Mulling over works by such justly renowned artists as Spain’s own Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velasquez and the Germany’s native son Albrecht Dürer, I was immediately taken by the extraordinary power of Francisco de Goya’s later-period work when, beset by deafness and isolation, the painter’s tone shifted markedly from portraits of self-obsessed and foppish noblemen to far darker visions of war, chaos and the true price exacted on ordinary citizens by the vainglorious war making of Europe’s political leaders of his time, the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In Coloso (The Giant), Goya depicts the bestial back of some massive being turning away and towering over a scene of anarchy and bloodshed, a possible allegory for what Goya himself saw as his beloved Spain was ripped apart by a French invasion as occurred during Europe’s so-called Peninsular War.
Most stunning of all in its emotional power, though, rendered with all the immediacy of a Robert Capa photograph, is Goya’s painting El 3 de mayo en Madrid: Los fusilamientos en la montaña del Principe Pío, which depicts the merciless French suppression of a rebellion against Napoleon’s invading forces by Spanish patriots in May 1808. Following the revolt, the French army executed at least 5,000 Spanish citizens and in doing so provoked a general uprising and guerilla war that would drive Napoleon’s armies from Spain in defeat only a few months later, marking the first major defeat for the French empire on the European continent some four year after the Haitians had handed the pint-sized tyrant a similar drubbing in the Caribbean, half a world away.
But, victory dances aside, in El 3 de mayo, Goya cuts right to the bloody heart of military conflict: A nighttime execution, the simultaneous terror and dignity in the eyes of those about to be slain, the stigmata-like markings on the hands of the condemned man draw in greatest relief, the terrible machinery of killing represented by the French firing squad and, in the distance and removed and seemingly uncaring, the rising steeple of a church.
My friend, who watched from feverish exile in the United States as many members of his family were massacred by the Tontons Macoutes of Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier during the appalling Jérémie Vespers that took place in that Haitian town of that name in 1964, commented to me that it reminded him of the indifference of the United States to the terrible crimes that Duvalier and later Haitian presidents committed against that country's people. For me, something of the picture spoke of the day in February 2004 when three companions and I drove to the central Haitian city of Saint Marc and, instead of finding the town I had driven through dozens of times before, found a charnel house of burned homes, Bale Wouze (Clean Sweep) paramilitary forces and Unite de Securite de la Garde du Palais National d’Haiti (USGPNH) personnel seemingly drunk on blood and as terrorized and victimized a population as I have ever seen.
By authoritative counts, at least 27 people were killed by forces acting in support of the government of then-Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide when, on 11 February, Bale Wouze and USGPNH re-took the town from the lightly-armed anti-government Rassemblement des militants conséquents de Saint-Marc (Ramicos) forces that had seized it on 7 February. The victims in Saint Marc were people like Leroy Joseph, killed in front of his wife and children; Kenol St. Gilles, thrown alive into a fire; Yveto Morancy, killed on 13 February; and Ketia Paul, gang-raped over the course of seven hours in the burned-out remnants of the Saint Marc police commissariat where she had gone to plead for the release of a friend held there.
These are also victims worthy of remembrance and now, three years on, with still no one having been brought to trial for the crimes they were subjected to, they are still crying out for justice.