Art as history



Everyone I talk to about this show has the same reaction. They say in a completely incredulous voice, “Goya! In Abbotsford?”  For those not in the Vancouver area, Abbotsford is about an hour out of downtown Vancouver, as long as it’s not rush hour, and is more famous for agriculture and an air show than art. However the Reach Gallery Museum must have a well-connected curator since they have already featured shows by Diane Thorneycroft and Betty Goodwin, two Canadian artists I greatly enjoy.

Or perhaps exhibitions are attracted by the wonderful space.  The Reach is in a beautiful new building, and it’s divided into several different galleries. There is a large main space for major exhibitions, another room which displays regional history, and two smaller spaces for local artists. This is a nice mix that allows large shows to draw an audience and gives emerging artists a great opportunity.

The current show is a display of two sets of Goya prints, Los Desastres de la Guerra and Los Caprichos, on loan from the National Gallery. Los Caprichos, a social satire, is displayed in its original book form, and can be explored via a screen copy. Each of the eighty prints of The Disasters of War has been separately framed and is displayed in the low light gallery. While Goya created the etching plates during the occupation of Spain by the Napoleonic troops, they were never printed in his lifetime.

I have been a fan of Goya ever since I saw extensive galleries of his paintings in Madrid. He is an artist who used both humour and horror in his work, and the paintings seem to spring from the great emotions which boil inside him.  Indeed as we can see from these prints, Goya lived in times of great tumult.

It’s difficult to review these prints from an artistic standpoint, since although Goya had a masterful use of line, composition and light, the subject matter is so compelling you just go from one print to the next, trying to find some reasonable explanation for the horrible deeds depicted. Clearly Goya’s sympathies were for his countrymen (as well as women and children) who suffered such degradations at the hands of the invading soldiers, that even 200 years later we are still shocked. And perhaps that is his genius, to be able to make you feel great emotion with only a few simple lines.

Sometimes sensitive artists question art-making, wondering if it’s worthwhile to paint when  so many “bigger” things are happening.  In Goya’s case, he painted society portraits and court paintings to earn a good living, but when he was called upon to return to his hometown of Zaragosa and record the invasion, he summoned all his skills and created a masterpiece that lives on forever. Surely a testament to the power  that art can have in our lives.
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3 thoughts on “Art as history

  1. I agree that these etchings are powerful and, in their time, dangerous. It's interesting that a Spanish artist also produced "Guernica", an anti-war painting that Robert Hughes (whose biography of Goya is highly recommended) called the last truly important painting. A somewhat tragic confluence of talent and history has allowed Spain's artists to leave us powerful testaments to the horror of war.

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