Suffering As Joke: The Horrors Of The Contemporary Art Press

As regular subscribers know, I read about a dozen or so outlets of the art press every day, so that you don’t have to. Most of the time, I focus on following stories that I like: fascinating discoveries, interesting exhibitions, and so on. For the most part, it’s actually a very difficult and painful task, for this particular corner of the media is primarily focused on the world of Contemporary Art, which the art press worships and makes excuses for in ways that, at times, can be truly sickening.

Take the Chapman Brothers for example. Jake and Dinos Chapman are two middle-aged British brothers who enjoy creating adolescent art in extremely bad taste, in order to shock their viewers. I’ve written about them before, as you can see here. Suffice to say, they create garbage art which they are able to sell for significant amounts of money, largely because the art press is able to persuade major art collectors that they ought to do so.

In their new show at Blain Southern in London, the Chapmans bring together both sculpture and graphic art. We will ignore the unbelievably bad taste that characterizes the former (which are, if you can believe it, bronzes representing terrorist suicide vests), and instead concentrate on the latter. For the Chapmans, you see, are obsessed with “The Disasters of War”: the hugely significant, nightmarish images of atrocities engraved in the early 19th century by the great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).

Goya is a monumental figure in art history, whom one might describe – as I did last week to a curator from the Musée d’Orsay, who did not disagree with my assessment – as the Beethoven of Western art. He straddles the world of the Old Masters, from the early part of his career, and the development of what we now call Modern Art, which he helped to usher in. His personal experiences and observations during Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of Spain radically changed what had been the work of a sly, cunning follower of fashion, highly conversant with all of the frippery and mockery of the Rococo era, into a bitter old man who was a brooding, haunted genius, pursued by thoughts and images of evil, suffering, and death.

The Chapmans on the other hand, would be more at home straddling a dirty urinal in the loo of a fast food restaurant. They became famous roughly twenty years ago by deliberately destroying Goya prints in order to make their own art. And that pretty much sums up a good 50% of their output over the past two decades.

Mind you, these Goya works are not the sort of prints you might order from Zazzle at $1.99 a pop, i.e., digital photographs of existing images. Rather, they are printed from the original plates etched by Goya himself, using carefully-chosen inks and papers, and drawn from the printing presses by artisans trained in the skill of producing high-quality, museum-level images. If you wanted to buy one of these prints from an art dealer or at auction, each would cost you hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

Bearing this in mind, let’s take a look at Apollo Magazine, which used to be a stalwart publication for the promotion of connoisseurship, good taste, and culture for art and antiques enthusiasts. Unfortunately it decided quite some time ago to follow the Tina Brown formula for the revamp of The New Yorker, by cheapening itself for the sake of popularity among the high rollers and hangers-on of the Contemporary Art world. Nowhere is the decline of this particular media outlet more obvious than in its reaction to the latest Chapman expo.

In a piece out yesterday, Apollo described the latest Chapman Brothers show as “superb”, naturally glossing over the fact that Goya’s art is being destroyed in order to create it. It describes as “pleasure” what it terms “the subversion of the horrible to the hilarious.” It observes how, in the Chapmans’ defacing of the etchings, “Goya’s hussars become disco pirates; the dismembered corpses of Grande hazaña! Con Muertos! look like they are wearing leotards or yoga leggings.”

How very “hilarious” it is indeed, to not only destroy great works of art, but to mock the suffering and death of thousands of people. Particularly at a time when Spain is experiencing so much political upheaval and violence, Goya’s prints seem painfully redolent of that country’s bloody past and present. But never mind: in the eyes of Apollo, if the Chapmans can belittle the experience of human suffering, so much the better, because the end result is so amusing.

Unfortunately, the Art Newspaper is no better. In describing the defacing of Goya’s work, the publication explained how the Chapman brothers “have superimposed images of artists such as Jackson Pollock, clowns’ heads and other ghoulish features on to the etchings, which have been reworked in various media (The Disasters of Everyday Life, monochrome collage set; The Disasters of Yoga, glitter set; and The Disasters of War on Terror, watercolour set).” One wonders what Pollock, much as I loathe his work, would think about destroying Goya’s art just so his face could be superimposed upon an etching of a corpse.

