A reaction to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine
I’ve been reluctant to write about this painting, for fear of how it will be viewed by potential portrait customers. I haven’t even offered it to any exhibitions. But as you read this, millions of lives have been ruined or lost by a pointless conflict, so who am I to fret over losing a few commissions. So here we go.
After finishing my painting Men Wrestling, I still felt compelled to say something about the barbarity and viscousness of events unfolding in Ukraine. It’s too easy to feel detached from it all, viewing it as a spectacle rather than the existential crisis it is. That was exactly what I wanted to convey with Men Wrestling – world leaders looking on as the two naked wrestlers (representing Russia and Ukraine) are embraced in a fight to the death. For my next painting I wanted to show the cruel horror of it all.
Goya – The Disasters of War
Los desastres de la guerra is a series of 82 prints created between 1810-1820 by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746–1828). These etchings are viewed as a visual protest against the violence of the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising, and the subsequent Peninsular War of 1808–1814. They were not published during the artist’s lifetime; they are considered a graphic representation of the atrocities of war. As such, they were the perfect source material and inspiration for the painting I wanted to create.
Composing the painting
Creating a painting like this is a bit like directing a play. You have your story and actors, and much of the time you are arranging them on the stage to describe a particular scene.
Below is a video (apologies for the very bad exposure) where I talk about the painting at quite an early stage. I explain how I saw a certain dignity in the brutalised figures Goya had hanging from trees, with similarities to some depictions of Christ descending from the Cross.
Putin and Prigozhin
From the beginning I wanted the main actors occupying centre stage to be Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin. At the time I painted this, Prigozhin was alive and still a trusted ally of the president, with his Wagner group taking the lead in the assault on Bakhmut. That costly assault gave Russia its only gain since the early days of the war. During this battle, Wagner mercenaries were accused of castrating Ukrainian prisoners (read the story here).
This central section also draws some inspiration from The Flaying of Marsyas – a late work by Titian which shows the killing by flaying or skinning alive of Marsyas, a satyr. Marsyas is hung from a tree like a butcher’s carcass, much like the brutalised figures in Goya’s etchings, and also like the captured soldiers in my painting. I wanted to capture something of the inhuman and bestial behaviour of the invading Russian troops; behaviour that most people could not believe would be happening in Europe in the 21st Century.
A picnic at an execution
It took me a while to fill the space in the bottom left. I tried out various figures, but in the end settled for someone having a picnic in front of this awful scene.
I had in mind the wealthy Muscovites dining in their expensive restaurants, thinking themselves isolated from the “special operation” happening in a foreign land; they might see it as their evening entertainment on TV.
But they are still tainted by it.
As are we all.
I will be exhibiting this painting along with The Gleaners at S. B. Art Gallery in London, from the 27th-29th October