Goya’s Waste Lands

By Carmen van Bruggen

Room 66 in Museo del Prado, located between the dark masterpieces of Francisco de Goya, is usually very crowded and filled with the noise of classroom tours, guides and other visitors. These days, however, it is filled with the calming piano music by Chopin, which seems to make the people lower their voices. The music belongs to the temporarily placed installation of Iranian artist Farideh Lashai, which is called When I Count There Are Only You… but When I Look, There is Only a Shadow (2013).

The installation restages etches from The Disasters of War (1810-1820), an eighty-part series by Goya that show the bloody battlefields of the Peninsular War and its disappointing aftermath. Lashai shows the very same war landscapes, but without any human figures. The bloody corpses, starving mothers, and violent men with fearful expressions that are typical for Goya’s art are erased. Only dark abstract backgrounds remain. A film projector, however, makes the Goyan figures re-appear again. In a round light that bounces over the composition, animated bodies can be observed for a slight second.

What do these emptied battlefields mean? Art historian Ana Martínez de Aguilar suggests in a lecture on Lashai that the work can be regarded as a timeless interpretation of Goya. On those emptied landscapes any war scene can be staged: a wounded Syrian child, the bloody Manchester attacks or perhaps Iranian war victims the artist has known herself. Visitors might all have their own images in mind. Seen this way, Lashai turns The Disasters into a personalized testimony of all pointless cruelties since the Peninsular war.

Another way to interpret the emptiness of the landscapes is to look at the title of the work. While Goya’s titles are short, sarcastic and direct, Lashai provides us with a long and puzzling sentence: When I Count There Are Only You… But When I Look, There is Only a Shadow. It refers to a famous fragment from T.S. Elliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922), which says:

‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman

—But who is that on the other side of you?’

The fragment is often related to the Biblical story of Emmaus. In this story, two men meet the resurrected Christ without realising it is him. The moment they realise ‘the third man’ must be Jesus, he disappears. The story seems to argue that seeing and understanding God cannot coincide: when the men saw Christ they did not recognize him, but when they recognized him, they did not see him anymore.

Goya’s titles are short, sarcastic and direct' N.12 This is What You Were Born For.

It is remarkable that Lashai changes ‘There is always another one’ into ‘There are only shadows’. The third man – the hidden symbol of hope – and even the other figures as well, have disappeared. Not only the realness of a divine power is questioned here, but also the appearance of human beings. Lashai’s war witnesses are like ghost who become invisible the moment one sees their suffering. Perhaps, seeing and understanding suffering is incompatible as well.

Yet, it has to be emphasized that the Goyan figures return to the work: shorter, faster and in animated shape. Due to the film projector, their bodies shine as bright as the Spaniard just before the moment of execution on Goya’s much larger painting The Third of May (1814).

Their bodies shine as bright as the Spaniard just before the moment of execution on Goya’s much larger painting The Third of May (1814).

Their spectacular return literally forms a large contrast with the dark title of the work. If there are ‘only shadows’, then who are those people in the spotlight? The rapid movement of the light forces visitors to watch them more intensely but prevents them from seeing all the cruel details. Also, the calming piano music distracts from the very violent atmosphere. All of this makes Lashai’s work less shocking than the original etches. Unlike The Disasters, it is not a raw confrontation with suffering at which one can keep staring. It is more indirect, playful and poetic. This indirectness seems its key contribution to Goya. It problematizes our contemporary understanding of his work. Are we, who are used to abstract art and moving images, able to understand these etches from the early 19th Century in a proper way? Lashai’s game of appearance and disappearance helps us not necessarily with understanding a specific war, but forces us to investigate our own way of seeing the past.

When I Count is shown until the 10th of September 2017 in Museo del Prado in Madrid, after which it will travel to the British Museum in London.

Carmen van Bruggen (1992) studeerde Literatuur- en Cultuurwetenschappen en Filosofie in Groningen en Leuven (RuG en KUL). Ze woont en werkt momenteel in Madrid waar ze cursussen opzet en geeft over kunst en filosofie, o.a. bij de IE University.

Meer informatie is te vinden op haar site: www.veronicaeducation.com

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