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  • Corporeal Disasters of WarLegibilities of “Spain” and the Jewish Body in Helen Tamiris’s Adelante!
  • Lisa Jackson-Schebetta (bio)

With Goya a new standard for responsiveness to suffering enters art…While the image, like every image, is an invitation to look, the caption, more often than not, insists on the difficulty of doing just that.


The civil war now raging in Spain has brought Goya’s Disasters of War to [an] intense second life. Through them we see deeper into the present suffering in Spain than we could in newspaper photographs.


Between 1810 and 1820, Francisco de Goya created Disasters of War in response to Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. Each of the eighty-five etchings explicitly depict wartime atrocities (rape, dismemberment, castration, torture, massacre). Goya captioned each print with cryptic phrases: “This is bad.” “With reason—or without.” “Poor mother.” When first published in 1863 by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid, the series appalled British and U.S. critics as psychotic filth and served for others as yet further evidence of the Black Legend, of just how cruel and degenerate the Spanish could be. The etchings found a receptive English-speaking audience, however, after World War I, an audience that grew larger during the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. In 1936, the Spanish military revolted against the Spanish Republic, democratically elected in 1931. The western democracies adhered to a policy of nonintervention throughout the conflict, leaving the Republican side dependent on Communist Russia and, to a [End Page 35] lesser extent, Mexico. The Nationalists, in contrast, benefited from the support of Italy and Germany, borne out in arms, airplanes, money, and bodies. Despite official U.S. policy, as deaths mounted in Spain and fascism’s hold on Europe grew, Republican sympathy in the United States gained momentum. Spanish Republicans conjured popular resistance to Napoleon as a precedent to their current plight, an ideological move that featured Goya’s images, the well-known Third of May 1808 and Second of May 1808 as well as the Disasters. In the United States, Goya’s series was republished in 1938 as a newly potent invective against the atrocities of global fascism in which Spain figured as the key battleground.

The publication of the Disasters in 1938 could be read as but one more contribution to the representations of wounded, displaced, dead, and dying bodies that circulated through the international imaginary of the Spanish Civil War. It is not difficult to rattle off such images: Jay Allen’s account from Badajoz, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier, and the violence of air raids, mass graves, and executions documented in newspapers and photography and imagined on screen and stage. What is unique about the Disasters is that they found their way onto a national stage in the United States: Helen Tamiris staged Goya’s work in the dance piece Adelante! (meaning “onward” or “forward”), presented by the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) in April 1939. The presence of Goya in the work has yet to be examined by scholars. In this essay, I argue that Goya’s etchings influenced the aesthetics of the dance, its dramaturgy, and the historio-graphical bent of its politics. In Adelante!, Tamiris ostensibly presented a story of Spain as told through the memory of the dying body of Republican soldier José, but Tamiris was not only documenting the corporeal disasters of war that were littering Spain. Tamiris’s disasters of war, built upon both Goya’s and Spain’s, staged a revision of Iberian Jewish history in order to issue a call to arms, not for the Spanish but for the American Republic. Continued U.S. inaction against the anti-Semitism of fascism, Adelante! declared, compromised America’s legitimacy as a democracy in a global world.

Tamiris’s activism in American modern dance, her passion for organizing, and her instrumentality in the Federal Dance Project and the Federal Theatre Project have been addressed by Elizabeth Cooper (1997, 2004), Mark Franko (2002), Susan Manning (2004), and Ellen Graff (2007). Tamiris’s work on Adelante!, in particular, has been amply...


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pp. 35-55
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