The Death of Originality

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It is often said that there are no more original ideas. Ages and ages worth of thought have passed since mankind became self-aware, and many artists throughout the various art movements have captured some of these changing ideas for posterity, as chronicles of their time and place. It remains to be seen whether or not man is capable of exhausting the wealth of resources of the infinite universe and the infinite mind, but Francisco Goya’s Third of May, 1808 and Anselm Kiefer’s Bohemia Lies By the Sea explore the very same ideas and sentiments about war, presenting atrocities of human history in ways that were unique and innovative for their time. As long as there has been civilization, there has been war; it is as inevitable as death. Both artists draw heavily upon past tradition and established visual language for guidance but forge their own separate paths to the same unavoidable destination.

While history continues to repeat itself, human thought is constantly evolving, and in turn refining the language used to record it. One must first acknowledge constraints in order to break free of them. Third of May 1808, set during the aftermath of Spanish revolt against French occupation during the Peninsular War, is one of the most widely recognized paintings depicting the horrors of war. Many Spaniards originally welcomed the French, thinking they would help to reform their government, but things soon took a violent turn when rumors started spreading that France was planning to murder the royal family. When the people of Madrid rose up against the despotic French, hundreds of Spaniards were arrested, confined to a convent, and then mass executed by firing squad. Stokstad claims Goya’s depiction of this event “encapsulates the essence of Romanticism: the sensationalizing of a current event, the loose brushwork, the unbalanced composition, and the theatrical lighting.” (468) These attributes are certainly accurate; however, others suggest that the iconic work is the “first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word in style, in subject and in intention.” (Clark 130) Widely acknowledged as one of the first paintings of the Modern Era, Goya was not concerned with Romantic displays of conventional beauty, or the more composed and realistic style of historical painting generally accepted at that time. He instead chose the emotionally impactful yet formally flawed painting, with its flat figures, and composition far too cramped and disproportionate to be realistic. (Licht 116) This break with tradition and greater interest in appealing to the viewer’s raw emotions foreshadows the work of Anselm Kiefer, nearly two centuries later.

Themes of guilt and loss figure greatly into the German born artist’s work, and like Goya, the disasters of war and injustice are a common subject matter for Kiefer. The expressionistic landscape Bohemia Lies at the Sea is a stark reminder of the aftermath of Nazi war crimes. There are no soldiers pointing rifles, piles of corpses, or innocents being marched to their bloody deaths as in Goya’s epochal painting, but the somber mood of the elegiac landscape speaks of the ravages of war and the culture of death surrounding the region during Nazi regime and it’s disheartening aftermath. Poppies grow thick in the fields, which according to the plaque on the museum wall, are emblems of military veterans. Some of the poppies are tinged with the color of dried blood, alluding to a past that can never be washed away, even when the battle is over, and the battlefield is empty. This appeal to viewer emotion is antithesis to the aims of many of the Modernist artists, who tended to avoid narrative, figuration, and pictorial space “as a reaction to deteriorating civilization” (Stokstad 554) One cannot deny the emotional timbre created by the tangles of poppies, and uninviting rutty road leading to a undetermined, possibly even darker place. The gruesome scene depicted in Third of May 1808 inspires similar emotions, though the portrayal of a specific violent event in an unpleasant period of history commands a greater sense of urgency than the resignedly desolate aftermath of war and violence presented in Kiefer’s work. Though the painters expressed their outrage and sadness in slightly different emotional pitch, they both present us with sad realities which affect us all, and which they could not in good conscience ignore.

Like Third of May 1808, Kiefer’s Bohemia Lies at the Ocean is an attempt to break through the surface of visual art to expose a deeper meaning. Art critic Clement Greenburg has argued that Modern Art, specifically Abstract Expressionism, is the obvious cultural culmination of “mainstream art” and insisted analysis and criticism should be based solely on visual perception. (Stokstad 554) This idea was problematic to Kiefer’s desire to elicit viewer emotion and appeal to one’s sense of moral responsibility; he did not wish to simply conform to a certain aesthetic. (Wood 1146) Neo-expressionism, a Postmodern visual art movement with which Kiefer associated, was borne from the idea that Modern Art had exhausted its innovative spirit and began reviving older styles. (Stokstad 575) While still largely abstract and highly expressive, Bohemia Lies at the Ocean is also very much a narrative, with its military symbolism, and figurative representation of a country road leading off into the horizon, and a foreboding sky. Like Goya before him, Kiefer both embraced and rebelled against conventions, using them as a springboard to explore unchartered territory in his work. Neo-expressionism provided a context in which to revisit the past while at the same time look ahead to the future, however bleak it may be.

