With the huge canvases The Charge of the Mamelukes or May 2th, 1808 and The executions of the mountain of Prince Pío or The Excecutions of May 3rd, both from 1814, Francisco de Goya makes a pictorical statement that takes him off from the traditional representation of history painting.
Some are inclined to classify these works as both separate knocks of realism in art, but “his realism is not a copy of reality, is what remains when the ideology is broken into pieces,”(1) as Giulio Carlo Argan well said it.
While the one referring to the events of May 3rd, 1808, has been much more reproduced than the one referred to the events of May 2nd, 1808, the two paintings were conceived by Goya to be displayed together. Both constitute an iconographic program.
In early 1814, Goya asks the Regency Council of Spain for financial support for the completion of two large-scale works that would allow to perpetuate the heroic actions of the uprising of the people of Madrid against the tyrant of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte. The money was granted to the master very quickly and quickly went to work.
In the first canvas, Goya shows a scene of the uprising that would start the Spanish War of Independence against the French occupation. This uprising took place against Muslim troops of the French army. Seeing the work, then or now, you can’t prevent memory from referring to the eight century-long struggle against the Moors and that stirred, in times of Bonaparte, the Spanish nationalist sentiment.
In the second canvas, the best known, Goya depicts the scene of the execution of those involved in the revolt that the first picture showed. The French troops seem to be a killing machine, not showing their faces and their dark uniforms turn them into the executioners of those sacrificed for freedom, those who die with his arms crossed, to remind us of the martyrdom of the victims.
Pierre Daix explains about the two works:
“Goya brings us into the same space of the painted scene, together with the Spanish that attack horses and riders, amid the furious repression, where the French, from behind, with morion and faceless are already the robots murderers that Picasso will place in 1951 in his Massacres in Korea”.(2)
Although the two pictures were painted six years after the events, Goya has witnessed them, so his proposal is the vision of one who had before him the popular uprising and its immediate aftermath. Goya lived then in the Puerta del Sol, the place of the happenings of May 2nd, and it is known that he approached with his servant to the Principe Pio hill just a few hours after the captured citizens were shot, so he must have observed the corpses stacked in positions that surely impressed him for its violence and cruelty.
Thus, from his detach spirit from any idealization, the Spanish painter represents the scene in denial of all that sweetens and modulates the event. But Goya’s denial goes further. To Argan, the painter negates even the ideology, because doing so
“also denies history, which for him is an ideology of the past because it represents the world as one had wanted it to be.”(3)
Not even nature is safe with Goya, because it is not plausible to represent it as it is desired to be. The Excecutions of May 3rd would could be a realistic picture as long as there is no mediation of any superstition to modify what is represented. After all, Reason, in its dreams, produces monsters.
However, the victims of the shootings are not heroes to the classic style of Jacques-Louis David, or in a re-sanctified sense as Benjamin West had stated. They are, instead, the terror of ideologies illuminated only by the lantern located in the middle of the table that leaves in darkness the rest of the scene. At times the light looks like a photographic flash lightning which reveals the tragedy, the drama is presented without vague words.
This representation of recent history has to Goya the undoubted burden that questions whether there really is a moral order in the barbarity of such immoral means. Thus, the reference to the crucified man of the white shirt, cannot be read the same way as has been read West’s The Death of General Wolfe. Goya does not intend any allusion to the hope of redemption through sacrifice or the worth of that sacrifice to make way for a better project. This Spanish artist introduces the reference to Christian iconography, because for him religion and history are useless superstition, a dead end.
Do not forget that the two works in question were designed by Goya to be understood together. While Jacques-Louis David’s Marat is practically a tribute statue that places a milestone in the history of France, the images Goya creates are nothing but horror and death.
If we do not plant both works one beside the other, the iconographic discourse will not unfold entirely. The insurgents of May 2nd have a motive, something that pushes and stimulates them; in the image of May 3rd have already lost everything and not even their death handles as a providential beginning, as a necessary sacrifice. In the second work there is not a single reference to the idea for which they are supposed to be executed.
“Meanwhile, the city sleeps. That is the story.”(4)
(1) Argan, Giulio Carlo (1975), El arte moderno, 2 Tomos, Fernando Torres Editor, Valencia. (Tomo 1, p.36)
(2) Daix, Pierre (2002), Historia cultural del arte moderno, 2 Tomos, Cátedra, Madrid. (Tomo 1, p.128)
(3) Argan, Giulio Carlo, p.36
(4) Argan, Giulio Carlo p. 38