“One cannot look at this.
This is bad.
This is how it happened.
This always happens.
There is no one to help them.
With or without reason.
He defends himself well.
He deserved it.
Bury them and keep quiet.
There was nothing to be done and he died.
This is too much!
Nobody knows why.
Not in this case either.
This is worse.
This is the absolute worst!
It will be the same.
All this and more.
The same thing elsewhere.
Perhaps they are of another breed.
I saw it.
And this too.
Truth has died.
This is the truth.”[i]
In one of her late series of essays, Susan Sontag created a literary collage of sorts. The title of this piece is “Looking at the Unbearable” and is inspired by Goya’s series of “The Disasters of War.” In fact, it is a very straightforward listing of several titles of Goya’s prints as they were later annotated in pencil beneath each print!
Goya was inspired to work in this direction by the earlier artist Jacques Callot whose “Miseries and Misfortunes of War” was published in 1633 as a response to the French invasion of Lorraine during the Thirty Years War. From 1808 to 1814 it was the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, witnessed by Goya, that lead to “The Disasters of War.” Although separated by over 200 years, these two bodies of work, taken together, comprise some of the most powerful statements ever made against war. What does that mean for us now?
Instant justice on the battlefield, or revenge and vigilante justice in small town America seemed to take no heed of past history and warnings. In Marion, Indiana for example, on 7 August 1930 the photographer Lawrence Beitler came upon a scene that just had to be documented. A mob of citizens had broken into the local jail and took two African American prisoners, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, out into the night, where they were lynched. This particular photograph became a symbol of the ongoing racial war and tensions within our country. Thousands of copies of it, both as post cards and posters were printed over the following few days and weeks.
In 1937, Abel Meeropol saw a copy of this photograph and was inspired to write the poem “Bitter Fruit” along with the music that later became a labor/civil rights anthem titled “Strange Fruit.” Since then it has been recorded many times up to the present day, but the 1939 version by Billie Holiday became a classic.
One contemporary artist and musician in the greater Boston area, James Reitzas, found a way to voice this through sculpture. Using very simple materials, rope and sand and burlap, he fashioned units of human size and proportion and literally hung them from local trees. Mimicking and referring back to Billie Holiday’s signature song “Strange Fruit” and Callot’s and Goya’s prints, these pieces show the metaphorical power of materials. They also echo many of the songs written at the time in order to give voice to both the civil rights and anti-war movements: the early Bob Dylan masterpiece “Desolation Row” contains an opening line that was directly inspired from Beitler’s photograph.
“They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row.”[ii]
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”[iii]
[i] Sontag, Susan; Regarding the Pain of Others; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2003; pp. 44-47.
[ii] Dylan, Bob; “Desolation Row,” Writings and Drawings; Alfred A. Knopf, Borzoi Books; New York, New York; 1973; pp. 193-195.
[iii] Holiday, Billie; “Strange Fruit” The Centennial Collection; audio recording B00S7E1V7W; Sony Legacy; New York, New York; 2015.