Both paintings call upon well-established compositional elements to guide the eye around the picture plane. In Third of May, 1808, the viewer’s gaze follows the soldier’s rifles sharply pointing to the outstretched arms of the victim in white, and we immediately think of the crucifixion of the martyr, complete with stigmata wounds similar to those inflicted upon Christ when he was nailed to the cross. (Licht 121) The line of the hill behind the action draws the viewer’s eye to the weary and despairing procession, advancing toward their fate. There does not seem to be any salvation for the man, however, or any hope for those being marched like tattered robots to their impending death. There is certainly no miracle in sight for those already dead; only the morbid cortege, an assembly line of horror ending in a bloody pile at the bottom of the picture plane.

Similarly, Kiefer uses the road as a way to grimly invite the viewer along into the barren landscape, a device used by painters since the 17th century to draw the viewer into the depths of the picture plane. There appears to be no end in sight; just a neglected country road leading into the eventual darkness of the far-off horizon. There are no people in the painting to act out the narrative or draw the eye to a focal point, like with Goya’s unconventional martyr, but dotting the fields and resembling little armies are the poppies, which in addition to symbolizing soldiers, have long been associated with sleep and death. This keeps the eye moving around the plane, in an attempt to pick out from among the poppies all the soldiers, scarred from battle, as well as the blood-tinged victims of genocide. The poppies are slightly reminiscent of Goya’s machine-like procession toward the firing squad; though scattered across the vast fields and not in any sort of order, they blend in and out of each other and carry no distinguishing qualities to set them apart as individual entities.

Light in painting has a long-standing tradition in painting, a device with which Goya was familiar, having famously served as the court painter to Charles IV and utilizing these traditional methods and techniques in his commissions. In Third of May 1808, he employs the use of chiaroscuro to shed an unpleasant light on uncomfortable events. Traditionally this device contrasting light against dark was to allude to the presence of God and point to salvation, however, Goya uses the effects of extreme light and dark to cast an eerie glow over the horror and desperation of the violent massacre. (Licht 119) There are no religious connotations as was customary with the use of chiaroscuro at that time. There is only the dark and impenetrable wall of the firing squad and the hopeless victim, severely illuminated to highlight the disturbing brutality, from which there is no grace of God to deliver him. By contrast, there is no dramatic light-dark dichotomy in Kiefer’s painting, aside from a sliver of dark above the horizon line, and muted shadows cast by the poppies. He did, however, apply light reflecting shellac to his painting, adding small touches of aesthetic beauty and interest to the otherwise austere landscape.

Innovative use of materials is another important way in which the two artists were able to uniquely express a common idea. Goya did not employ the self-effacing methods of his Romantic peers in this painting, rather, he liberally applied paint in thick, dramatic impasto to further illustrate ‘the image of conspicuous horror and desperate fear.” (Stokstad 468) There were no delicate painterly embellishments prevalent in the Romantic style; rather he used seemingly desperate brushstrokes to parallel the desperation of the scene. He made efficient use of his materials and methods to create a unified and cohesive painting, both visually as well as conceptually. The heavy-handed execution of painting was no accident; Goya demonstrated his technical ability in countless other paintings and had no need to prove his competence. He utilized the crudeness of his paint application, perfectly lending itself to the brutality of the subject matter. The shocking repugnancy of the scene is paralleled by the aversive yet visually interesting brushwork, as the appalling subject matter and paint handling both repel and attract the viewer.

Goya relied on fervent painting style, shocking subject matter, and drastic contrast between light and dark to create tension, but Kiefer was able to create tension with the sheer size of his imposing canvases. With its two panels combined, Bohemia Lies by the Sea measures over six feet high and over eighteen feet wide, and they are inescapable as long as the viewer is in the same room with them. Kiefer took it a step even further by using non-archival materials that will crumble and change over time. Using untreated burlap as the painting support and choosing media such as the unstable combination of oil and shellac suggests impermanence, as well as the inevitability of deterioration and uncertain change. While they are not up for discussion here, it is of some relevance that Goya’s last known series of paintings, known as the Black Paintings, were painted in oil directly on the walls of his home, and transferred to canvas years after his death. The non-archival method of oil painting directly on unprimed plaster left the Black Paintings vulnerable to decay and exacerbated by the delicate process of transferring the murals to canvas caused irreparable damage and alteration. These paintings were never intended to be shown to the public, and he never spoke of them (Licht 159) though one of the Black Paintings remains to this day another one of Goya’s most recognizable paintings, Saturn Devouring His Son. The dark subject matter, the Greek god Saturn eating the head of one of his children for fear of being overthrown by them, is very reminiscent of the disturbing subject matter of Third of May.

