Is “tragic” art, “beautiful” anyway?


Ernesto Sábato: VISITA AL MUSEO DEL PRADO (Visit to El Prado Museum)
Notice: translation from Spanish is mine. 
As if I was an automaton, like when being a child I would wake up as sleepwalker, I move straight to Goya. And I choose one picture, just one picture and I stop there. The painter of monsters; he who brilliantly painted with smoke and blood. The 2nd of May. I stare at it little by little, as if I was touching it and I would submerge into it. It was back in 1814 when Goya painted the battle in his workshop. Yes, they are there, it’s strong men fighting for their land; fighting for Madrid. I know the battle, the great popular war that was unleashed in Madrid, upset him. That he painted and painted, along three years the “disasters of war”. But I also know that chaos, blood shedding, brutality of men, was the subject that helped Goya to make us shudder with his paintings. To carry us to that symbolic, endless truth. I admire those “blacks” of charcoal, of smoke. Unbeatable. And the “whites”. Already by that time, after his disease and his deafness, he painted for himself. Between suffering times, he was born again; he abandoned the bright colours and started to add “browns”, great masses of black and subtle brushstrokes of pink, of silver greys, to express the light. In Goya, I believe, the canvas does not exist. Slightly, layer by layer, adding pigment and more pigment, dry on dry, a dark charcoal mass is lit. Wisely blood is made in the red of the dead soldier trousers. All the looks are directed to the soldier that falls off the horse, onto the blood red. Soldiers are there and show us how they undoubtedly fought. How many casualties have this battle cost! And at the same time, soldiers are the “black” that Goya needs, those “blacks” he loves. Same as the horse we can see in the foreground, is the horse of the dead soldier, and it’s the “white” that shakes Goya.
(Extract from “España en los diarios de mi vejez -2004. Seix Barral)

I read this paragraph a couple of days ago, and it made me think almost immediately of the overlapping of meanings, reading an art critic from a writer, on a picture of Goya, that describes a battle in the city I’m living at present.

So on one hand, I found myself going through the meaning of the picture, when I realized the text, being written by Ernesto Sábato, ought to be valuable in itself. But then what attracted me the most was the relation between the content of the text and it’s meaning in relation to what it precisely was trying to rescue from that moment in Goya’s life, whether it was being faithful to itself.

So Sábato first tries to imagine Goya in his workshop, struggling to paint a painful scene of which he had been witness, in the previous years.

Goya chooses the subject, the palette of colours, the way the different elements in the picture are composed, but we must assume that he had in mind, all the time he spend painting it, the brutality of man, the absurd of that war. But at the same time, he might have had the intention to give the picture a life of its own. That is when Art gets its autonomy, and form clashes against (or separates from)  content.

There’s a intriguing, mysterious and never solved movement in Art, when it presents a dreadful theme with patterns of beauty.

Sábato’s reaction could be understandable from a Art critic point of view, but would that be fair with the artist’s intention?

When Adorno says that contemporary art should only express barbarianism of our times in a dreadful way, wouldn’t Goya’s “2 de Mayo de 1808” fall into that category? Is it exactly a “beautiful” picture? What are the meanings the work is conveying? Could we in spite of that, be receiving a different message? And if so, what would that mean?

Do we learn anything about human behaviour, about human pain, destruction, killing?

If the only experience we extract from Art like this, is about the “magnificent way colours, contrasts, shapes, composition”, then we are not decoding the true meaning of an artist struggling along tree years to paint it, or the sorrow that was impelling him.

Something similar could be applied to Picasso’s “Guernica”.

The lesson this picture should leave, if I should have to guess Goya’s intention, ought to be that of Man being a beast and a barbarian, destructive and oppressing. Unless we don’t see this humanist philosophy underlying the tension in the picture, between form and content, I feel we are disdaining Goya’s true purpose for painting it: that we should feel empathy for the dead soldiers, shame for such irrational acts, remorse for the sins of humanity and sorrow for the lost lives.

Maybe, that’s exactly what Sábato, in the end of his life, conscious or unconsciously, is trying to avoid, by concentrating in those magnificent “blacks”, “whites”, “reds” and “ocres”: the painful truth.


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