The Plains of Mars: European War Prints, 1500-1825
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
February 7-May 10, 2009
Stefano della Bella, Death on the Battlefield, c. 1648
222 x 295 mm (8 3/4 x 11 5/8 in.) Etching
As, at last, the war in Iraq seems to be winding down and a new war in Afghanistan may be winding up, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston offers us a show reflecting on war through the lens of history. The Plains of Mars: European War prints, 1500-1825 leads its viewers on a fascinating tour of how people, over three centuries, have grappled with the problem of representing the horror of violence and the hope for peace.
The prints themselves were nearly three hundred years in the making, while the gathering of them into the collection of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation was the work of the last decade. The show is divided into five sections—war, soldiers, soldiers and civilians, battle, and peace—a scheme that works elegantly in the catalogue but less so in the crowded gallery, where a lack of spacing and a confusion of sequence forces one image to bleed into the next. The catalogue is indeed a treasure, edited by James Clifton and Leslie Scattone and with incisive essays by Emine Fetvaci, Ira Gruber, and Larry Silver. Still, the collection displays impressive historical and thematic sweep and the images stand out against maroon walls almost the color of spent blood.
In an age in which the everyday graphic nature of horror films seems more potent than the sanitized images of war, the images in Plains of Mars will seem to range from placid realism to uncanny allegory. Stephano della Bella’s haunting 1648 Death on the Battlefield remains memorable and even graces the cover of the exhibition catalogue. Death, in all its skeletal horror, almost delicately holds up, in one hand, the reins of his emaciated horse as the other hand descends behind his cloak. A feather plume billows out of his hat. In the distance, visible only as we peer beneath the stark ribs and joints of the horse, the living and the dead struggle to rise up. Death will ride on, clearly. That is the way of war. Similarly, the way of battle is an organized chaos of vicious intent. Henrick Goltzius’s Allegory of War surveys the plains of Mars with rich detail but from the perspective of the roots causes of conflict—Arrogance, Fury, Oppression, Ambition and others all arrayed in the battle field.
Many of the maps on display seem similarly haunting, not practical, though a few appear to be of strategic value. Like the allegorical images, they reveal truths that even the potent realism of woodcuts obscure. Yet many of the images emphasize elegant portraiture of a kind. Albrecht Dürer’s soldiers The Six Warriors, The Knight on Horseback and the Landsknecht,and The Standard-Bearer extract these military types from their usual landscape to focus on the contorted faces of soldiers galloping in woods, the heroic panache of the standard-bearer, and the accurate postures of halberdiers and mounted soldiers. Dürer, like others, were interested in the soldier as a type and image, but they were also interested in arms and armaments (such as cannons), images of triumph, and landscapes of battle and siege.
Perhaps the most compelling—and in some ways most familiar—images are Franciso de Goya’s The Disasters of War, a sequence of fifteen images made in the wake of Napoleon’s war in Spain. Featuring vicious soldiers, strung up bodies (including children), mutilated corpses tied to trees, and a series of emphatic titles (“One cannot look at this” or “This is too much”), the sequence draws us close in to the intimacy of a violence which is by no means allegorical and which cannot be denied in spite of all the captivating pomp and pageantry of soldiers.
As the collection closes with mostly allegorical images of triumph and peace, some which refer to specific political situations, one can’t help wonder if there’s any distinction drawn between victory, which requires war, and peace. Are not the green trees of peace the same from which dead bodies hung just earlier in the gallery? One wonders, leaving, if the cessation of war is any closer now than it was three hundred years ago.