The Art Of The Firing Squad: Execution Expressed In Painting

‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

In art, the firing squad is composed as much in time as it is in space; in these first words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, we encounter a plethora of narrative potential for past future heroism, criminality, martyrdom, redemption, rescue, and obliteration.

Charged as it is, the subject of the firing squad has appealed to painters for centuries. Through their experimentation and refinement, it has developed a common compositional approach, serving later generations as a device to approach their own times with a direct power most modern pictorial art struggles to attain.


Though groupings of archers firing upon the unarmed can be found in examples of ancient Assyrian art, probably the best-known early portrayal of an actual squad can be found in the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastien.

While most artists, including Dürer and Mantegna, depicted only the saint, some also opted to show his executioners.

Del Pollaiullo, keen to practice the new perspective techniques of the Renaissance, placed his rather unattractive executioners both behind and in front of their victim, while his Northern near-contemporaries, Altdorfer, Memling and Holbein the Elder, eschewed  this kind of depth and retained something of the Gothic in their approaches. Despite contemporary trends, it was this latter approach, with its direct emphasis on the dynamic between executioner and victim, which was to become the standard in depicting such scenes.

This compositional approach survived Neo-Classicism’s loss of interest in religious themes. Where it helped Holbein and Memling inspire religious feeling for the martyr, Jacques Louis David inverted it to extol the virtues of patriotism, courage, and sacrifice.

The three brother brothers in The Oath of the Horatii, swearing to fight counterparts from a rival city and end a long-running war, share the leftmost position with Memling’s Saint Sebastian, while to the right their father holds the swords with which two of them will die. These young victims, however, make their oaths with straight and muscled salutes, driving their father back. Here the passive ecstasy and feminine beauty of Saint Sebastian is replaced with the chauvinism that would define much of the coming century.


Indeed, Napoleon I’s conquests led directly to the seminal modern depiction of the firing squad, Goya’s Third of May 1808 (1814).  Victims to the left, executioners to the right, here the latter inherit the Horatii brothers’ muscled arms in the form of barrels and bayonets. They are also turned slightly – a device later painters would adopt – to obscure their faces in favour of those of the victims. Goya’s ironic take on David’s composition, then, critiques rather than glorifies French nationalism.

The painting is a depiction of the scene post-factum: triggers pulled, oaths made, saints as ‘full of arrows as a hedgehog’, to quote hagiographer Jacobus de Voragine. In The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867-1869), Manet turns back the clock those few precious seconds to before the rifle smoke has cleared:

The smoke in Manet’s picture of republican soldiers executing the French-installed emperor of Mexico – details of which arrived only slowly and unreliably in France – is not merely a product of impressionist tastes. It suggests an obscurity that allows for an extraordinary inversion of the arrangement established by Goya and David.

Borrowing from Goya’s critique of French expansionism was far from coincidental.


In the first of these paintings the executioners – those who wield power – wear peasant clothes and sombreros, donning military uniforms in later versions so as to appear more French – Manet, in fact, had a squad of French infantry pose for these later pictures.

Meanwhile, the emperor wears a sombrero throughout, delineated more clearly in later versions, and the facial features of the sergeant preparing his coup de grâce are based on those of Napolean III, a detail that made the painting impossible to exhibit publically.

As in his Bar at the Folie Bergères and Olympie, in the last of these pictures Manet involves us in the scene. To the right of the canvas a shadow, our shadow, is cast from a seemingly external light source. It forces us to accept our position as engaged witnesses to an event shrouded in the smoke of censorship, obliging us to decide who the real victims are.

Later painters continued to cast the viewer as a witness, adapting the subject to an expressionistic style that often laid bare political discontents.


There are remarkable similarities between Picasso’s relatively unknown Massacre in Korea (1951) and contemporary Iraqi artist Dia Al-Azzawi’s Mission of Destruction (2003). In keeping with convention both paintings consign victims – rounded, fleshy and vulnerable – to the left, and soldiers – mechanistic and compounded with their weaponry – to the right.

There can be little question of whom is the victim here. Although it was never confirmed who perpetrated the Sinchon massacre depicted by Picasso, he uses the firing squad composition to condemn American intervention in the Korean War, with one soldier even wielding the sword and dress of a crusader.

Al-Azzawi, like Manet, took his time in depicting the second Gulf  War. This was not to clarify events, however, but to respond to an ever-growing tragedy. (Top Photo)

Here the bifurcated composition of the firing squad comes into its element: over three years Al-Azzawi enlarged the painting, adding canvases to both right and left, and so as the soldiers proliferated, so did the bodies.

One constant has remained throughout the development of an approach to this subject: the space between executioner and victim.

This is the space of smoke and bullets but, more importantly, of power dynamics. Straightforward as a bipartite arrangement of the armed and unarmed may seem, each of these paintings begs the question: what is happening in that space? The answer – whether it is godliness, heroism, nationalism, or atrocity – is to be extrapolated to an understanding of the wider world and its structures.


Ultimately, it is not the guns or bullets that matter in these compositions, but where power lies. When asked how his painting Exectuion (1995) – with its laughing victims and empty handed executioners – related to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Chinese artist Yue Minjun said it best: “I want the audience not to think of one thing or one place or one event. The world’s the background”.

Words: Ned Carter Miles Main Image: Iraqi artist Dia Al-Azzawi’s Mission of Destruction (2003) P C Robinson © Artlyst 2016 



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