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Last rites: the art of execution, the execution of art

22 June 2019

Ah, to die a hero’s death… even in a stupid cause!

Wednesday was the 152nd anniversary of Maximilano’s execution. Tomorrow is the 90th anniversary of the end of the Cristero War. Both events signaled a nationalist victory over overt foreign interference in domestic affairs, although… of course… foreign interests continue to influence and affect daily life here. But, the execution of the Hapsburg, and the agreement worked out between the Mexican bishops and the state, left for some the sense of a romantic gesture rather than the blood-letting tragedy that the “phantom crown” and ¡Cristo Rey! in reality were.

Eduard Manet’s “Execution of Maximilian” is the better known of the two works shown above. Manet, like many another 19th century Frenchman, was a true believer in the “civilizing mission” of the French, and viewed the French pull.out from Mexico as a betrayal by Napoleon III of the Hapsburg puppet. For the conservative Manet, the death of Mazimilian… who the artist saw as an anointed king … not by Mexican Republicans, but though the manipulation and betrayal of the usurping Emperor of the French, was a subject for heroic art. Interestingly enough, the soldiers executing Maximilaino in Manet’s painting wear French, not Mexican, uniforms. After all, the painting is hardly meant to reflect the reality of the event, but rather his emotional and aesthetic reaction. And, be real: he knew it was a subject that would sell. The romantic vision of a “white savior” for Mexico (saved from what isn’t said) still resonates with many, although we can admire the Execution of Maximilian simply for its aesthetic composition without thinking too much about its political or historical contest.

Not so with the lesser known composition by Mexican photographer and artist, Manuel Ramos Sánchez. LIke Manet (from whom Sanchez seems to have liberally borrowed), there was no attempt to construct an historically accurate image. But what is interesting is that, being presented as a photograph, it has been presented as “proof” of government atrocities during the Cristero War. The photo used above comes, not from Mexico, but a Spanish postcard of the mid 1930s, meant to discredit the anti-clerical Republic.

Sanchez was an active Cristero during the 1926-29 insurgency, and militantly pro-clerical, but never intended his “photo-montages” to be literal. As an artist, what reputation he enjoys today is based on his sense of composition, and manipulation to tell a story… although, using a camera rather than oil paint… there are those who believe that a firing squad could stand a meter or so from their victim, and that somehow Sanchez was given the “privilege” to what is presented as an ad hoc execution. By the way, this photo found it’s way into the US film, “No Greater Glory”, the priest played by the aging Peter O’Toole (not one of his more memorable roles).

Working as he did in the days long before “Photoshop” (he died in 1945), and his work having been presented (apparently with his knowledge) as propaganda, we’re tempted to call him a cheater, a fake. But, wasn’t he, like Manet, conveying his “higher truth”… for Manet, the deception of Napoleon and the last of the heroic kings, and for Sanchez, the elimination of the sacred role of the priest by the anti-clerical state?

It would be nearly impossible now to find anyone who “believed” in the sacred calling of a monarch, and would see a monarch’s (or wannabe monarch’s) execution as a great tragedy. Granted, you will find Manet’s painting reproduced in books extolling Maximilian as a 19th century “Liberal” or the white savior, but never as “real”. Sanchez’ photomontage has been, and still is. Never mind that there are no records of priests being summarily executed, let along wearing beretta and alb (public display of clerical garb was illegal in those days anyway), although priests were indeed executed for various (and sometimes bogus) crimes. Or, is Sanchez’ work “real” because people want it to be real… that his “higher truth” is still their truth?

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