April 26, 2008 3:00 am

The stained cape of his heart

While British troops fired into the crowd in Belfast in 1969, Seamus Heaney was suffering "only the bullying sun of Madrid". In "Singing School", the Ulster poet writes how he was urged to return to the province to testify directly to the violence there. Instead, though, he "retreats" to the cool of the Prado, where he finds: "Goya's 'Shootings of The Third of May'/covered a wall - the thrown-up arms/And spasm of the rebel, the helmeted/And knapsacked military, the efficient/Rake of the fusillade."

The icon and source of all modern war art, Francisco Goya's two great pictures, "The Second of May" and "The Third of May" have been extensively restored in time for the bicentenary of the Spanish uprising against Napoleon this May. They form the jewels in this major commemorative exhibition of Goya's work, just opened at the Prado.

With over 200 pieces (a third of these on loan from private collections), Goya in Times of War hints at a universalism far beyond the Peninsular war, the conflict that invented the term "guerrilla". Goya's art is for all wars in all times, handing Heaney his counterpoint to the Troubles just as it spoke to Manet, Picasso and so many other artists before.

The harrowing etching series "The Disasters of War" is on display here, with its grim equivalence between the atrocities of guerrilla and occupying army. Yet here too are madhouse scenes and portraits of Spanish enlightenment figures. The sheer range of the pictures presents Goya not just as a war-painter, but as a commentator wrestling with and distilling social elements in the upheaval.

But the horror is not all-pervading. Goya lingers as well on its fortunes, torn with ambivalence over the French invaders whose eventual repulsion in 1814 was to saddle the Spanish with their own, reactionary Fernando VII. The sketch "Divine Liberty" presents a middle-class man surrounded by symbols of the free press, his hands spread to greet the celestial light of (French) liberty. It is one of many insights into this furiously intelligent painter, whose glimpse of the modern world could encapsulate its abiding problem: that the promise of its freedoms go cheek by jowl with its nightmares.

"The Second of May" and "The Third of May" were painted not in 1808 itself, but six years later. Complex and somewhat rambling though this exhibition is, they can be understood as a culmination, a reassembling of many of the pictorial elements that Goya had forged in the white heat of the war years.

By the 1790s, the court painter was at already at a watershed moment with his series of uncommissioned "cabinet paintings". In "Prison Interior", which opens the show, a manacled inmate is struck by ghastly light slanting through the railway-style arch of the door - an architectural motif that will recur in Goya's later nightmare depictions.

Created in 1793, soon after an illness which left Goya deaf - condemning him to his own prison of silence - the "cabinet paintings" nevertheless mark a redemptive artistic break. Not only the reduced forms and stark, expressionistic faces shriek modernity, but the subjects - the madhouse, a fire in the night - open up a new world ripe with metaphors for human existence.

Further on, a reminder of Goya's more mundane duties: the huge 1800 portrait of Carlos IV and his family looking like a bourgeois clan smartened up for the town photographer. King Carlos, his kindly face pink-skinned from the razor, little knows that within eight years he and his dynasty will be out on their ear.

To fast-forward to Goya's 1810 portrait of Don Manuel Romero is to appreciate how much, and how fast, the war had turned the world upside down. Romero was the first minister of none other than Joseph Bonaparte - King Carlos' usurper. Tough and cerebral with his downturned mouth, Romero embodies the enlightenment itself, grimly determined to liberate the Spanish peasantry from its rapacious Church landlords. Yet the cruel set to his face betrays his rumoured ruthlessness.

Underlining this whiff of ambivalence, the painting is interspersed with some of the "Disasters" series. These are in turn hung in the same gallery with Goya's political drawings, which leave in little doubt where his intellectual loyalties lay. In one, the very object of Don Manuel's land reforms, a fat monk sits atop a squatting peasant hacking at the dry soil. Its caption: "You did not know what you were carrying on your shoulders".

And so on to the "Disasters of War" themselves, unflinching, brilliantly composed images made even more complete by such mordant captions. In "Rabble", the mob gape as a villager thrusts a bayonet into the anus of a French soldier. In "Great Feat! Done with Dead Men!", an olive is festooned with strange fruit: hacked-off arms and bearded heads of fighters. Nearby hangs one of Goya's singular still-lifes: a butchered sheep, the lip of its severed head curled up in death. In all the images of dismemberment, the captions themselves seem to cry out as disembodied voices, a cacophony inside the mind of their deaf creator: "Bury Them and Shut Up;" "One Cannot Look;" "There is No Remedy;" "I Saw It".

Little by little, recurring elements in the etchings build up in preparation for the great diptych. "The Second of May" marks the moment Madrid's citizens ambushed Napoleon's feared Mameluk troops, and as in the "Disasters", there are no heroics, only the backsides of men grappling other men. One is poking a spike into a horse, while in a Velazquian touch, another horse stares blankly at the viewer. The banality of terror.

In several of the "Disasters", Goya played with the device of bayonets entering the scene from the edge of the picture; in others, he created the foreshortened cluster of the helmets of the firing squad: the perfect geometric, faceless machine of modern war.

The last pictures of the show were produced in the war's aftermath, with the suspension of all enlightened French measures. Portraiture returns, though in dark colours. Exile in France awaited the now-elderly painter, but his mordant brilliance shone on. In "Madhouse" (under the same arches of the mad-scene of 1793), milky light falls on semi-naked figures, one crowned figure holding a staff of office. Is he being Napoleon? Other scenes depict heretics in dunces caps. Finally, a bullfight.

There is a distanced, Martian quality to these final visions, distilled perhaps through deafness: the realisation that all human customs and rites, be they the baiting of bulls or of people, are basically mad. Heaney ended his poem on Goya with a bullfighting image: "He. . . flourished/The stained cape of his heart as history charged". With history charging still, that great cape of a heart continues to shock and awe.

'Goya In Times Of War', Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, until July 13. www.museodelprado.es

Related Topics

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.