There was a painting in one of my art classes that I had chosen to write a paper on, one that I had carelessly looked over with insignificant background research leaving me staggering with a shameful, though lenient B.
At a glance Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 (El Tres Mayo de 1808 en Madrid), vividly depicts the fear and suffering during the battle at Medina del Rio Seco in Spain as Napoleon’s troops mercilessly prepare to shoot. The dead along with their blood splattered across the ground leave us with nothing less than a gory and brutal glimpse of the horror of wars. It now hangs in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain.
The Third of May etches a powerful and emotionally charged scene of French occupation and Spanish retaliation. Studied diligently, the man in the white shirt is given the stance similar to a Christ-like figure, a martyr for the rest of the town, possibly concluding to why his shirt is not soiled. As the focal point in the painting due to the intense contrast between him and his surroundings, we are immediately given a possible story of the situation. Upon close inspection of his expression, he undeniably gives a pleading look, which we later associate how the rest of the figures in the painting have distinct facial expressions, each with a story to tell. With his arms raised in an almost V-shape, as perhaps a sign of peace and surrender, which Napoleon’s troops clearly have no regard for, we are given an understanding of what Goya is trying to tell us further in his painting, the French are merciless tyrants.
Acting as indirect lines, the man’s outstretched arms direct our eyes to the rest of the painting, allowing our eyes to further explore the scene. With the lighter shade of the ground, we immediately notice the pool of blood a dead man lies on. And more dead bodies thoughtlessly tossed to the side. The rifles staging a dramatic connection between the contrast of each side of the battlefield, we begin to notice the identical soldiers’ faces, with their clean unsoiled uniform, are hidden from their rifles, a notable symbol how often people lose their humanity amidst war cowardly hiding behind their chosen weapons. To the troops, the victims are anonymous and worthless, the darkness of the painting showing the inevitable impending doom. The recognizable architecture of the city in the background lends immediacy to the scene. But the ill-fated Spanish rebels elicit both sympathy for their suffering and respect for their sacrifice, and that is what truly captures our attention.
The painting’s content, presentation and emotional force secure its status as a groundbreaking, archetypal image of the cruelty of war. Although it draws on many sources from both high and popular art, The Third of May 1808 marks a clear break from convention. Diverging from the traditions of Christian art and traditional depictions of war, it has no distinct, and is acknowledged as one of the first paintings of the modern era. According to the art historian Kenneth Clark, The Third of May 1808 is ‘the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word, in style, in subject and in intention.’
When I first completed my essay on Goya’s The Third of May 1808, I still lacked the understanding of the artist’s background and influence towards the painting. I explored the painting as a general piece of artwork that mimics the horrors and reality of war, of both oppressors and oppressed. I failed to comprehend the idea that every situation, every war, every art piece had a different story to tell. And to tell a story in a form of generalisation is madness. But to me, I didn’t just generalise. I had a method: A sequence of complex Patterns to how I saw things.
I have always had a fascination with patterns. I have spent most of car rides listening to my iPod trying to decipher the pattern at what the song will be with every click of a shuffle. I tried to guess every step I made, people made, life made. Back then I believed, and perhaps subconsciously still do, that life works in patterns. It’s this intricate, convoluted labyrinth of genius that every moment we spend is not only by chance but a very calculated measure of time that leads us exactly where we are, or rather should be. And only those who can miraculously break the code can make their destiny themselves.
Despite my faith in my theory, I recognised a major flaw. I began to not only assume events, but people. After an initial meet and greet, I generalised and categorised the type of people I was meeting, narrowing their characteristics and behaviour down to my self-built system. Like Goya’s The Third of May 1808, I figured, yes, another beautiful, strong, graphic painting that will leave your eyes exhausted but yearning for more, but also, yes it is just another beautiful, strong graphic painting about war. And that, I now understand, was my greatest fault: to merely see without understanding. And with that, I generalised even art. I appreciated everything from a glance and admired all from a distance. Because I had a system. A complicated system that generalised individuality. In my eyes, I had turned art into a universal beauty.
“… art wasn’t supposed to look nice. It was supposed to make you feel something.” Rainbow Rowell, Eleanor and Park
We have come to assure ourselves that the world was built for us. Only us. I came to believe that if I played the game right and anatomised the probable outcome of a situation and a person, then pursued the right course of action, I was on the right track. I was in control. No one, not even destiny itself, could dictate how I should live my life. No one could hurt me. Because I refuse to ever play the victim of any circumstance. Because life would inevitably have no choice but to play according to my rules. Because I was convinced that life owed me. It had to be good to me. Because I deciphered its framework.
That didn’t really work out.
“You are a victim only when you have decided to play the part.” Gary Hopkins