betrayal and intimacy within this image, and of chaotic movement which is only grounded by the rigid line of French troops who are systematically executing their Spanish prisoners. The proximity of the firing squad to the captives implies a sense of both intimacy and precariousness, which in turn reflects the cruelty of the neighbor-versus-neighbor violence of both the Peninsular War (between neighboring countries) and the Spanish Civil War (between literal neighbors and families). Goya’s depiction of the vulnerability and brutality of war denotes a shift from the prior artistic representations of war which focused on heroics and glory. Similarly, whereas traditional depictions of martyrdom and death show the victim with their eyes raised to God or the heavens, Goya’s victims are either cowering in abject fear or appear to be pleading directly with their human captors. There is something incredibly human, vulnerable, and arresting in the eyes of the figures which provokes immense feeling in the viewer. This painting appears to be almost a piece of journalistic reportage rather than a traditional work of art.
Goya’s “Black Paintings” show the mental anguish that witnessing the violence of war had on the painter himself. They were painted directly onto the walls of Goya’s home, and were never intended for public display, thus allowing us a unique perspective on how art and artist are in constant dialogue, and the reciprocal influence they have on one another. Goya’s Duelo a garrotazos (1820-23), for example, shows the inexplicable violence which humankind is capable of inflicting on itself. Two figures are depicted in a verdant field, large and out of scale with their surroundings, striking at one another with clubs. There is a sense of wildness, madness, and recklessness in this painting, quite at odds with the beauty and serenity of the landscape it overlays. Goya seems to be commenting on the destructive nature of humanity, the discord between the balance he observed within the natural world and the atrocities which humans are capable of inflicting on one another.
Goya’s Saturno devorando a su hijo (1820-23) is a visceral representation of the fear of loss of power and control, and the horrors that ensue from this fear, which is a theme throughout Spanish history. This painting depicts the Roman mythological story of Saturn, who attempted to avoid his prophesied fate of being overthrown by his children by eating them. Saturn is interpreted by Goya as a representation of humanity’s shadow side and self-destructive capabilities, the toxicity of silence, and the dehumanization of the fellow human. This is a crucial piece of Spanish historical art and speaks directly to the experiences of war and persecution as experienced both in Goya’s lifetime and during later generations. The distress and apparent madness in Saturn’s eyes imply a loss of control and a horrifying awareness of the monstrosity of his actions. Within Spanish history, violence and oppression often occurred as a result of struggles between people in power, but those who are often most impacted by these wars and disputes are the common people, those with less societal power and privilege. Saturn, therefore, can represent the Kings, generals, and presidents of Spain who, in their grasping for control, inflict enormous trauma on the Spanish people.
Guernica, painted by Picasso in 1937, is a depiction of the Nazi bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, and represents a repudiation of the atrocities of war writ large. The bombing of Guernica represented the senseless brutality of war: Picasso states that in creating Guernica, “I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death” (Picasso in Tóibín, 2006). Guernica is often viewed as a symbol of anti-war sentiment in general, but has specific resonance within the context of Spanish history and contemporary Spanish society as well. Like Goya before him, Picasso manages to harness the terror, brutality, and senselessness of the violence which humans inflict on one another, and in doing so, comments on the vulnerability of humanity. Guernica seems to be a cry for international attention as much as it is an attempt to memorialize and express the deep wounding of the Spanish people as a result of the Civil War. Picasso’s work looks unflinchingly at the horror of wartime violence and stands in stark contrast the culture of silence which embodied the post-war era of Franco’s dictatorship.
Alba de Resurrección, painted by Joaquín Vaquero Turcios in 1956, speaks to the destructive power of not only war itself, but the silence and denial which often occurs in its wake. This painting was created in the post-war years of Franco’s dictatorship, and in both its subject matter and its title, points to a sense of hopelessness and trauma. There are no human figures in this painting, and it depicts a desolate wasteland of post-apocalyptic ruin. The painting seems to ask, once we have destroyed ourselves, what will be left? The color palate that Turcios utilizes is somber and melancholic and lends an air of morose silence to the painting. The warning within this painting is the truism that those who forget their history are destined to repeat it. Under the censorship of Franco’s dictatorship, artists of all types were forced to express their protests with subtlety and subterfuge, and Turcios succeeds in his expression of the oppressive silence and resultant embedded trauma of the Civil War and post-war years.
Spanish artists throughout the ages have contended
with the brutality of war, and through their work have demonstrated the
resilience and strength of the human spirit. As survivors of trauma themselves,
many artists have turned to their work to process and push back against the dominant
cultural narratives. Whether we consider Goya’s public and personal work, the
overtly political message of Picasso’s Guernica, or the subdued but
poignant Alba de la Resurrección by Turcios, we see the anguish of
survivors and the vulnerability of resistance fighters. Art has long been
reserved for the wealthy and powerful, however, and although these artists
often depict the common person in their work, it’s unlikely that folks with
less power and privilege had access to artistic catharsis prior to the
twentieth century. Indeed, even now, art is often only accessible to the
privileged few, and general knowledge of history is similarly scant among the
wider population. While art has immense power to move and inspire, if it is not
a part of the public discourse, its potential to create change is limited.
Goya, F. (1814). Los fusilamientos [oil on canvas]. Museo de Prado, Madrid.
Goya, F. (1820-23). Duelo a garrotazos [oil mural transferred to canvas]. Museo de Prado, Madrid.
Goya, F. (1820-23). Saturno devorando a su hijo [oil mural transferred to canvas]. Museo de Prado, Madrid.
Picasso, P. (1937). Guernica [oil on canvas]. Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid.
Tóibín, C. (2006, April 28). The Art of War: The destruction of Guernica. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/apr/29/arts.visualarts
Turcios, J. (1956). Alba de Resurrección [oil on canvas]. Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid.