The Shootings of May Third 1808
Oil on canvas
104 3/4 x 136 in.
Museo del Prado, Madrid
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CAN THE INSTANTANEOUS become permanent? Can a flash be prolonged without losing its intensity? Can the shock of a sudden revelation survive the mechanics by which a big picture is composed? Almost the only affirmative answer in painting is Goya's picture of a firing squad, known as The Third of May. Coming on it in the Prado with one's head full of Titian, Velasquez and Rubens, it deals a knock out blow. One suddenly realises how much rhetoric even the greatest painters have employed in their efforts to make us believe in their subjects. Delacroix's Massacre at Chios, for example: it was painted ten years later than The Third of May, and it might have been painted two hundred years earlier. The figures are sincerely expressive of Delacroix's feelings, both as a man and a painter. They are pathetic, but they are posed. We can imagine the admirable studies that preceded them. With Goya we do not think of the studio or even of the artist at work. We think only of the event.
Does this imply that The Third of May is a kind of superior journalism, the record of an incident in which depth of focus is sacrificed to an immediate effect? I am ashamed to say that I once thought so; but the longer I look at this extraordinary picture and at Goya's other works, the more clearly I recognise that I was mistaken.
It hangs in the next room to his tapestry designs, where, at first sight, he seems to be working, with unusual skill, in the accepted manner of rococo painting. There are the picnics and parasols and open air markets which one finds in the frescoes of Gian Domenico Tiepolo in the Villa Valmarana. But as one looks at them more closely the warm air of eighteenth-century optimism grows decidedly chillier. One discovers heads and gestures of maniac intensity, glances of pure malevolence or sinister stupidity. Four women are tossing a dummy in a blanket, a charming theme for Fragonard; but the equivocal limpness of the manikin and the witch like glee of the central woman already foreshadow the Caprichos.
The tapestry designs show another of Goya's characteristics: his unequalled gift for memorising movement. The saying attributed to both Tintoretto and Delacroix, that if you cannot draw a man falling from a third story window you will never be able to paint a great composition, is eminently true of Goya. And this power of concentrating his whole physical being on a split second of vision was developed by an accident. In 1792 Goya had a serious illness which left him totally deaf: not just hard of hearing like Reynolds, or progressively bothered by interior buzzings like Beethoven, but stone deaf. Gesture and facial expression, when they are seen without the accompanying sound, become unnaturally vivid; that is an experience we can have any day by turning down the sound of television. Goya had it for the rest of his life. The crowds in the Puerto del Sol were silent to him; he could not have heard the firing squads on the third of May. Every experience reached him through the eye alone.
But he was not simply a high speed camera. He drew from memory, and as he thought about a scene its essence suddenly took shape in his mind's eye as a pattern of dark and light. In his first rough drawings these black and white blots tell the story long before any detail is defined. After his illness the stories are for the most part gruesome and the dialogue of light and dark is correspondingly sinister. Even when nothing particularly alarming is going on, as in the plate of the Caprichos entitled 'Mala Noche', we are frightened by the shape of a fluttering scarf. Goya himself does not seem to have been altogether aware of how these shadows speak to us, for the explanatory notes he wrote on a set of the Caprichos are perfectly banal, and if the plates did no more than illustrate these texts they would not frighten us at all. Whereas they are a series of archetypal nightmares, in which the shadows on the nursery wall do really turn into a man hanging on a gibbet or a congress of goblins.
The first crisis of Goya's life was his illness in 1792; the second was the occupation of Madrid by Napoleon's armies in 1808. Goya was in an uneasy position. He had been in favor of the revolution, he had no reason to think highly of his royal masters and he wanted to keep his position as official painter, whoever was in power; so at first he made friends with the 'invaders. But he soon learnt what an army of occupation means. On the second of May the Spaniards had shown a little fight. There was a riot 'in the Puerto del Sol; some officers fired a few shots from a gun on a hill above the town. Murat ordered his Egyptian cavalry to cut down the crowds and the following night set up a firing squad to shoot anyone who happened to be available. It was the beginning of a series of brutalities which stamped themselves on Goya's mind and which he set down in the most horrifying record of war ever made in any medium.
The French were finally expelled, and in February 1814 Goya asked the provisional government for an opportunity to 'perpetuate by the means of his brush the most notable and heroic actions of our glorious insurrection against the Tyrant of Europe'. His proposal was accepted and he set to work on the episodes of the second and third of May, the Mamelukes in the Puerto del Sol and the firing squad the following night. Both pictures are now in the Prado. The first is an artistic failure. Perhaps he could not shake off the memory of similar compositions by Rubens: but for whatever reasons, the black and white flash has not taken place; the horses are static, the figures posed. The second is perhaps the greatest picture he ever painted.
