Two engaging print exhibitions at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens offer insight into very different eras. Both “The New York Collection for Stockholm” and Francisco de Goya‘s “Disasters of War” are, in effect, historical documents. The former showcases some of the most relevant artists of the 1960s, when emerging technologies began to influence a new generation of American artists. The latter masterfully depicts the ravages of the Peninsular War upon the Spanish populace in the early 1800s.
“The New York Collection for Stockholm,” on view through October 28, is a window on the creative ferment of the ’60s. The emergent Pop Art carried not only the cultural signifiers of commercial and mass-produced images, but also the imprint of scientific innovations. Lasers, space exploration, trans-Atlantic satellite broadcasts, video recorders and early computer graphics were but a few of the technological advances.
In 1966, 10 New York artists collaborated with 30 engineers and scientists from Bell Telephone Laboratories to develop a series of dance, music and theater performances, known as “9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering,” in an effort to foster cross-pollination between the sciences and the arts. The New York-based group Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) was founded to further facilitate and encourage artist-engineer relationships and to explore the role technology plays in the fabrication of multi-media art.
In the early ’70s, E.A.T. selected 30 multimedia works to make up a collection of American contemporary art for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden. “The New York Collection for Stockholm” portfolio held 30 prints from each of the artists and was sold in an edition of 300 to help raise funds for the acquisition of the actual collection. A recent acquisition by the Georgia Museum, the portfolio includes prints by Andy Warhol, Lee Bontecou, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Louise Nevelson, Cy Twombly, Nam June Paik and other notables.
Andy Warhol’s “Mao, 1973” is a final print from a series of Xerox images of a drawing based on a photo of the Chinese dictator from a 1972 article in Life magazine. Utilizing the degradation of the image through multiple copies and focusing on the area of Mao’s upper lip, Warhol reduced the portrait to an unrecognizable linear abstraction. The print could be taken as a critique of the distortion of a famous person under varying levels of scrutiny or merely as an exercise in the process of mechanical manipulation.
Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic serigraph “Finger Pointing” typifies his famous take on the colorful graphics of advertising and comic strip art. His overlarge Ben-Day dots of the commercial printing process, the ’60s-era version of Pointillism, encapsulate his ability to remark simultaneously on the methods and the message of mass media.
Best known for her bold multimedia sculptures, Lee Bontecou also contributed a serigraph to the portfolio. Her untitled abstract print is highly evocative and carries references to both organic and mechanical systems. With its forward-leaning, harmonious composition, it is a prime example of the E.A.T. aesthetic in its suggestion of artistic-technological collaborations yet to be imagined.
The beautifully curated exhibit of the museum’s portfolio of Goya’s “Disasters of War,” on view though November 3, hangs in an adjacent gallery. The Spanish painter and printmaker has long been regarded as an innovator, both in style and technique. Although he began his career as a court painter to the Spanish crown, his later work revealed an uncanny ability to satirize his subjects, including royalty and the clergy, chronicling the foibles of their personalities and the effects of their sometimes draconian policies.
Goya used a combination of etching, dry point and aquatint in the series — a spectacular technical advance at the time. The series follows a European tradition of war art and the depiction of the effect of military conflict on civilian life, but it rejects some of its basic precepts, such as traditional notions of heroic glorification or nationalism. Goya depicted the brutality on both sides of the war. Unpublished during his lifetime, the prints were created as the six-year struggle unfolded. They focus on the cold realities of war and its injustices and atrocities. (While each print is titled, the satirical and often sardonic ambiguity of the original Spanish is lost in translation.)
Beyond the boldness of recording scenes underpinned by such strong social criticism, Goya proved himself extremely adept at chiaroscuro, a technique that served to emphasize the moral aspects of his work. The negative aspects of human nature are often darkly shadowed, while benevolent characters are bathed in streaks of light.
“Disasters of War” is broadly grouped into three sections. The first 47 plates focus on the war itself and show its consequences on individual soldiers and civilians. Those in the middle, Plates 48 to 64, record the effects of the resulting famine in Madrid in 1811-12, before the city was liberated by French forces. The final 17 reflect the bitter disappointment of liberals after the rejection of the Spanish Constitution of 1812 and opposition to state and religious reform.
Executed in the style of Goya’s previous “Los Caprichios” series (1797 and 1799), the final prints, titled “Otos Caprichios Enfáticos,” expose the tyranny of those in power in a skillful combination of political satire and a macabre sense of humor through masterful draftsmanship. His subjects are often depicted as half-animal, half-human, nightmarish allegorical hybrids. As Goya himself said, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”
Goya’s haunted, unflinching images of dismembered corpses, skeletons of famine-ravaged civilians and other miseries bear witness to the senseless atrocities of war. They serve, as well, as an accusation of all who participated. In its exposition of the flaws of human nature, especially those magnified by power, Goya’s “Disasters” is both universal and timeless.