Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Where is a Goya who could chronicle today's conflict?

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 (free of charge, for God's sake) as this was, after all, a display 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, where these etchings fit picture-perfect on to the YouTube videos that pop up on our screens each night.



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 (until my Dad battled his way in as a soldier) 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; there are photographs of the Spanish Civil War, of mass graves and Republican fighters at the front, and of the French in South-east Asia and of the Americans in Vietnam, picture-perfect again, the very edge of reality, taken by men and women who needed more guts than Goya to spend such time in war.



And a Lebanese friend who was with me, and whose family is in Syria, replied at once. "There is much less interpretation in photographs. But there is a depth of misery in these sketches. You can dive into them. The 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. I can't put it better than this. 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 (for this is, after all, an exhibition of war crimes), the faces of the war criminals, the lustful French troops, the militias (call them the Shabiha in Syria) become ape-like, while the martyrs take on an almost religious innocence. A lone woman firing a cannon is beautiful, not because you see her face, but because you see her long hair hanging down her back.



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, some of these weeks with the saintly Dr Zein (pray for him nightly, those who still believe in God) and his pictures show a little girl with a mangled hand (her eyes have stopped asking the question, "Why?") and a four-year-old boy called Mustapha, whose blood-encrusted face is uncaptionable.



"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, especially when they are unarmed civilians."



And there you have it. Goyaesque in his honesty, this Mr King. And so I pad on round the Goya sketches. A priest about to be garrotted, a woman dragged off for rape, men chopped up and pinioned – all meat – on a tree, a man hauled up the steps of a gallows ("the hardest step," says Goya's caption), the man hanging beside a self-satisfied French officer, until you notice the line of other hanged men on other trees in the background.



And there's a well-dressed man – yes, the rich suffer too, as they do in Syria today – begging on his knees as seven bayoneted rifles point from the right of the sketch, and we do not see the hands or the rifle-holders. 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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