While granted, the Art Newspaper’s piece is more of a bland bit of reporting, rather than an exhibition review, like Apollo it fails to question why a reputable gallery, art publication, or the like should even take the time to consider these pieces. In the Chapmans’ empty-headed appropriation of both the hard work and sufferings of others, neither publication appears to hold any qualms. And of course, the greatest irony here is that not only do publications such as the Art Newspaper and Apollo routinely call for the preservation of artists’ rights in their own works, they are the same publications which champion works of Contemporary Art created to draw attention to the suffering of refugees, illegal immigrants, and so on. Perhaps it’s easier for them to overlook the rights of both artists and suffering people who have been dead for quite awhile, since they won’t be posting rejoinders on Instagram or Twitter.

One of the Goya prints defaced by the Chapman Brothers for their latest show is titled “Bárbaros!” (1810), which from the first series of the artists “The Disasters of War” etchings. The original shows a man tied to a tree, facing the trunk, who is about to be shot in the back at very close range. It is one of the many images which Goya created based on what he saw, read, or heard about, during the effort to overthrow Napoleon and his troops. The artist wanted to make certain that the world did not forget what had happened to many innocent people.

Unfortunately it seems that the art media, which gives succor to mental defectives such as the Chapmans in the first place, finds all of this terribly funny: forgive me if I don’t get the joke.

Barbaros

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No Bull: Lost Goya Works Discovered In French Library

A complete series of the first edition of Goya’s “La Tauromaquia”, a series of engravings depicting the history and practice of bullfighting, has been discovered in a castle in France. 

The current owners of the Château de Montigny, located near Chartres, were taking an inventory of all the books in their library, when they came across what is described as a “pristine” set of the series of etchings, completed by Goya between 1815-16. The prints were bound into a ledger book, and it was only due to good fortune that someone decided to take more than just a casual glance through it before tossing it in the bin. The set will be auctioned at Sotheby’s in London on April 4th.

Goya produced a limited run of these prints, but they were not particularly popular during his lifetime. Later they became the inspiration for other artists, such as Picasso, to create their own series of engravings depicting scenes from or inspired by bullfighting. They even inspired the tourist tat that you can still pick up around bullfighting arenas and souvenir shops in Spain. 

Things have significantly changed in the 200 years since Goya struggled to find buyers for these images, however. As ArtNet reports, the last time a complete first edition of “La Tauromaquia” was sold at Christie’s back in 2013, it went for $1.9 million. Thus the current estimate of $610 million seems a trifle low.

Whatever you think of bullfighting, an activity which seems to be rapidly disappearing of late, these prints ought to serve as an inspiration. Go through those boxes and shelves when you Spring clean, and before you pitch anything, double-check to make sure you’re not tossing out something important. We may never know how many great works of art ended up in the recycling bin because someone couldn’t be bothered to take a closer look at what they were throwing away.

Is This Goya Painting A Political Cartoon?

Hoo boy.

Recently Spanish lawyer and art researcher Antonio Muñoz-Casayús has come out with a rather interesting theory concerning “The Pilgrimage of San Isidro”, one of the so-called “Black Paintings” by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Up until now, most art historians have assumed that the figures in this painting are anonymous types, rather than representations of specific individuals. However according to Muñoz-Casayús, about two dozen of the figures in the painting are in fact caricatures of famous people from the Napoleonic period in Spain, including Napoleon Bonaparte himself.

Back in June, I revisited the “Black Paintings” at The Prado, along with a friend who was seeing these haunting works in person for the first time. They have always struck me as symbolic tableaux, demonstrating different aspects of the Spanish tendency toward embracing the darker side of life. Broadly speaking, art historians often look at them as commentaries on more universal themes, such as poverty and human suffering. Therefore the idea that Goya included caricatures of personalities of his day in the “San Isidro” is an extremely interesting one, because it would completely alter the way that most people, myself included, interpret this painting.

