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Jan 10, 2018 in Analysis

Paintings in The Norton Simon Museum

Upon my visit to the Norton Simon Museum, I watched a number of beautiful paintings and works of art by distinguished artists and painters. "Guernica" by Picasso and "The Third of May" by Goya are two examples of paintings that perfectly and elegantly represent the concept of war and the ideas that are associated with it, such as violence, destruction, and fear. Although both paintings deal with the same theme of war, yet each painter uses different tools, techniques, and methods to make his war representation as effective as possible.

Historically, Goya's "The Third of May, 1908" came to existence many years before Bicasso's "Guernica." This painting was completed in 1814 by famous Spanish artist Francisco Goya. In this artistic work, Goya aims at commemorating the Spanish resistance to the Napoleon's armies during the French occupation of 1808. The painting succeeds in giving an archetypal image of the horrors and fears of war. For this reason, this painting is considered as one of the first paintings that depict war in the modern era. For some historians, Goya's "The Third of May, 1908" had given inspirations for some other major paintings about war, including Pablo Picasso's masterpiece, which is Guernica.

As a historical background, Goya's "The Third of May, 1908" represented the attacks executed by Napoleon, who headed about 23,000 French troops to conquer Spain in November of 1807. This attack was strongly opposed and defended by the Spanish people, who were deeply resentful of this French attack and rule. As a result, the people of Madrid gathered and rebelled Goya commemorated this rebellion and uprising in his painting entitled "The Second of May." Then, in "The Third of May" Goya illustrates the French atrocities committed against the Spanish people at a number of different locations around Madrid.

Specifically, "The Third of May 1808" depicts the early hours of the morning following the Spanish rebellion and uprising. It centers on two groups of people: one is a rigidly violent firing squad, and the other is a weak and frightened group of captives, who were held at the gun point. Hence, the paintings depict both the executioners and the victims in face of each other across a narrow space. At the center of the canvas, there were other condemned figures, which stand next in line to be shot. This scene shows to what extent the French were violent and blood-shedders and they aim at shooting a group after another in cold blood. The central figure in the painting is a brilliantly lit man kneeling amid both groups, crying on those who were already executed, and his arms were flung wide in an appeal for patience and tolerance.

The firing squad on the right side of the painting stands in shadow and painted as a monolithic unit. They are seen mostly nearly from behind, symbolizing the idea that their faces bear almost no feeling or sympathy with their victims. Actually, most of the faces in the painting cannot be seen, yet the face of a man to the right of the main victim, is shown peeping fearfully towards the soldiers. This man acts as a background at the back of the central group. Thus, this painting succeeds in giving a perfect representation of the intensity of the foreground drama during the French invasion of Spain.

This painting was met with mixed reactions from both critics and historians. Although artists had previously tended to represent and depict war in a high style of history painting, yet Goya, on the other hand, depicted war in an unheroic description, which was unusual at that time. In this context, some art critics described this paining as flat in perspective, criticizing the act of portraying both the victims and executioners in a very close position, which is unrealistic. Although some of these observations may be right, yet this painting can still be considered as illuminative and insightful, as Goya did not search for academic propriety, but actually strengthening the overall effect of the artistic piece. In that sense, the power of The Third of May comes from its bluntness, not from its close adherence to traditional artistic rules and formulas.

This painting was structurally and thematically connected to the traditions of martyrdom, which is found in Christian art. This was exemplified in many aspects, such as the dramatic use of chiaroscuro and an appeal to life, which was juxtaposed with the inevitability of violent execution. Nevertheless, Goya's painting shifts from this tradition, as traditional works which depicted violence before featured an artful technique and harmonious composition for the sake of anticipating the privilege of martyrdom for the poor victim. Thus, from the religious point of view, the man with the raised arms at the focal point of the composition in The Third of May may be compared to the crucified Christ. This religious symbolism gives the painting its glory and masterfulness. That's mainly because Goya's figure displays some stigmata-like marks on his right hand of the picture, while the lantern which exists at the center of the canvas makes reference to the traditional attribute of the Roman soldiers who were arresting Christ in the garden.

Another main symbol in this painting is the lantern, which is used as a source of illumination in art. This technique was widely used by previous Baroque artists, such as Caravaggio. Traditionally a light source in an artistic work was usually used as a metaphor for the presence of God. That is, any illumination by candlelight or torchlight acquires religious connotations. However, in The Third of May, the use of the lantern bears no such connotation; rather, it bears an opposite connotation, as it presents light for the firing squad to be able to complete its violent work. In that sense, the lantern gives an illumination for the viewer to bear witness to the amount of violence used against victims. As for those victims, as presented by Goya, they are portrayed as anonymously as well as their killers. The entreaty of those victims is addressed not only to God in the manner practiced in traditional painting, but also to an impersonal firing squad. As such, the victim in this painting is not granted the heroism of individuality, as the case in traditional paintings, but the victim here is merely a part of a long list of continuum of victims. Accordingly, nobility in individual martyrdom, as represented in traditional works of art, is replaced in The Third of May by the victimization of mass murder, and also by anonymity, which is a hallmark of war and violence in modern wars and armed struggles.

