Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

We need a modern Goya to depict horrors in Syria

Goya in Beirut? True. The great master's Disasters Of War - his terrifying 19th-century sketches of rape and torture and execution - are here in Beirut.

Such trust in Lebanon from the Cervantes Institute, such shame in Beirut that, when I went to see them, there was only one other Lebanese in the gallery as this was, after all, a reminder of this country's own sadism and masochism in the 1975-1990 civil war. Or was it?

For I fear that those who visited this greatest of all anti-war manifestos must have looked at these sketches - women dragged off for rape, men emasculated on tree branches, shot down by death-squads - and thought not of Lebanon at its darkest hour, but of cities 250 miles to the east of here, in the towns of Syria, where such atrocities are now taking place by the hour.

Would that Goya could tramp eastwards and visit Tremseh or Hama or al-Qusayr. Militiamen hacking soldiers to death, women spearing French soldiers in the groin, naked corpses thrown into a mass grave.

"This is bad," Goya has written below one sketch. "This is worse."

I last saw Goya's images of war in Lille, the city occupied by the Germans in the 1914-18 war, but here in Lebanon they have a far more terrible effect.

Do we have any Goyas today, to chronicle this horrific war to the east of us, in Syria?

The Beirut exhibition asks us this question because it suggests that war photography may be the current-day equivalent of Goya.

But a Lebanese friend who was with me, and whose family is in Syria, said: "There is much less interpretation in photographs. But there is a depth of misery in these sketches. You can dive into them. Photographs are real, but they only shock you, so in the photos, something is shut off from you."

Wow, I said. Spot on. But that doesn't demean war photography. The dead of Hiroshima, who splash up on a screen beside Goya's sketches, are no less real. The problem is that they are real and thus less full of meaning.

Stare at the Goya sketches - of the Franco-Spanish war of 1808, when Napoleon decided to install his brother Joseph as king - and you realise that as the atrocities grow worse, the faces of the war criminals, the lustful French troops, the militias become ape-like, while the martyrs take on an almost religious innocence.

A few days earlier, I had been looking in Paris Match at the photographs of a very brave American photojournalist, Robert King, who spent seven weeks as a secret doctor in a clinic in the Syrian town of al-Qusayr.

"I didn't try to hide the morality or to embellish it," King says. "On the contrary, I wanted to show its brutal ugliness. I think it is scandalous to go to a war to make art. To make something beautiful out of violence is a disservice to those whom violence strikes down."

And there you have it. Goyaesque in his honesty.

Eighty-two of these horrific pictures Goya etched, unseen until 35 years after his death. What a man. What a war. And Syria?

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