Roughly drawn and often composed with a cartoonist’s eye for flair, the almost primitive nature of the sketches showcased in Francisco Goya’s early 1880s collection of images inspired by Spain’s Peninsular War titled “The Disasters of War” somehow leapfrogged over technical criticism and landed in the hearts and minds of an entire nation. When first published between 1810 and 1820, “The Disasters” was an instant cultural phenomenon—in part for the project’s ability to detail the episodes of a recent historical event in stark black-and-white form for the semi-literate majority of Goya’s Spain, in part because the immediacy of the images transcended even that specific historical context, delivering a vital, terrifying vision of crimes against humanity that didn’t just capture one war for one people, but somehow distilled the horrifying essence of all wars for all people. A popular, if dark, triumph, “The Disasters of War” transformed Goya’s public image from genius of the court, to political provocateur and gifted victims of violence everywhere with a universally recognized visual shorthand for their suffering. It’s not surprising, then, that the often-republished prints have appeared in exhibitions in hundreds of countries and appeared in museums located in former modern war zones such as Vietnam. So tight is the link between Goya’s work and the bloody history of Vietnam, that when “The Disasters of War” goes on display at Ho Chi Minh City’s Fine Arts Museum, it won’t be the first time the Spaniard has visited the South Asian nation.
Bowing in time for the 35th anniversary of the official end of the Vietnam War (April 30th), the new display at the museum in the city named after the country’s revolutionary leader is the second such exhibition in the republic since 2008—a testament to how deeply the survivors of the conflict and their decedents identify their own experiences of wartime atrocities with the 200-year-old work of the European artist. Bolstered by a gift of 33 prints from the Guggenheim Museum, the exhibition will also showcase pieces covering similar subjects and themes created by local, contemporary artists. A generation after the end of hostilities in Vietnam, the exhibit underscores the growing harmony rift between that country and the West, the perennial interest in Goya as a poet of war, and begs the question of how long we will have to wait until Baghdad has its own similar show.
To follow in the troubled, sometimes bloody footprints of Goya, order your own “Art + Travel Europe: Step into the Lives of Five Famous Painters”
Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum
97A Pho Duc Chinh Street,
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
“Goya Prints on Show in HCM City”