"Disasters of War: Francisco de Goya, Henry Darger, Jake and Dinos Chapman," at P.S. 1.
In the spring of 1808, when Napoleon's armies occupied Madrid, liberal, freethinking Francisco Goya and his countrymen hoped that the French would bring reform to poor, backwards, superstitious Spain. France, cradle of revolution and the Enlightenment, dashed those hopes almost immediately, sparking the world's first guerrilla conflict, a popular war almost as savage as the repression against which it fought. The word guerrilla itself, meaning little war, is part of the legacy of the period. So is Goya's reaction to the ferocious violence he witnessed, recorded in a series of harsh, often shocking prints, which he called simply The Disasters of War.
Made between the years 1810 and 1816, The Disasters of War is one of the bleakest, most uncompromising views of human conflict recorded before or since the introduction of the photographic camera. Documentary mostly in its expression of the artist's deep outrage, Goya's etchings range over a vast terrain of personal and collective disillusionment. There is Goya's private frustration at having to serve as court painter to Ferdinand VII, the absolutist, Inquisition-promoting king who followed Napoleon's exit. There was national disappointment over the role played in the war by a bloated, hypocritical Spanish church. And, finally, for Goya and other ilustrados?that small, fragile coterie of liberal elite to which the artist belonged?an enduring sense of loss surrounding the atrocities committed in the name of utopian ideology. Like Milton's famous phrase on Hell, Goya made "darkness visible" in his Disasters of War. Drawn from experience but also from the work of Hieronymus Bosch, Brueghel and other demonological painters, Goya's meditations on the evils of war and the daily wars waged by evil influenced generations of artists for centuries to come: from Gericault to Delacroix, from Picasso to Buñuel, from Philip Guston to Francis Ford Coppola.
As if to prove the connections between Goya's cycle of war prints and other sources in modern art, P.S.1 has brought together Goya's The Disasters of War with two unexpected bodies of work: the overhyped, astoundingly derivative photographs and prints of the Chapman brothers and the eerily disturbing watercolors of Henry Darger, lunatic artist par excellence. Curated by P.S.1 senior curator and Kunst-Werke Berlin director Klaus Biesenbach, the exhibition's main purpose is at once transparently clear and quickly transcended. Actively looking to establish Goya as a direct forebear for the Chapmans' most expensive, least clever work to date, the exhibition turns provocative specifically where the fantasy violence of Darger's psychic "civil war" and Goya's depictions of war violence overlap. Clearly upstaging the Chapmans, the work of these two artists, about as far apart in spirit and intention as is possible, depict oddly complementary infernos. Pitted against Goya's encyclopedic skepticism, Darger's epic drama?pitched exclusively in the feverish imagination of this artistic recluse?absorbs more complex, suggestive dimensions of meaning.
The Chapmans, self-styled enfants terribles of the British art world, outdid themselves six months ago at London's Royal Academy by presenting their own version of the Holocaust. Titled Fucking Hell, a 28-square-foot giant swastika filled with 30,000 mutilated plastic soldiers, the Chapmans' newest work generated scads of press ("they are only as good as the publicity they generate," a British critic recently suggested) and some £500,000 from Charles Saatchi (the most he's ever paid, apparently, for a piece of artwork). Nine monumental photographs of the work, titled What the Hell I - IX, are now on view at P.S.1 along with Gigantic Fun, a series of etchings hung with great chutzpah next to their inspiration, Goya's Disasters of War.
About the photographs, the less said, the better. Big, blurry and shocking only to the moralizing set, they confirm the Chapmans as the Farrelly brothers of the art world: a cheap entertainment team playing for sensational laughs with the art world equivalent of poop jokes. One image depicts half-naked figures in SS uniforms shoveling other figures into miniature crematoriums; another a pile of toy soldiers flecked with red magic marker and sawdust to resemble blood and soil.
Regarding the Chapmans' etchings, they hew so closely to Goya's Disasters of War as to be embarrassing. Done on similarly sized, weathered brown paper, the Chapmans' prints turn out to be, in several cases, nothing more than the artists' loose doodling over copies of Goya's original images. One image of a mutilated corpse impaled on a tree, which Goya titled Eso es peor ("That's even worse"), is used three times in the Chapmans' etchings (it has already served as the model for one of their better-known mannequin sculptures). In movie pitch language, the Chapmans' theft of Goya's black work can be compacted into the following nutshell: Beavis and Butt-head meet Goya, copy him, squeeze out a single laugh in 83 prints (the Chapmans, predictably and pretentiously, made the exact same number of prints as The Disasters of War). In that image, the words "Oi Peter, i can see your house from here" are written above the images of three crucified men. Funny, one must admit, but not exactly a trench confession.
Not so for the work of Henry Darger (1892-1973), which manages no laughs, but leaves a far deeper, more lasting impression of human perversity. A creepy, obsessive little man with a lifetime of janitorial expertise and a bizarre obsession for scavenging, keeping diaries (he left a 5084-page handwritten autobiography) and writing illustrated fantasy epics, Darger drew some 300 pictures of a larger-than-life conflict between tribes of pinafore-clad little girls and hordes of pillaging male soldiers. Titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal or the Glandelinian War Storm or the Glandico-Angelinian Wars, as Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, Darger's magnum opus (he managed, incredibly, a sequel, Further Adventures in Chicago) related a see-saw battle between the forces of snow-white good (the girls) and unalloyed evil (the aptly named Glandelinians).
As one might expect from such a premise, the adult males were regularly routed or outwitted by Darger's prepubescent innocents, even if he sometimes drew on them strange little penises. But one, otherwise totally insignificant event?his loss of a cherished newspaper photograph of a murdered girl?momentarily titled the conflict in favor of the forces of evil, unleashing in the artist's hand a virtual holocaust of fearsome proportions. Darger, who kept running tabs of his conversations with himself, made a pact with God: if the lost photograph were not returned, he would turn the tide against the Vivian Girls. This he did and the sweetly gruesome pictures hanging in P.S.1's two darkened rooms give witness to a psychic battle of desperate and magnificent proportions.
Darger's watercolors and carbon tracings of magazine and coloring book clippings crowd their frames with a welter of all-over images of death and devastation. Girls are garroted and hanged, tied naked to stone slabs and disemboweled, hacked little limbs are stacked in piles like school satchels. All the more disturbing for their mixture of innocent idealization and sadism, Darger's pedophilic vignettes, despite their nearly laughable textbook Freudian associations, touch, like Goya's Disasters of War, on the age-old problem of evil. Pictures of a literally imaginary slaughter, they remain in the mind for their peek at the demons within; internal wars, which, in Hannah Arendt's formulation, are no less evil for being utterly, childishly and twistedly banal.
"Disasters of War: Francisco de Goya, Henry Darger, Jake and Dinos Chapman," through Feb. 25, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Ave. (46th Ave.), Long Island City, 718-784-2084.
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