So, far from being a glorified press photograph, The Third of May was painted as a commission six years after the event and it is certain that Goya had not been an eyewitness. it is not the record of a single episode, but a grim reflection on the whole nature of power. Goya was born in the age of reason and after his illness he was obsessed by all that could happen to humanity when reason lost control. In The Third of May he shows one aspect of the irrational, the predetermined brutality of men in uniform. By a stroke of genius he has contrasted the fierce repetition of the soldiers' attitudes and the steely line of their rifles, with the crumbling irregularity of their target. As I look at the firing squad I remember that artists have been symbolising merciless conformity by this kind of repetition since the very beginning of art. One finds it in the bowmen on Egyptian reliefs, in the warriors of Assur Nasir Pal, in the repeated shields of the giants on the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi. in all these monuments power is conveyed by abstract shapes. But the victims of power are not abstract. They are as shapeless and pathetic as old sacks; they are huddled together like animals. In the face of Murat's firing squad they cover their eyes, or clasp their hands in prayer. And in the middle a man with a dark face throws up his arms, so that his death is a sort of crucifixion. His white shirt, laid open to the rifles, is the flash of inspiration which has ignited the whole design.
In fact the scene is lit by the lantern on the ground, a hard white cube in contrast to the tattered shape of the white shirt. This concentration of light, coming from low down, gives the feeling of a scene on the stage; and the buildings against the dark sky remind me of a backcloth. And yet the picture is far from being theatrical in the sense of unreal, for at no point has Goya forced or over emphasised a gesture. Even the purposeful repetition of the soldiers' movement is not formalised, as it would have been in official decorative art, and the hard shapes of their helmets seem to deliver their blows irregularly.
The Third of May is a work of the imagination. Goya is sometimes spoken of as a realist, but if the word means anything, it means a man who paints what he can see and only what he can see. By a curious chance there exists a sort of version of The Third of May painted by the perfect realist, Manet's Execution of the Emperor Maximilian. Manet had frequently poured scorn on subjects of this kind. "The reconstruction of a historic scene. How absurd! Quelle bonne plaisanterie." However, the tragic end of Maximilian had stirred his sympathies, and immediately on hearing of the event he procured a photograph of it and set to work on a picture for the Salon of 1867. He had an unbounded admiration for Goya and I think that there can be no reasonable doubt that he had seen The Third of May in the cellars of the Prado during his short visit to Madrid in 1865; the man on the left in the white shirt puts the similarity beyond coincidence. But how little he has recognised, or at least tried to emulate, the point of Goya's picture. An historic event painted in this flat and inexpressive way really is as pointless as Manet maintained it to be. Perhaps that is why he cut up his large version (the smaller study survives), so that the fragment of a soldier examining his rifle might be appreciated for what it is, an admirable study of a model. Manet, who was usually well aware of what he was doing, must have realised that by turning this figure away from the central focus of the scene he would lose the dramatic concentration which animates the Goya. Why did he do it? Was the bland indifference of this rifleman intended as a kind of irony? I doubt it. More likely he thought the pose pictorially self sufficient.
Manet was a great painter, combining a selective eye and a tactful hand with admirable honesty of purpose; but he lacked the consciousness of tragic humanity. It is revealing that what had moved him was the execution of an Emperor. Marxist terminology usually obstructs criticism, but in looking at Manet's painting, I cannot dismiss the word bourgeois. His eye was free, but his mind was dominated by the values of upper middle class Parisian society. Whereas Goya, in spite of his lifelong employment by the. Court, remained a revolutionary. He hated authority in any form: priests, soldiers, officials; and he knew that, given the chance, they would exploit the helpless and keep them down by force. It is this feeling of indignation which gives symbolic force to the man in the white shirt, to the pitiful body sprawling on the ground in a welter of blood, and to the batches of fresh victims who are being driven forward out of the darkness.
This is the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word in style, in subject and in intention; and it should be a model for the socialist and revolutionary painting of the present day. Unfortunately social indignation, like other abstract emotions, is not a natural generator of art; also Goya's combination of gifts has proved to be very rare. Almost all the painters who have treated such themes have been illustrators first and artists second. Instead of allowing their feelings about an event to form a corresponding pictorial symbol in their minds, they have tried to reconstruct events, as remembered by witnesses, according to pictorial possibilities. The result is an accumulation of formulas. But in The Third of May not a single stroke is done according to formula. At every point Goya's flash lit eye and his responsive hand have been at one with his indignation.
Text from Kenneth Clark, Looking at Pictures.