Art historians are fond of drawing sharp dividing lines between different art phases. Many like to consider the first Impressionist Exhibition (1874) as the starting point for Modern Art, but they seem to forget (or ignore) the fact that decades earlier, Goya had already painted an overwhelmingly ‘modern’ masterpiece: modern in composition, in the dramatic use of the elements of design, in the secular treatment of the subject matter, among other things.
‘The Third of May 1808’ was like no other day in the history of Spain. The French troops had hundreds of Spanish civilians shot by firing squads in Madrid, and Goya’s painting captured that insane moment in time as a group of civilians was being massacred by one of the squads. I will not get into the juicy details, or maybe just one: you cannot see the face of any of the executors. They all have the same posture, as if replicas of one and the same evil spirit devoid of compassion and mercy…a killing machine hiding behind a gun with no eyes to see, no brain to think, no heart to feel. They are ‘anonymous’ because they will pass into history not name by name, but rather as one homogenous group under the name ‘criminals’.
This painting is not as morbid as other works by Goya about war (his series ‘The Disasters of War’ haunted me for several weeks after I first saw it), but every figure in this painting is a careful study of an extreme human condition: horror, despair, faith, and many other ‘conditions’ that unfold through the facial expressions and the body language of the victims.