Furthermore, the technique of symbolism in this painting continues with Goya, even with his depiction of the progress of time. For instance, The Third of May does not offer the cathartic message of the death of blameless victims, which had always been represented as conclusive episodes, which is imbued with a virtue of heroism. Instead of that, Goya presents a continuous procession of the condemned group in the mechanical formalization of killing and violence. Hence, the inevitable outcome is usually seen in a corpse of the man, who is laid on the ground in the lower left portion of the painting. Hence, in this painting, there is no room left for any sublime, as his head and the body have been disfigured to the extent of thinking of the impossibility of resurrection. In this context, the victim is portrayed far from all aesthetic and spiritual grace. All these ways of symbolism are perfectly manipulated by Goya in order not to soften the brutality of the subject through technical skill. Therefore, it can be said that symbolism and originality are two important means through which Goya succeeds in depicting the brutality of war in his "The Third of May, 1908."

On the other hand, Pablo Picasso's Guernica is a painting that was produced in response to the bombing of Guernica, which is a Basque Country, by German and Italian warplanes on the 26 of April, 1937. This bombing occurred during the Spanish Civil War. As a response, the Spanish Republican government asked Pablo Picasso to create a large work of art to commemorate such bloody and violent event in order to be displayed at the Exposition International des Arts et Techniques Dans la Vie Moderne in 1937.

In essence, Guernica shows the tragedies of the war and the suffering it causes for people, especially innocent civilians, who have no direct contact with the reasons of struggle ort conflict. This beautiful artistic work has become a masterpiece and a global reminder of the tragedies of all wars in the world. That is, Guernica has become a symbol of anti-war and an embodiment of peace in the world. To show the importance and significance of great artistic works, it is important to note that Guernica, after completion, was displayed around the whole world in a brief tour, which has made it famous and popular globally. Actually, this tour helped bring the world's attention to the Spanish Civil War.

The painting of Guernica is basically made in gray, black and white. It is 3.5 meter tall and 7.8 meter wide, painted in oil. The purpose of Picasso's in painting it was to bring the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the Germans to the world's attention. Afterwards, this painting has become an international symbol of the savageness and brutality of wars and armed conflicts. Guernica essentially shows a group of suffering people, animals, and buildings, which wrenched by violence and chaos. This show to what extent wars have destructive consequences not only to human beings but to everything on this earth.

The overall scene of Guernica is within a room where, a wide-eyed bull, which exists on the left side, stands over a woman who is in a state of grieving over a dead child in her arms. At the centre of the painting, there is a horse falling in agony as it had just been shot by a spear. The painting depicts a large gaping wound in the horse's side, symbolizing the deadly effects of wars on humans as well as animals. By this image of the horse, there are other two almost hidden images, which appear in Guernica: The first image is of a human skull, which overlays the horse's body; and the second image is formed by the bull's tail, showing a flame with smoke rising from it. Under the image of the horse, there is a dead soldier, whose hand is on a severed arm, which still grasps a shattered sword from which a flower grows. On the open palm of the image of the dead soldier, there is a stigma, which symbolizes martyrdom that is derived from the stigmata of Christ.

To the upper right of the image of the horse, there is a frightened female figure, who witnesses the violent scenes before her. She floated into the room through a window, as her arm carries a lighted lamp, which is positioned very close to the bulb. This lamp can be seen as a symbol of hope, which clashes with the light-bulb. In addition, there is a bird, which may possibly be a dove, standing on a shelf behind the bull in panic. Lastly, on the far right of the painting, there is a figure of a human being with arms, which are raised in terror, as he is entrapped by fire all around him. At the end, there is a dark wall with an open door, defining the right end of the whole scene. Therefore, it can be realized that this painting is full of symbols and expressive marks that denote many ideas and messages by Picasso.

Consequently, the overall theme of Guernica is death and destruction. In order to reinforce this theme, Picasso puts in the centre of the painting a hidden skull to dominate the viewer's impressions. This skull is shown sideways and it has been overlaid into the body of the horse, to reinforce the death symbol. In that sense, the mechanical appearance of the skull was appropriate to the modern weapon techniques which were used in the 1937 bombing. Picasso often hid one or more related symbols within a particular image as seen here. The concealed bull's head, which is below the dying horse in the centre of the painting, is actually contained in the outline of the front leg of the horse. The inference of this location lies in the plunging of its horns into the horse's belly from below. In that sense, the over mingled relations among various aspects in this painting is professionally constructed by Picasso to denote the various complicated destructive consequences of wars and armed conflicts.

In conclusion, both Goya's The Third of May, 1908 and Picasso's Guernica are examples of paintings that challenge the concept of art as merely something for entertainment and optical pleasure only, as it is detached from its social surroundings. Rather, through their paintings, Goya and Picasso send the idea that art is one of the necessities of life, as it may emphasize or criticize certain ideas, events, or aspects of life. In that sense, the principle of "art for art's sake" is an unrealistic school. Both Goya and Picasso abandoned almost all traditional artistic techniques even rejecting color itself in order not to passively affect the main message and content of the portraits or spoil their dramatic integration. Finally, it can be said that both paintings succeed in sending significant messages about the destructive impacts of wars and armed conflicts on all living and un-living beings in the world.

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