Beati pacifici, Venice Biennale: a disturbing and grimly topical immersion in the horrors of war

Plate 3, Lo Mismo ('The Same'), from The Disasters of War, by Goya
Plate 3, Lo Mismo ('The Same'), from The Disasters of War, by Goya

“Yo lo vi”: I saw it. This is how Francisco de Goya inscribed the 44th plate of The Disasters of War, adding on-the-spot immediacy to a scene of panic during the Peninsular War. Anyone expecting to ease, spritz in hand, into the vernissage of the 60th Venice Biennale will be stopped short by this sombre, sobering exhibition inside the church of San Samuele, overlooking the Grand Canal. With its distressing, torrential imagery of mutilated corpses hanging from blasted boughs, Goya’s chilling 19th-century series provides the show’s centrepiece.

With tensions in the Middle East soaring, and Ukraine appearing ever more beleaguered, Beati pacifici – for which the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has composed a stark, pulling-no-punches poem on the theme of loss – couldn’t be more of-the-moment. And, asks its curator, the charismatic Canadian collector and philanthropist Bruce Bailey, isn’t the biennale supposed to be about exploring ideas and pinpointing the zeitgeist, rather than commercialism?

Arranged within the church’s nave, against temporary gold walls that reflect the surrounding gilt, his exhibition provides a microcosmic history of the artistic treatment of war. Eighteen etchings by the 17th-century French artist Jacques Callot set the tone: each is a devastating miniaturised panorama of an atrocity committed during the Thirty Years War. A slumped prisoner lashed to a stake is shot; forlorn figures hang by the neck from a stout tree, like strange fruit.

Forty years later, Dutch artist Romeyn de Hooghe adopted a more immediate approach. His swirling, swarming, Rubensian forms bring the viewer into the thick of conflict, and dial up the shock factor; in one severe scene, set before a conflagration, a horseman brandishes a silhouetted toddler impaled upon his lance.

Can the art of war titillate as well as shock? In a provocative catalogue essay, the American writer Jackson Arn argues that it can. Looking, here, at prints by the German artist Otto Dix, which evoke his experiences as a machine-gunner during the Great War, you feel Arn may have a point: there is something almost perversely gleeful, and certainly surreal, in these demented yet compelling images of haggard, corpse-like fighters forced to endure the sodden, benighted conditions of the trenches. Worms teem within a skull’s orifices with the flickering ferocity of flames.

Plate 5.3, Essenholer bei Pilkem ('Ration Carrying near Pilkem'), from Der Krieg (The War), 1924. by Otto Dix
Plate 5.3, Essenholer bei Pilkem ('Ration Carrying near Pilkem'), from Der Krieg (The War), 1924. by Otto Dix - © DACS 2023/Joseph Hartman

Dix was building on Goya, who had included several absurd, phantasmagorical moments in The Disasters of War (such as a demon, with bat’s-wing ears, writing in a book). Yet, there’s nothing fanciful or sensationalist about the four grey cadaverous heads in The Fog of War (2006) by the South African artist Marlene Dumas. One is even foreshortened, so that we’re obliged to stare straight up this victim’s nostrils.

To offset the darkness – and because, as Bailey wryly puts it, the church is in the business of selling hope – the show concludes, on the opposite side of the nave, with several optimistic images: Jack Chambers’s Five Shepherds (1961-62), irradiated by divine light; a 2007 etching, channelling Goya, by the Canadian Tyler Bright Hilton; and Country Rock (2000-01) by Peter Doig, in which a hallucinatory rainbow glows beside a monochrome highway.

Yet, it’s the cruel, cavorting imagery of Goya and Dix, as well as those grisly heads by Dumas, that stay with you. It’s not easy being reminded of our capacity for inhumanity, but, with a world war potentially in the offing, Beati pacifici feels urgent as well as powerful.

From Tuesday April 16;