In Times of War

May 12th, 2008

Not only the dinner last night at Ananais—where we savored rabo de toro (bull’s tail)—had prepared me for this event. In fact, it seemed that every day this past weekend was grounding for tonight’s bullfight. It had been long since I last attended one of these events, and never had I been to one in Spain. To be specific, tonight’s bullfight was a novillada con picadores, including three matadors, plus the complete entourage and six novillos, the largest of them weighing 1175 lb (533 kg). This bullfight was part of the month-long Feria de San Isidro, which started in Madrid in 1947. This and the rest of the bullfights in the program take place at Las Ventas, the beautiful Plaza de Toros in that Spanish city. With a brick façade designed by the Spanish architect José Espeliú, the definitely Moorish-influenced bullring of Las Ventas opened in the early 1930s. However, the spectacle and culture of bullfighting, also known as tauromaquia, has a centuries-old history. Also far in history are the debates following criticism of whether or not this so-called blood sport ought to be permitted.

While some of the criticism on bullfighting centers on animal rights (this argument being the least strongest, considering that hunting for survival, food industry or pleasure are stone age and modern day practices), the strongest critiques focus on elevating violence through sport. The counterarguments of the taurina community in Spain, as well as in other countries where bullfighting is practiced—mostly, found in Latin America—frame bullfighting as an artistic expression and cultural tradition. And this all sounds like rhetoric until you’re there, bearing witness to the dance and spectacle of the matador and the bull. Like every art form, bullfighting does indeed have a universe and language of its own. Yet, some things, perhaps the matador’s tactics of torture and distraction, now feel overtly familiar—and to the trepidation of all.

My experience of tonight’s bullfight was certainly influenced by a couple of artworks I had seen only days before here in Madrid. The first was the 2007 video by Antoni Muntadas, On Translation: Fear / Jauf, at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. The second was La Tauromaquia, a series of drawings and prints created by Francisco Goya in 1815-1816, which formed part of the Museo Nacional Del Prado’s thoughtful and timely exhibition Goya in Times of War. The third was Pablo Picasso‘s Guernica (1937) in the permanent collection of the Reina Sofia.

Muntadas’ video is one of two works with the same title and addressing geopolitical borders and the cultural anxieties endemic to those overly monitored regions. The earlier work was developed in the framework of inSITE between 2003-2005, and dealt with the Mexico and US border region of Tijuana and San Diego. Inspired by that project, Muntadas looked at the geopolitical relation that his home country, Spain, has with Morocco. This new video is based on a series of interviews with citizens in both sides and political camps of the Strait of Gibraltar, a stretch of thirteen miles of sea that separate Western Europe from North Africa. The fifty-long minute video—originally created for television broadcast as the site of exhibition and distribution channel for the work—emphasizes the sense of fear that naturally emerges from experiencing a constant state of preventive security, particularly as it pertains to illegal immigration and an escalation of cultural intolerance.

No less intense was the visit to Goya in Times of War at El Prado. The exhibition covers a span of twenty-five years of the life and work of Goya, from 1794-95 to 1820. This is a period of intense political changes and war in Europe that affected Spain as every other country. During this time, Goya created what were then as today some of his most celebrated works, including the series of prints and drawings of Los Caprichos, Disasters of War and Tauromaquia. The introductory wall text to the gallery with the last of these aforementioned series states that Goya’s series of,

Tauromaquia has to be understood as more than a mere illustration of the history of bullfighting. The time at which this series was created and the resulting images suggest that beneath this apparent intention lies Goya’s need to express his criticism of man’s deep-rooted cruelty, which he himself had witnessed.

Brutality, which is explicit from the outset of the series, is an inherent characteristic of the bullfight, and we can interpret the artist’s characterization of the figures from this world as a veiled critique of human barbarity, already expressed shortly before in the Disasters of War. In its representation of the bullfight, the Tauromaquia emphasizes the idea of a combat between victory and torturers in which terror and madness prevail and in which death is the only outcome.

Intelligent but provocatively over-determined, the text misses to allude that it is not in the depiction where meaning is generated but in experiencing what is rendered. A sense of devastation awakens before the picture. I felt similarly the following day, when we went to see Picasso’s Guernica (1937) at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Like Goya’s Disasters of War, this is another work inspired by human violence and the atrocities of war. As it is when encountering Picasso’s work, my eyes were immediately activated at my encounter with Guernica. The painting’s monumentality and abstraction slowly began unfolding. It was a moving image, with all scenes happening at once to tell of an emotion that is as complex as the history that provoked it.


Antoni Muntadas’ video screening was part of Rencontres Internationales, which was brought us to Madrid—Tom was participating in the same video and film festival, and he invited me along. On Translation: Fear / Jauf will next be broadcast on Al Jeezera TV.

The exhibition Goya in Times of War covers a span of twenty-five years of the life and work of Goya, from 1794-95 to 1820. It is organized and on view at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain, from April 15-July 13, 2008.

Since 1992, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) is on permanent display in the collection galleries at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, after a long stay at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who ceded the work back to Spain in 1981.

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