“Disasters of War: Francisco de Goya, Henry Darger, Jake and Dinos Chapman,” at P.S. 1.

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

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
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.

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.

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.