Robert Fisk: Where is a Goya who could chronicle today's conflict?

The Long View: Women dragged off for rape, men shot by death squads – such atrocities take place by the hour

Share
Related Topics

Goya in Beirut. True. The great master's Disasters Of War – his terrifying 19th-century sketches of rape and torture and execution – are here in Beirut, such trust in Lebanon from the Cervantes Institute, such shame in Beirut that when I went to see them there was only one other Lebanese in the gallery (free of charge, for God's sake) as this was, after all, a display of this country's own sadism and masochism in the 1975-1990 civil war. Or was it?

For I fear that those who visited this greatest of all anti-war manifestos must have looked at these sketches – women dragged off for rape, men emasculated on tree branches, shot down by death squads – and thought not of Lebanon at its darkest hour but of cities 250 miles to the east of here, in the towns of Syria, where such atrocities are now taking place by the hour, where these etchings fit picture-perfect on to the YouTube videos that pop up on our screens each night.

Would that Goya could tramp eastwards and visit Tremseh or Hama or al-Qusayr. Militiamen hacking soldiers to death, women spearing French soldiers in the groin, naked corpses thrown into a mass grave.

"This is bad," Goya has written below one sketch. "This is worse."

I last saw Goya's images of war in Lille, the city occupied by the Germans in the 1914-18 war (until my Dad battled his way in as a soldier) but here in Lebanon they have a far more terrible effect. Do we have any Goyas today, to chronicle this horrific war to the east of us, in Syria?

The Beirut exhibition asks us this question because it suggests that war photography may be the current-day equivalent of Goya; there are photographs of the Spanish Civil War, of mass graves and Republican fighters at the front, and of the French in South-east Asia and of the Americans in Vietnam, picture-perfect again, the very edge of reality, taken by men and women who needed more guts than Goya to spend such time in war.

And a Lebanese friend who was with me, and whose family is in Syria, replied at once. "There is much less interpretation in photographs. But there is a depth of misery in these sketches. You can dive into them. The photographs are real but they only shock you, so in the photos, something is shut off from you."

Wow, I said. Spot on. But that doesn't demean war photography. The dead of Hiroshima, who splash up on a screen beside Goya's sketches, are no less real. The problem is that they are real, and thus less full of meaning. I can't put it better than this. Stare at the Goya sketches – of the Franco-Spanish war of 1808, when Napoleon decided to install his brother Joseph as king – and you realise that as the atrocities grow worse (for this is, after all, an exhibition of war crimes), the faces of the war criminals, the lustful French troops, the militias (call them the Shabiha in Syria) become ape-like, while the martyrs take on an almost religious innocence. A lone woman firing a cannon is beautiful, not because you see her face, but because you see her long hair hanging down her back.

A few days earlier, I had been looking in Paris Match at the photographs of a very brave American photojournalist, Robert King, who spent seven weeks as a secret doctor in a clinic in the Syrian town of al-Qusayr, some of these weeks with the saintly Dr Zein (pray for him nightly, those who still believe in God) and his pictures show a little girl with a mangled hand (her eyes have stopped asking the question, "Why?") and a four-year-old boy called Mustapha, whose blood-encrusted face is uncaptionable.

"I didn't try to hide the morality or to embellish it," King says. "On the contrary, I wanted to show its brutal ugliness. I think it is scandalous to go to a war to make art. To make something beautiful out of violence is a disservice to those whom violence strikes down, especially when they are unarmed civilians."

And there you have it. Goyaesque in his honesty, this Mr King. And so I pad on round the Goya sketches. A priest about to be garrotted, a woman dragged off for rape, men chopped up and pinioned – all meat – on a tree, a man hauled up the steps of a gallows ("the hardest step," says Goya's caption), the man hanging beside a self-satisfied French officer, until you notice the line of other hanged men on other trees in the background.

And there's a well-dressed man – yes, the rich suffer too, as they do in Syria today – begging on his knees as seven bayoneted rifles point from the right of the sketch, and we do not see the hands or the rifle-holders. Eighty-two of these horrific pictures Goya etched, unseen until 35 years after his death. What a man. What a war. And Syria?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Systems Business Analyst - Watford - £28k + bonus + benefits

£24000 - £28000 per annum + bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Business Syste...

SENCO

£21000 - £36000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: SENCO - Benfleet - J...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you looking to work in Edu...

Nursery Manager

Negotiable: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunity for a nursery manage...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: EU news, and other reasons to be cheerful

John Rentoul
The influx of hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers has significantly altered the composition of some parts of Britain  

Immigration is the issue many in Labour fear most

Nigel Morris
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker