Among the masterpieces in the MFA’s collection are three exceptional works inspired by contemporary political events: Edouard Manet's extraordinary “unfinished” canvas of the Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (1867), which closely followed the posthumous publication of Francisco Goya y Lucientes' unsettling, graphic series of etchings Disasters of War (1810-20; published 1863), and, painted a century later, Pablo Picasso's Rape of the Sabine Women (1963), created at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. Each is a powerful statement confronting disturbing events during the lifetime of the artists.
“War and Discontent” highlights these timeless and universal works, shown alongside provocative and subtle recent work by artists critically engaged in the present. Some works feature instruments of war, such as Richard Artschwager’s grisaille painting of a tank or Suara Welitoff’s haunting video of World War II bombers endlessly in flight. Others share a focus on apocryphal subjects and brutal atrocities, as seen in Jack Goldstein's Burning City, Philip Guston's The Deluge, Robert Morris' untitled abstraction framed by a border of body parts, and Leon Golub's monumental and crudely rendered canvases. Still others acknowledge the triumph of the human spirit, such as Phil Collins' poignant video they shoot horses. But all serve as bold examinations of current events and challenge the viewer to contemplate issues of war and peace through the lens of art.