Two very different views of war and its impact on ordinary people—one brutally frank, the other cool and detached—take center stage at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts through the work of Francisco Goya and Steve Mumford and their singular meditations on the nature of war and its inherent tragedy.
Goya’s iconic series of prints, The Disasters of War, graphically depicts the horrors of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in the Peninsular War from 1808–14. In these intimate works, which were inspired by eyewitness accounts and imagination, Goya dives head first into the atrocities of the conflict, presenting scenes of rape, murder, torture, dismemberment, combat, execution, and famine. Although the series was first published in 1863, time has lessened none of its visceral power to shock. Describing the unflinching quality of the work, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti once wrote, “In Goya’s greatest scenes, we seem to see the people of the world exactly at the moment when they first attained the title of ‘suffering humanity’. They writhe upon the page in a veritable rage of adversity.”
“Even the medium can be seen as a reflection of this more ‘democratic’ and bleak perspective with the limited color palette and smaller scale of the work. There really is nothing heroic or grand in these images.” According to Delmez, “He was not making them with a particular patron in mind. In fact, they were only published for distribution thirty-five years after his death.”
ca. 1813–14, Etching, drypoint, burin, and burnisher, 6.9″ x 8.7″
Since 2003, Mumford has worked on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, embedded with U.S. troops, creating sketches, watercolors, and large-scale paintings that provide an insider’s look at the mundane nature of daily life during wartime and the tragic consequences of combat. Mumford’s original intent was to capture his own experiences with troops along with Iraqi and Afghan citizens, according to Frist Center curator Mark Scala. “While striving to be accurate in what he depicted, Mumford acknowledges the inherent subjectivity to his process in which a drawing or watercolor takes awhile to complete, and the scene changes in front of him,” says Scala. “These are impressions, not documents.”
ca. 1811–12, Etching, drypoint, burin, and lavis, 5.7″ x 6.5″
Unlike Goya, Mumford’s goal has never been to portray the extremity of war or to be political. Rather his goal has been to point out how oftentimes not much happens in a war zone. Troops and civilians alike go on living their daily lives. Even though the threat of direct combat may loom large, they are able to “find normalcy in the spaces between conflict.”
The pairing of these exhibitions provides viewers with “a fascinating opportunity to examine the ways two artists working in very different times with different motivations and levels of entanglement with each conflict handle the subject matter,” according to Delmez.
Goya: The Disasters of War and Steve Mumford’s War Journals, 2003–2013, Frist Center for the Visual Arts through June 8. For more information visit www.fristcenter.org.