Discussion goals: By placing each work in a historical context, and by considering its technique and materials, students will be encouraged to think about empathy in relation to fear and understanding, and to pose ethical questions of representation and of gazing.
In looking at these works, we might also consider the connection between the viewer and the figure/figures, and a work’s emphasis on an individual versus the depiction of a multitude.
A new subject beginning in the fourteenth century, the Pietà (Italian for “pity”) represents the Virgin Mary holding her dead son, Jesus, in her lap. This scene is not found in the Gospels but was one of a number of new themes in Christian art intended to encourage meditation, convey pathos, and provoke a profound emotional response in the viewer. Adding to its emotional immediacy, it echoes images of the Virgin cradling her child. The development of the Pietà parallels the rise in mystical literature of the time and responds to individual aspirations for a personal relationship with God.
Consider the subtractive medium of wood carving compared to the subtractive medium of stone carving. What naturalistic details do you notice in the carving of Jesus’s dead body? What effect do these have on the viewer?
How do you read the relationship between Mary and Jesus through the positioning of their bodies?
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Tampoco (Nor this time)
Following the French invasion of northern Spain in the spring of 1808, the Peninsular War subjected the Spanish people to six years of cruelty, terror, and extreme privation. Grief-stricken, Goya undoubtedly began work on his Disasters of War etchings following the siege and ultimate capture of his boyhood city of Zaragoza from December 1808 through February 1809—a notoriously brutal battle in which some 50,000 Spaniards died. By 1814, Goya had completed fifty-six of the eighty plates he ultimately created for Disasters of War, but in the repressive political climate that followed the reinstatement of absolutist monarchy under Ferdinand VII, the series remained unpublished during the artist’s lifetime. Ultimately, the plates were acquired by the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in 1863, when they were published for the first time.
Compare the viewer’s gaze in looking at this work and the soldier’s gaze directed toward the hanging man. Is the viewer’s gaze voyeuristic? Why or why not?
Does this representation of human suffering cause an embodied experience for the viewer? If so, through which details?
Goya’s Disasters of War etchings have been described as laying the groundwork for later iconic representations of war, including Picasso’s Guernica and documentary war photographs. Which stylistic elements in Goya’s composition might be described as shockingly modern?
Fazal Sheikh, Qurban Gul, holding a photograph of her son, Mula Awaz, Afghan refugee village, Khairabad, North Pakistan
Fazal Sheikh, Class of 1987, is a socially engaged documentary photographer known for his poignant black-and-white portraits of displaced persons. He aims to create “simple, direct, and respectful” images that are often modulated by accompanying texts drawn from Sheikh’s extensive interviews and conversations with his sitters. Part of the text accompanying this photograph reads: “Mula Awaz was my youngest son. In 1986, when he was eighteen years old, his group of Mujahedin attacked a communist post. In the exchange of fire, he was killed. Before the news of his death reached us, I dreamed that my son’s body was being prepared for burial. When he had been washed and wrapped in white cloth, he was carried to the graveyard. They laid his body on the ground and turned his head towards Mecca. Then his body was covered with earth.”
How might you relate Sheikh’s works to the tradition of portraiture?
How do the accompanying texts change the effects of the photographs?
Did Sheikh manage to avoid the problematic power dynamic between artist and sitter that is often found in documentary photography? Why or why not?
Sample classes and checklists
Jhumpa Lahiri CWR 203: Creative Writing: Fiction
White/Riihimaki: FRS 114: Invention and Innovation: Intersections of Art and Science
Christina Leon, ENG 416 / AMS 416: Topics in Literature and Ethics – Minority Literatures and Ethical Reading