Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 9


Execution, The Third of May
Francisco Goya

Not surprisingly, there is a school of thought in the study of mythology that regards myths as a form of broad understanding, telling stories connected to power, political structures, political and economic interests.1 This description sounds remarkably similar to the post-modern take on the world. Representational artists confront actual matters of power, politics and morality with some trepidation. This may be in part because art has served primarily its patrons’ interests. And power intends to be feared. Goya proposed Execution, The Third of May to the provisional government who had expelled the French, and his painting celebrates the heroes who opposed the tyrant of Europe, that was, France. He took more risks with his prints, and took greater caution, and ‘The Disasters of War‘ was not published until thirty-five years after his death.

A Heroic Feat
Francisco Goya

“Doubtless he feared some such form of political reaction from the despotic new Spanish regime of Ferdinand VII as had so seriously endangered him when he published his first set of prints, Los Caprichos, in 1799.”2 The proof he gave a friend was titled ‘Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices,’ and his scenes of atrocities, starvation, degradation and humiliation criticized both the French and the restored Bourbon monarchy.

The Zaporozhye Cossacks writing a letter to the Turkish Sultan, 1890-91, Ilya Efimovich Repin (1844-1930), State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, Bridgeman Images

Ilya Repin had the advantage of distance and time in his painting, sometimes titled Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan Mehmed had written the Cossacks in 1670 demanding their submission and the painting shows the Cossacks devising a reply to the Sultan filled with insults and profanities. In the actual event, they addressed the sultan as “Satan” and “the crick in our dick” and concluded their reply inviting him to “kiss us thou knowest where.” The accounts of the event may have been apocryphal, though at least two versions of the letter survive, but it is recorded that Stalin had a reproduction of the painting in his study, and that when visitors came he would stand before it and recite the letter from memory. This and the fact that Repin spent thirteen years on this canvas testify to its importance in Russian thought.3

Titian and Velazquez each painted a pope in in ways, centuries later, that invite us to question the characters and historical records. Francis Bacon’s Study after Velazquez resonates in our time when authority has been so completely discredited, so often by the actions of individuals once called authority figures.

Nelson Shanks made an honest decision in the commissioned portrait of President William Jefferson Clinton (2005-2006) to address moral failings. The shadow across the presidency he painted came from blue dresses he hung on a coat rack. The actual dress to which Shanks referred came to light when the president was investigated, and then impeached by the House of Representatives, and subsequently disbarred by the state of Arkansas, for lying in a separate sexual harassment case. Reasonable people may disagree about the propriety of the investigation’s origins. I had long urged the artist against revealing his compositional device, and his revelation of it became a political issue, at least to the members of The Representational Art Group on Facebook. I do agree with him that there will be historical consequences to the President’s actions. It will be interesting to watch and see when, or if, the institution that commissioned the portrait ever brings it back on view.

  1. Wikipedia, “Mythology,” last modified October 22, 2015, accessed October 27, 2015,
  2. Philip Hofer. The Disasters of War (New York: Dover Publications), 2006, p. I.
  3. Victor A. Friedman, “The Zaporozhian Letter to the Turkish Sultan: Historical Commentary and Linguistic Analysis,” SlavicoHieroSolymitana, edited by Victor Raskin and Dmitri Segal, accessed October 27, 2015,