War Contextualized: Goya, Mushkin and the Military State
On view now at the Pomona College Museum of Art are two exhibits linked by their exploration of the public perception of war and conflict. Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes was a Spanish painter and printmaker during the 18th and 19th centuries most famous for his works created during the Napoleonic Wars. Hillary Mushkin is a visual artist and leader of the Incendiary Traces initiative that seeks to examine the landscapes of war.
I first encountered Goya through Susan Sontag's "Regarding the Pain of Others." It was plate 36, "Tampoco," the bored soldier idly watching while a man dies or is recently dead from hanging. To my delight, this plate was one of 80 on display at the current exhibition of Pomona College Museum of Art titled "Goya's War: Los Desastres de la Guerra." The etchings on display show Goya's perspective during the long years of the war with France (1808-1814) and the subsequent occupation and famine. The first edition printing of the book in which these etchings were first published in 1863 is also on display in the gallery
In her book, Sontag says, "The photographs are a means of making 'real' (or 'more real') matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore." The same could be said of Goya's prints here with the addition that Goya himself could be one of the privileged with all this time to make etchings while the worst of humanity happened all around him. The grim subjects are portrayed with beautiful composition and each print reads as an allegory of the woes of life during wartime.
The museum's supplementary information cards break up the prints into five themed sections: "Carnage," "Atrocity," "Passions of War," "Famine" and "The Emphatic Caprices." Each describes how Goya's etching supplies grew scarcer the longer the war stretched on, and the artist had to stretch his supplies by reusing plates. This is shown to great effect through the chronological order the prints are displayed as opposed to the artist's assigned order.
These prints present a war in a way the modern viewer might not recognize and is a far cry from the immediacy of war photographs by James Nachtwey or Remy Oshlik. Instead, Goya's prints show an almost Classical representation of tragedy through composition and form. "Los Desastres" not only shows the war it sprang from, but it is the record of every conflict humankind has had. Every war before and since has been made up of these scenes here on display, if not all then at least in part. Goya's expertly etched faces show perfect expression of pain and vicious joy at the harm of others, the worried frown of mothers carrying children from the city and the face of death on the barely living victims of famine. It is remarkable that Goya is able to simultaneously portray these scenes so vividly that, through medium and style, reads not only as a distant record of the event, but also a representation of current events happening throughout the world.
The neighboring exhibit "Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces" explores the effects of conflict and war though a different kind of distance. Hillary Mushkin's project explores local places that are connected to war and conflict through proxy. Through art, research, maps and videography, Mushkin and others describe the localities and landscapes of places like a scale replica of a section of Baghdad at 29 Palms, the permeable US/Mexico border near San Diego and the bastion of urban surveillance that is Mexico City's C4I4.
On one wall, video of fisherman plays describing live fire exercises they find themselves caught in the middle of while sailing off San Clemente Island. Opposite is a loop of a computer simulation as the camera continuously falls off the edge of the world. The static pieces on display are cleverly categorized by location presented in glass covered tabletops as if they were archaeological evidence.
Incendiary Traces uses the artifacts gathered and created in these spaces to create an experience that allows the viewer to connect to these little known local places and the conflicts they represent abroad. This creates a wonderful pairing alongside the Goya exhibit: two ways to connect through art to war for an audience that is far removed through time and space.
"Goya's War: Los Desastres de la Guerra" and "Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces" are on display until May 14, 2017.