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12 Mar 12

Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ at Instituto Cervantes

The Spanish cultural centre is showing an exhibition of 82 plates by Francisco Goya on the horrors of the Peninsular War.

Andrej Klemencic
BIRN Belgrade

Goya's exhibition in Belgrade. | Photo by Andrej Klemencic

Much of Francisco Goya’s most important works are connected to the Peninsular War, when Spain, Britain and Portugal fought Emperor Napoleon’s invading French troops.

In many of his paintings, Goya brings to life vivid images of the cruelty of war and its aftermath.

At the invitation of General Palafox who was then in charge of the defence of Saragossa, Goya and several colleagues spent months in late spring 1808 on the frontlines. The great painter decided to depict the horrors he had seen not with colours and large formats, but using small plates. As a result, the viewer must come close to see the images, which makes the viewing both more intimate and often more shocking.

This latest exhibition is divided into seven sections. The first, “Post-war,” concerns the months following the end of the conflict. Here, Goya uses animals to which he attributes human characteristics, such as a wolf signing a peace treaty or a bat studying an account of the battle.

Those images look like characters from a nightmarish fable. In part, Goya apparently used them to criticise the absolutist regime of the Spanish monarch Fernando VII, who was restored to the throne after Napoleon’s defeat.

The handwriting on each plate provides the only account of what the image contains. Alas, the writing is in Spanish only, with no explanation for viewers in Belgrade in English or Serbian.

Goya's work exhibited in Belgrade. | Photo courtesy of 

Instituto Cervantes

More bilingually friendly are the posters introducing each section. These are equipped with short, informative texts in Spanish and Serbian and a couple of photos.

The second section, “Exodus and Looting”, contains images of people fleeing homes, the sackings of abandoned houses and churches. The aura of the coming conquest suits the plate technique, which despite its lack of colour provides a sense of three-dimensionality. Goya’s plentiful details in the background add to the sense of depth.

Some will want to avoid looking at the photographs on the poster for section three, “Executions“. These contain graphic images of men being mutilated in ways hard to imagine outside a snuff film.

“Victims”, the fourth section, is a very different experience to the gore of the previous section. A feeling of a silent aftermath is prevalent here, in which the living come to execution sites or battle sites to pick over or mourn their dead.

In the “Hunger“ section, Goya portrays the period of famine that hit Madrid in 1811. Images of gangs rampaging through the streets of Madrid are mixed with others portraying the hopelessness felt by the city’s inhabitants. Here Goya brings to life one of the least known episodes of the war.

This section is also announced by two photographs, one of which shows Europeans receiving cans called BEEF from American soldiers after World War II. It is not necessarily a bad decision to introduce each section by using photographs, though as they did not exist in Goya’s time, one wonders about their role at the exhibition. All in black and white, they well depict the topic of each section. But an exhibition of emotionally charged plates by one of the world’s leading painters could have done without such visual elaboration.

Goya's work exhibited in Belgrade. | Photo courtesy of 

Instituto Cervantes

“Women” is the section in which Goya examines the role of women in the conflict. In contrast to the usual portrayals of woman as active victims, Goya here shows corpses of women being taken from wagons or women silently roaming the deserted sites of former battles.

The closing section, “Frontline”, shows images from the battlefield. Instead of glorification, the images are of clumsy soldiers, overdressed generals and widespread chaos.

One fault of this exhibition is that you cannot go from left to right all the way. Instead the visitor must see the first three sections and then return to the entrance and head in another direction to see the remaining four. The fact that the section that is chronologically last comes first is also confusing. There are no indicators about which way to head.

With the on-going exhibition of Picasso’s ceramics and Goya’s plates, Cervantes Belgrade is getting its share of fine art this month. The exhibition closes on March 31. It is open daily from 9am to 9pm. Entrance is free. Instituto Cervantes is at Cika Ljubina 19.

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