In favor of the argument that Goya was commemorating the disastrous politics of early 19th century Spain in this painting is the fact that Goya, like many radical republicans of his day, had a bizarrely fanatical attachment to Napoleon Bonaparte – or at least, to the Napoleon-shaped god whom he and many others had come to believe in. As often happens when one decides to lionize a dictator and overlook his evil tendencies, be he Adolf Hitler or Fidel Castro, Goya fell into the trap of believing that Bonaparte stood for something other than self-aggrandizement, even though his words never quite matched his deeds. If, as Muñoz-Casayús suggests, the little emperor is perhaps the only figure painted with some degree of sympathy in the “San Isidro”, this could be because Goya failed to reconcile the dichotomy between the real Bonaparte and Goya’s imaginary one.

Also in favor of the argument that the “San Isidro” is a political work is the fact that this painting was not created either for sale or for public exhibition. Rather it was a personal piece, like the rest of the works that collectively make up the “Black Paintings”. It was painted directly onto the wall of Goya’s own home in Madrid, where it remained until long after the painter’s death. The only people likely to have seen the “San Isidro” at the time of its creation would have been those invited to the artist’s home, and we can reasonably assume that Goya’s only invitees at this time would have been those whom he considered friends.

Yet significant arguments against the idea that the “San Isidro” is a giant political cartoon do exist. Perhaps foremost among them is the possibility that Muñoz-Casayús’ theory is an example of pareidolia, the human psychological tendency to perceive intentional images or hidden messages where none in fact exist. An example of this is the innocuous practice of looking up at the sky, and comparing the shape of a particular cloud formation to a human face, a running dog, or some other object. Another is the Rorschach or “ink blot” test, in which a person is asked to look at a series of ink blots on cards, and describe what, if anything, they see.

As stated above, Muñoz-Casayús claims that he can identify two dozen individuals in the “San Isidro”, including Bonaparte himself, his first wife Josephine, and his sister Pauline, among others. Certainly, the figure in the center of the main group, who is supposedly the Corsican, has the attributes we have come to expect in a representation of Napoleon: the short stature, the sunken eyes, the curl falling over the receding hairline of the round head. However, it is also entirely possible that this could be a case of seeing what one wants to see, and that the resemblance is merely coincidental.

The fundamental problem that arises in trying to prove or disprove Muñoz-Casayús’ theory is that we have no explanation from Goya or any of his contemporaries about the significance of any of the “Black Paintings”, including the “San Isidro”. In fact, some scholars believe the “Black Paintings” are not by Goya at all, or that some are by Goya and others are by his son Javier. We simply have no records indicating that Goya, or anyone else at the time, laid out what these paintings mean, let alone pointed out the presence of specific individuals in them. We don’t even know what Goya himself titled these paintings, if they are indeed his work, as I believe they are.

Goya is perhaps the first great “modern” artist, not because he was a technically accomplished painter, but because of his approach to his subject matter. There are no sacred cows in Goya’s art. His images of the court in Madrid are astonishing not because they are well-painted (which they aren’t), but rather because he often got away with painting powerful people as unattractive, parasitical creatures. His boldness in tackling unpleasant subjects, such as madhouses or witchcraft, as well as unpleasant people, like the Spanish royal family of his day, put him far ahead of his time.

It is this characteristic boldness that leaves me willing to remain open-minded about Muñoz-Casayús’ theory. Would the old, sick, and disillusioned Goya, his hearing gone, and his revolutionary ideals crushed into dust, have hesitated to paint a monumental political cartoon on the wall of his house, after a lifetime spent mocking power with paint? I can’t imagine that at this point in his long career that he would have restrained himself from doing so, if indeed the idea to create such a work had occurred to him. On the other hand, given the contemporary, gnostic tendency to declare the discovery of hidden meanings where there are none in works of art, architecture, literature, and so on, I’ll leave it to those better-informed than I to reach a consensus on this latest theory.