Thursday, 21 April 2011

Bite 97: Francisco de Goya - The Third of May 1808, 1814

The Third of May, 1808, 1814oil on canvas, 266 x 345 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
An almost exact contemporary of David, Goya, particularly in his later work, could not be more contrasting of an artist. Working with looser brushwork, he stresses the realistic at the expense of the idealistic or classical. Although Goya defies categorization, in this sense at least, he is a Romantic artist, with elements of the Neo-Baroque. 

The Third of May, 1808 is a key example of this with blazing colour, broad, fluid brushwork, and dramatic nocturnal light illuminating the terrified figure of a kneeling man about to be executed. 

Painted in 1814 after Spain’s liberation from French occupation by Napoleon in the Peninsula War, Goya received funding from the newly restored Ferdinand VII for this and another picture, The Second of May, 1808.

“It is my ardent wish,” Goya explained, “to perpetuate by means of my brush the most notable and heroic actions and scenes of our most glorious insurrection against the tyrant of Europe.” The work commemorates the arrest and execution of madrileños (people of Madrid) on May 3rd 1808 by the Napoleonic invading army following a civilian revolt. 

The dark scene is lit only by a lantern, bringing dramatic contrast to the non-triangular compressed composition and highlighting the focal point of the kneeling Spaniard – “The light in his work is merciless for the simple reason that it shows up cruelty,” John Berger explains.

In the background the Church remains in darkness just as it remained largely silent in the face of cruelty by French invaders. The bare hill in the mid-ground mirrors the shaven head of a monk clenching his fists, while also leading the viewers eye down right to the anonymous figures of the Napoleonic army, backs turned to the viewer to face their victims with bayonets drawn. 

However, the focus of the composition is not the invaders, who, in their anonymity, remain archetypal of the tyrant of Europe. The disproportionate size and glowing chest of the main figure draws the eye immediately. He throws his arms out and up as though he were “throwing his whole life, in extremis, in the face of his murderers,” writes Robert Hughes. He is in the posture of a crucified man “linking the figure of the anonymous political martyr to that of Christ”, and this analogy is reinforced by the stigmata on at least one of his hands. The eye that we can see is bulging in terror with white surrounding the big back of his dilated cornea.

The man immediately to his right has a face of pure terror while others must look away or cover their faces. The ground is stained with the blood of those already executed; the raw red of the pigment more realistic than a licked finish, looking like already clotted blood. 

It is hard to believe from this that Goya did not witness this event – he almost certainly didn’t – and this cannot be taken as a completely accurate rendering of the scene. It is perhaps more powerful for that though. The French author Malraux points out that Goya paints “the absurdity of being human” and is “the greatest interpreter of anguish the West has ever seen.”

Goya has distilled the horrors he has witnessed throughout the occupation into a monumentally breathtaking image of the reality of war. Goya is riveting our eyes, as if saying, “Look at this! Look what we are capable of!” This is the prototype for all modern depictions of conflict and it still wounds with intensity 200 years after its creation, with all of the images of conflict we see today.

Honour and Fleming, A World History of Art, 644.
H. W. Janson, History of Art, 5th ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1962/1995), 660.
30,000 Years of Art. (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2007), 857.
J. Berger, “The Honesty of Goya.” in Selected Essays. (ed. by Geoff Dyer). (New York: Vintage, 2001), 57.
R. Hughes, Goya. (London: Vintage, 2004), 314.
A. Malraux quoted in Berger, Selected Essays, 56-57.