Deep in the Prado Museum's massive new Goya exhibition hangs a muted watercolor titled One Can't Look. Completed some time in the years before 1815, it depicts a prisoner, his torso draped in cloth, with ropes dangling from his tensed limbs. There is no hood over his head, no box beneath his feet, and what initially appear to be outstretched arms turn out, upon closer inspection, to be tattered folds of cloth. Yet it is almost impossible to look at this small work and not be reminded of the more recent image of a hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib, an artless photo that testifies with similarly painful eloquence to human brutality in times of war.
More than one critic has argued that Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes is the father of modern art a pioneer in his searing portrayal of the dark side of human nature, and in his uncanny ability not only to capture the horrors of his own age but to foreshadow the atrocities to come. If earlier generations have found in the Spanish painter's work clues to their own iconography of despair (The Third of May as a precursor of Picasso's Guernica, the Black Paintings as preparation for images of Auschwitz), the Prado's "Goya in Times of War" is an exhibition for us, the Abu Ghraib generation.
The show, which runs from April 15 through mid-July in Madrid, is the Prado's first major Goya retrospective since 1996. It includes nearly 200 paintings, etchings and drawings, many of which come from private collections and have never been publicly displayed. In fact, although the Prado holds the world's largest trove of works by Goya, only a fifth of the pieces in this exhibition come from its collection. All were completed between 1794 and 1820, the period that begins with Goya's recovery from a grave illness that left him deaf, and traverses the bloody years of Spain's war of independence, which he witnessed personally.
That conflict, which began in 1808 and pitted ragtag bands of peasants against Napoleon's imperial army, provides the bicentennial occasion for "Goya in Times of War." But in no sense is the show a commemoration of the glories of battle. "For Goya the war was a disaster, a shock for his nation and a shock to his Enlightenment ideas," says Manuela Mena, the exhibition's curator. "You can see his skepticism, his loss of faith in humanity."
The centerpiece of the show, both physically and metaphorically, is a pair of epic paintings, The Second of May and The Third of May. The latter, focusing on a white-shirted guerrilla with his arms stretched out in terror before a firing squad of French soldiers, is a classic of anti-war iconography, often interpreted as a 19th century take on the biblical theme of the slaughter of the innocents. The painting has been displayed before alongside The Second of May, a depiction of the previous day's battle, in which Spanish militias viciously attacked Napoleon's Mameluke soldiers. But an earlier, insensitive attempt to repair damages to the canvases had dulled the poignant narrative impact of the two paintings. A magnificent restoration, begun in 2000, revived the original colors so that crimson blood in the two works shimmers as if still wet and the rich blues of the French uniforms stand out against the dusty ocher of the militamen's trousers.
But the renewed colors do more than add vibrancy; they help Goya tell his story. Released from decades of yellowed varnish, a tiny white spot in The Second of May draws the gaze to a horse's muzzle, and from there, up to the animal's penetrating eyes, which stare at the viewer in terrified accusation, as if to say, "Look at what you've done." Bloodspecked bodies crumpled at the bottom of each painting now form a single visual line and provide a graphic reminder that the French massacre of "innocent" militiamen occurred only after the Spanish had slaughtered their share of French soldiers. "Look at their faces: Goya doesn't present them as innocent," says Mena. "Violence begets violence."
Which is not to say that the exhibit is unrelentingly grim. The early years of the 19th century were a time of tremendous creativity for Goya, and the full range of his talent is on display in this show. His modernity is evident not only in his dark depictions of human irrationality, but in his psychologically acute portraits. From his warm, intimate portrayal of Spanish King Charles IV and his family, to the petulant knowingness of the young Marchioness de Montehermoso, to the vague disappointment of the slightly mustachioed Doña Juana Galarza, who clutches a crumpled fan in her sausage-like fingers, Goya captured the individuality of his sitters, regardless of their social class. There are giggling majas here, and self-satisfied aristocrats, and the lovely Duchess of Alba the full, joyous panoply of Goya characters.
Nevertheless, few subjects escape the artist's bleak skepticism. Still lifes tend to comment on the transience of things, but Goya's piles of lifeless fish and game lend unexpected violence to this theme: the white fur of a rabbit's belly exposes the wound where it was shot; the blank eyes of a lamb's skull look disconsolately at its butchered torso. Equally unsettling, a large painting of The Taking of Christ is notable less for the sorrowful figure at its center than for the jeering, crazed mob that surrounds him. The same menacing irrationality appears in disturbing later works such as The Burial of the Sardine and Procession of Flagellants the former an attack on superstitious folk celebrations, the latter on Catholic ritual. In Goya's view, such misguided practices were invigorated by the upheaval of war.
It was in his etchings and drawings, especially those that make up the tormented series "Disasters of War," that Goya unleashed his most powerful critiques, and these are scattered throughout the Prado show. In stinging scenes that range from a ghastly militiaman butchering his enemies with an axe to a huddle of skeletal paupers begging miserably for scraps, "Disasters" exposes the lingering effects moral, social and physical of violence. Even for an audience accustomed to the barrage of brutal images emanating from Iraq and Afghanistan, these works, with their rough lines and muted colors, still amazingly possess the power to shock.