The two depictions of war horrors presented by the two artists share many similarities, but one drastic way in which they differ is in the use of title and inscriptions. Bohemia Lies by the Sea utilizes an abstract, almost whimsical title and related inscription inspired by a poem by Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachman. The poem is a metaphor for the belief in a necessity of a utopian hope, despite Bohemia being impossibly landlocked. (Achberger 21) Borrowing the title from the poem suggests that despite its grim past, there is hope yet for the people to once again stand proud and rejoice in their homeland. Third of May 1808 by contrast carries no inscription, and the title is essentially just a straightforward timestamp of an event that will live forever in infamy. There appears to be no visual semblance of hope in Goya’s painting, and it certainly doesn’t speak of utopian hope, but when asked once why he painted such unspeakable acts, he replied, “To remind men never to do it again.” (Stokstad 468) This admission suggests a thread of hope after all, for anyone going to great lengths to remind us of our troubled pasts must have some hope for improvement in the future. Kiefer too, when asked about his grim subject matter, replied “in order to understand the madness.” (576) Understanding will never erase events that have already happened, but it is essential to moving forward and growing collectively stronger.

Both paintings discussed here allude to the inevitability of death and mourn the losses suffered during war, but the strongest parallel between these two paintings is the imagination used to create them and set them apart from the work of their peers. Neither artist was present at the events depicted and alluded to in their paintings, but vast imagination and creative innovation have cemented their places in art history, and they maintain their relevance even today. While Goya deviated greatly from Romantic tradition in several ways, he remained true to Romantic form by relying heavily on his imagination to compose Third of May 1808. Some critics have pointed out that the composition is too flawed to be considered realistic by Romantic standards (Licht 121), but Goya was not concerned with realism in this piece, which was his personal and emotional response to the events. It was not meant to simply report them. (Clark 130) Similarly, Kiefer was born just after WWII, and did not experience the suffering of war firsthand. His indignation and disgust over the past atrocities was very real, but as Goya did before him, he built his response to the aftermath using only the tools of his imagination, impressively creating a landscape that tells a dramatic story.

History has always been known to repeat itself, and awareness has always been the best defense against suffering the same painful mistakes of the past over and over. While no one will be reinventing the wheel anytime soon, new ideas, inspirations and solutions are always present underneath the surface, waiting to be discovered and applied to new problems and issues that arise in our ever-changing world of endless possibility. If we become complacent about everything we think we know, or could possibly ever know, and give up searching for new and different ways to see the world we live in, we will lose sight of our innovative spirits and be forever doomed to making the same mistakes, blind to the possibility of change or improvement of our human condition. This is not to say that each alternate take on an existing premise deserves its own branch of philosophy, or that every innovation needs to be groundbreaking in order to be relevant to our lives, but unless someone actually does reinvent the wheel, artworks as monumental and impactful as Third of May 1808 and Bohemia Lies at the Sea do a masterful job of keeping us honest about the events of our past, relating them to our present, and anticipating the future.

Works Cited

Achberger, Karen. Understanding Ingeborg Bachman.Vol 1. University of South Carolina Press. 1995. 21. Print.

Clark, Kenneth. Looking at Pictures. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1960. Print.

Goya, Francisco. Third of May 1808. 1814-1815. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Art: A Brief History. 5th Ed. By Marilyn Stokstad and Michael Watt Cothren. Pearson. 469. Print.

Kiefer, Anselm. Bohemia Lies by the Sea. 1996. Oil, emulsion, shellac, charcoal, and powdered paint on burlap. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Modern and Contemporary Art. Gallery 915: Paintings and Sculpture, 1970-present.

Licht, Fred. Goya. Abbeville Press, 1st Ed. 2001. Print.

Wood, Charles. Art in theory, 1900-2000: an anthology of changing ideas. Blackwell. 2003. Print.