Robert Ballagh, 3rd May after Goya, The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin





Robert Ballagh’s pop-art painting ‘3rd of May after Goya’, was painted in 1970 and is currently held in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin.

Ballagh was a Dublin artist, who was very interested in representing older paintings in a fresh way. Goya’s ‘3rd May 1808’ was painted around 150 years previous to that of Ballagh’s, yet more than a century on was just as relevant.

Ballagh’s painting is smaller in scale than that of Goya’s, at 40 inches long by 54 inches wide, compared to the original version which is 72 long by 96 inches wide. The scale these paintings prove the ambitiousness of both Goya and Ballagh.

As the name would suggest, ‘3rd of May after Goya’ was based on the 19th century artist Goya’s work. Goya used visible brushstrokes in his work in order to depict the emotion and movement of one moment in time, conveying Napoleon I of France’s troops coming to invade Spain. In the scene, the troops are pointing their rifles as a man who has his hands of surrender and at his feet are the bodies of fallen comrades.

The painting was used in Glendinning’s study to illustrate a parallel, ‘between the presence of French troops on Spanish soil in 1808 and English troops in Ireland in the 1970’s’. There are parallels between the violence in Northern Ireland during the 1970’s and Napoleon I’s invasion of Spain in 1808.

Ballagh must have been interested in the idea of an artist representing their country in violent times. During the time when Ballagh executed the painting the troubles in Northern Ireland were ongoing. In Ballagh’s painting, it could be said that the troops on the right are like British soldiers confronting active IRA members.

There are clear religious symbolic references throughout the painting. The central figure is standing in a positon similar to Christ on the cross. When looking closely at his left hand we can see a mark, which again symbolises the crucifixion.

When looking at Ballagh’s painting,  every member of the firing squad is shown with their back to the viewer, meaning we cannot see their faces. We see a stark difference between the depiction of the French and the Spanish characters, as we can see the faces of the Spanish people. The central figure, who is dressed in white, faces us (yet in Ballagh’s painting, unlike Goya’s, no facial features are shown). Because this character faces us, we, as viewer’s are able to empathize with them.

Lighter colours are used to depict the Spanish people in the painting, while darker colours are seen in the area where the French troops stand. This use of colour also marks a symbolic difference between light and dark – as peace and war. The lantern on the ground beside the French troops illuminates the man in white, making it seem like these characters are on stage.

The Spanish resisters are shown as vulnerable. They are not depicted as heros and in this sense Goya has broken the tradition in art history. The figures are ordinary men in an armed conflict and not well-known people.

The mound of earth behind the Spanish further depicts the situation which the Spanish are in – both physically and mentally. They are blocked in and there is no way they can escape.

Although the two paintings are the same subject matter, what is different about Ballagh’s painting is the way in which it is painted. Unlike Goya, who uses oil on canvas, Ballagh decides to use acrylic on canvas, giving each figure and separate object a defined outline and rather than tonal changes, as in Goya’s work. The style is quite different too, as Ballagh’s painting is in pop-art style while Goya’s is naturalistic.

Three of the block colours used in both paintings – the red of the blood on the ground, the yellow of the main figures’ trousers and the white of his shirt – represent the Spanish flag.

Robert Ballagh’s and Goya’s paintings both highlight the brutal reality of war to the individuals  caught up in it.

Through analysing this image, it is clear to the viewer how inhumane humans can be.