As Artists Depict War

September 04 [Thu], 2014, 16:48
LENS, France ― The nightmare images come one after another: Three women, half-clothed, one with her legs spread open, lie on the floor, apparently raped; the naked body of a decapitated man hangs from a tree branch, his severed head stuck on a shorter branch; a man hauls a dead woman by her legs, her dress flipped up, exposing her underwear.

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It could be the stuff of a jihadi website or documentation for a human rights report, but these particular images are etchings and engravings from more than 200 years ago by Francisco de Goya, a moving testament to a largely forgotten war and to the barbarity that human beings inflict on one another.

As someone who has covered wars closely over the course of 14 years, I found the images a true revelation. I have witnessed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as war and its aftermath in the Balkans, and yet each time, I find casual destruction of life and of hope something hard to bear, the images seared into memory. There was the man whose body was burned almost black by a bomb in Iskandariya, south of Baghdad, in 2004, his body no longer recognizable as human; or the three men with hungry, angry faces who robbed me at dusk, using a gun and sticks on an empty dirt road in southern Afghanistan. And there are the rare moments of survival, the heroic writ small, the baby that was born in the Sinjar mountains of western Iraq, his mother giving birth in a car and then carrying him for days over the mountain to safety.

The atrocities that war reporters record and that seem new are, in fact, centuries old, and the unsparing eye of the artist can render the experience every bit as ugly and painful as anything a camera can record. A group like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria may take advantage of modern tools: social media, the easy distribution of graphic imagery, but the atrocity, Goya reminds us, is the same. When one group of people decides to kill another, it is a horror at once specific and universal. The Goya etchings and engravings and nearly 450 works by 200 artists are part of an ambitious and thought-provoking exhibition at the Louvre-Lens, a branch of the Paris museum in the Pas de Calais region, in northern France near the Belgian border, on view through Oct. 6.

The show, “The Disasters of War, 1800-2014,” taking its title from the Goya series, uses paintings, etchings, sketches, wood blocks, photographs and video to trace the evolution of war images from the valedictory representations of warriors and battles in the 18th century to the increasingly realistic representations of war’s appalling toll in the 19th and 20th centuries, which paralleled the rise of photography. The last rooms of the show feature video, abstract artworks and war memorabilia.

By simply placing different works next to each other, the exhibition raises many of the same questions that those who tell the story of war ― whether as artists or journalists ― wrestle with every day: Are gore and blood the most important things to portray, or is it the moment of utter grief that follows? What is the truest way to show the cost of victory and the pain of defeat? How much is our understanding of war mediated and shaped by those who interpret it for us?

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Laurence Bertrand Dorléac, the show’s curator and an art historian, said in an interview, “I would like the visitor to meditate on those images that move them.” She placed Goya’s work near the beginning, partly because that Spanish painter “captured all the horrors of wars, past, present and future,” she said, and “did it with such effectiveness that he came to serve as a model for all artists who have striven since then to depict war’s consequences.”

Correction: September 1, 2014
An earlier version of this article referred incompletely to the printmaking methods Goya used in his “Disasters of War” series. Many of the works were done as etchings, though some were executed as engravings.
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