Monday, November 12, 2012

Goya Prints Defaced

During the Napoleonic occupation of Spain the Spanish artist Francisco Goya created a series of powerfully evocative prints – The Disasters of War.  Goya’s The Disasters of War provides us with an unparalled, brutally realistic rendering of the horror that is war, including graphic depictions of executions, rape, torture and dismemberment.
Goya: The Shootings of May 3rd 1808
 We don’t know what Goya’s exact intentions were when he created The Disasters of War. It certainly did not serve as anti-French propaganda, like his painting The Shootings of May 3rd, 1808 (see above), because he never published the prints during his lifetime, nor did he attempt to.  Indeed Goya’s The Disasters of War series was only first published in 1863, decades after his death. Since then, the prints have become among the most renowned and influential depictions of war in art and an inspiration to the likes of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and others.

Jake and Dinos Chapman: The Disasters of War

The British contemporary artists Jake and Dinos Chapman provided an addition to the legacy of Goya’s  The Disasters of War when they exhibited their own The Disasters of War in 1993 (see above).  They had created three dimensional plastic sculptures based on Goya’s eighty scenes. They then went on to produce a life-size version of one of these: Great Deeds Against the Dead, which was based on one of Goya's particularly brutal prints, of dismembered male bodies.

Jake and Dinos Chapman: Great Deeds Against the Dead

So far so good, the Chapman’s work, though grotesque, seemed to be a homage to the work of the truly original artist, Francisco Goya. The Chapmans continued to achieve attention and a great deal of critical acclaim with a variety of provocative work, for instance mannequins of children with genitalia instead of faces and work that referenced Nazism.  Their piece, Death, which showed two sex dolls having oral sex in the 69 position, almost won them the Turner Prize, Britain’s most prestigious art prize.

The original print - Goya's Great Deeds Against the Dead
In 2003 they exhibited their Insult to Injury.  For this postmodern intervention they took an entire set of Goya’s The Disasters of War and systematically defaced every print by drawing the heads of clowns, mice and other funny faces on Goya’s work (see below). Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones commented “in any terms, this [Goya’s The Disasters of War] is a treasure - and they have vandalised it.”

Jake and Dinos Chapman; from Insult to Injury

I am reminded of this now. I recently wrote a post about how a self-styled artist walked into the Tate Modern last month and defaced a work of Mark Rothko. For his pains, he will have his day in court. But the Chapmans have been widely celebrated for their defacement of Goya’s work. Is this a case of rich and famous artists being praised for defacing the work of another, while a poor and unknown artist is jailed for doing so? Does it matter that the Chapmans owned the copies of the prints that they vandalised, while the Rothko vandaliser did not?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Rothko Painting Defaced

The fact that a Mark Rothko painting was defaced has been big news, reported by every British newspaper as well as the the BBC. In Rothko's homecountry the Washington Post reported, with horror, that the vandal was still "on the loose", making it sound like it was dangerous to let your children out of your sight with such a maniac at large.
On October 7th a man walked up to the Mark Rothko painting "Black on Maroon" and, with a thick black ink pen, defaced a work held in great reverence, by writing "Vladimir Umanets, 12, A Potential Piece of Yellowism". Cries of outrage were widely issued – how dare anyone vandalize a work from Saint Mark (though, it has to be admitted, with this particular painting experts don't even know which side is up). 

Entering the Rothko space in the Tate Modern is like entering a sacred sanctuary. The pilgrims talk in hushed tones; they gaze at the pictures, like the Eastern Orthodox bowing down and praying before their sacred icons.  The fact that Rothko committed suicide simply adds to his aura.  He must have been touched by the ineffable; his mysterious paintings provide gateways into another realm, an escape from our tedious everyday existence. If you can drag yourself away from your iPhone briefly, and gaze into the depth of Rothko’s paintings, like the priesterly Simon Schama, you too will be saved, for a few moments. That’s why the Rothko space has more worshippers these days than Saint Paul’s cathedral. Never mind that Rothko and his fellow American Abstract Impressionists owed their popularity, and their inflated prices, to the CIA, operating covertly behind their front, the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

The 21st century vandal, was operating in the name of Yellowism, whatever that means. Their manifesto seems as silly as, well, admiring a Rothko painting only to discover later that it was hanging the wrong way round.

What the Yellowist's action has done is simply add another layer to the Rothko mythical narrative. We will no longer simply stare at Rothko’s painting, yearning intently for the promised calmness to embrace us, but we will then take a further moment to look at the bottom right hand corner, to assure ourselves that, once scared by a defacer, it has survived this crucifixion and been resurrected to its former sacred self.