At the very end of Don DeLillo’s 1991 novel “Mao II,” one of the main characters, a photographer named Brita who is in Lebanon on assignment, drifts onto a Beirut balcony at 4 a.m.
The city below is silent. Then a tank rumbles down an empty, deeply cratered street. Then, wildly, a wedding party follows. Then, in the distance, Brita sees sparks above a checkpoint. It’s the late, cynical stages of the Civil War and she assumes the day’s fighting has begun. She waits for the return fire, but nothing comes. What’s happening?
“Someone is out there with a camera and a flash unit,” DeLillo writes. “Brita stays on the balcony for another minute, watching the magnesium pulse that brings an image to a strip of film. She crosses her arms over her body against the chill and counts off the bursts of relentless light. The dead city photographed one more time.”
Beirutis today might quibble with Brita’s characterization of the city as lifeless, but DeLillo got one thing right: Beirut is photogenic in the bitterest of ways, “one of the world’s capitals for war photography,” says Eduardo Navarro of the Cervantes Institute.
This is just one among the many intriguing connections made by a remarkable new exhibition, which opened Monday at Villa Audi.
“Goya, Chronicler of All Wars: The Disasters and the Photography of War” not only presents local audiences with an art historical masterpiece – the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya’s groundbreaking series of etchings and aquatints known as “The Disasters of War” – it also does so in a rich and layered context, which makes the work powerfully relevant to the lives of viewers today.
As important as Picasso’s “Guernica” in the lineage of artistic responses to war, Goya’s “Disasters” were never published or publicly shown in the artist’s lifetime. Goya made 85 numbered etchings between 1810 and 1820, but they were commissioned by no one and critical of everyone.
Goya had been a court painter for the Bourbon monarchy in Spain. “The Disasters” were made in the context of the Peninsular War. In 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain to crush an insurrection there and install his brother Joseph as king. The ensuing conflict was gruesome, and both sides were guilty of unconscionable cruelty.
Called both an early example of modern art and the greatest anti-war manifesto in history, Goya’s images were unprecedented because they offered a totally independent account of the conflict. An autonomous articulation of war’s atrocities and stupidities that refused to commemorate the victors, they insisted instead on placing everyone on the side of the vanquished, whether they lost their lives, loved ones, decency or humanity.
The fact that “The Disasters” weren’t published until 35 years after Goya’s death has provoked nearly 200 of speculation about who paid his salary in the interlude before the Bourbon restoration. Curiously, three of the plates were never shown at all. The series now stands at 82.
Goya’s images coalesce around seven themes – the front, victims, executions, exodus, women (the only section that allows for heroism; Goya must have been a feminist), famine and the postwar period. As writer Susan Sontag remarked in “Regarding the Pain of Others,” the devastating effect of the series is cumulative rather than narrative.
“Goya’s art, like Dostoyevsky’s,” she wrote, “seems a turning point in the history of moral feelings and of sorrow – as deep, as original, as demanding. With Goya, a new standard for responsiveness to suffering enters art.”
The current exhibition, which was first shown in Madrid on the war’s bicentennial in 2008 and has since toured the world, is much more interesting than commemoration or a country’s greatest artistic hits. It positions Goya as a prototypical photojournalist, who used some of the same materials – plates, emulsion – as early photographers to do much the same thing, to get in the face of history unfolding, to witness and to document.
Counterbalancing the 82 etchings are photographs of Spain’s civil war from the national archives. Curator Juan Bordes has carefully matched like with like, so one figure in a wrecked and ruined landscape speaks to a mirror image of another, across centuries and media.
What’s more, for the exhibition’s Beirut iteration, the Cervantes Institute has organized a series of roundtable discussions with Lebanese photographers, famous for their Civil War work, staged at Dar al-Moussawir in Hamra.
With the political situation tense across the region, the timing is apt if not exactly auspicious.
“We give Beirut the importance it deserves as a main cultural spot in the Middle East,” says Navarro, who is responsible for the institute’s cultural activities. “But, of course, the local context made us think of the exhibition as an occasion to reflect on the dangers of war.”
On another level, the inclusion of material from the Spanish Civil War has obvious resonance.
“A civil war is a long and complex process,” says Navarro. “Just five years ago – that means 70 years after our civil war in Spain – the government passed the so-called ‘law of historical memory,’ which allows the relatives of the disappeared to reclaim from the archives information about where and when they were killed.
“The law also considers the losers of the war not as traitors but as citizens. Lebanon has done very quick work after its Civil War, but it’s also clear that the process is very slow.”
During most of DeLillo’s “Mao II,” Brita takes portraits of writers, novelists, men (primarily) who make sense of the world, shape reality and “alter the inner life of the culture,” as the book’s reclusive scribe, Bill Gray, explains it.
In the end, though, Gray disappears. His dead body goes all but undiscovered on a ferry that docks in Jounieh from Cyprus. Brita gives up on writers to takes pictures of wars, fighters and militiamen instead. For better or worse, they have greater influence.
When DeLillo’s book was first published, it seemed terribly new to say that terrorists had overtaken the importance of novelists, and that the news cycle had overtaken the impact of art. Twenty years later, like 200 years ago, it might be photographers and their image-making predecessors whose work still matters, and endures.
The Daily Star