Goya & van Gogh

March 30: Francisco Goya was born on this day in 1746, and Vincent van Gogh was born on this day in 1856. Goya’s “Disasters of War” is a series of eighty-three etchings based on the atrocities committed by Napoleon’s soldiers upon Spanish peasants. In Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), her book on the history of visualizing war, Susan Sontag describes Goya’s etchings as “a turning point in the history of moral feelings and of sorrow.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “In Goya’s Greatest Scenes” transports the suffering humanity depicted in “Disasters of War” and other works to a new century and continent:

They are the same people

                           only further from home

         on freeways fifty lanes wide

                         on a concrete continent

                                   spaced with bland billboards

                  illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness

The scene shows fewer tumbrils

                           but more maimed citizens

                                                      in painted cars

         and they have strange license plates

and engines

                  that devour America….

One of the ‘found poems’ in Annie Dillard’s Mornings Like This (1996) is “I am Trying to Get at Something Utterly Heartbroken,” constructed from passages in van Gogh’s letters:

                     A ploughed field with clods of violet earth;

         Over all a yellow sky with a yellow sun.

So there is every moment something that moves one intensely.

         A bluish-grey line of trees with a few roofs.

         I simply could not restrain myself or keep

My hands off it or allow myself to rest.

         A mother with her child, in the shadow

         Of a large tree against the dune.

To say how many green-greys there are is impossible.

         I love so much, so very much, the effect

         Of yellow leaves against green trunks.

This is not a thing that I have sought,

But it has come across my path and I have seized it.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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