“El sueño de la razón produce monstrous” is the title Francisco Goya (1746 to 1828) gave to a series of 80 etchings that were published in 1799. You’ve probably seen the 43rd plate in the series, which depicts the artist hunched over a worktable, asleep, haunted by a large cat, bats, and owls.
Goya eventually re-titled the series, referring to it as “Los Caprichos.” In Spanish capricho means whim or fancy. Art historians concur that the series, which includes drawings of Goya himself, is a form of social commentary, a satire that points to the difference between how things are and how we represent them to ourselves–more accurately, how things are, how we refuse to look, and the difference between looking and seeing.
Goya insists that we see. To make sure that we do, he sets aside formal constraints, aesthetic rules that define what the proper subject of a painting should be, where that subject should be positioned on the plane of the canvas, etcetera. His willingness to shatter convention in order to tell and help us see a greater truth is something that makes his work especially relevant to writers, for Goya tells a story about the search for balance in a mutilated world.
The 80 etchings that form “Los Caprichos” are not the stylized paintings of dukes and duchesses that gained him recognition and a livelihood. Goya wrote to Bernardo de Iriarte, a Spanish diplomat and member of the Royal Spanish Academy who was also a good friend, explaining the difference between the more orthodox paintings he was commissioned to do and those that ignited his sense of capricho–of whim and fancy:
“I devoted myself to painting a set of cabinet pictures in which I have succeeded in making observations for which there is normally no opportunity in commissioned works and in which ‘capricho’ and invention have no limits” (as qtd. by Frank I. Heckes).
We can’t blame Goya for wanting to explain himself. The Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1478, was still, as we might say, “a thing,” and it would continue until 1834. The last heretic condemned by the Inquisition, Cayetano Ripoll, was a Spanish schoolmaster. He was also a Deist. He believed in God. Unfortunately, he had arrived at his belief through reason not revelation, and he said so, out loud. He was hanged in 1826. Imagine a McCarthy Era that lasts 348 years and wields the power to condemn its victims to death.
Read the surface of that 43rd plate again. The owl, symbol of both enlightened wisdom and dark ignorance, stands perched behind the sleeping, unconscious artist in Goya’s etching, reminding us how easy it is to collapse into one extreme or the other, light or dark. Too much Reason becomes rigid orthodoxy, authoritarianism; too much Imagination becomes lunacy, anarchy. Where is the line between Reason and the Imagination, between the authority of the Church and heretical anarchy? Cayetano Ripoll never found it.
“Los Caprichos” was published in book form in 1799. Goya’s painting, “The Third of May, 1808,” was a work commissioned by the provisional Spanish authorities in 1814. Goya himself pitched the idea to these politicians after the Peninsular War (1808 to 1814), assuring them that his painting would memorialize the heroism of the Spanish people against Napoleon, the Tyrant of Europe.
After the Battle of Trafalger in 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain, ousted Charles IV from the Spanish throne, and installed his brother Joseph. The people of Madrid rebelled, pouring out into the streets to fight Napoleon’s soldiers. In retaliation, on May 3, 1808, the soldiers rounded up everyone who looked like a guerrillero, pushed them up against a wall, and shot them.
Once Goya delivered the painting, the Spanish authorities didn’t like it any more than the Bush Administration liked the tapestry reproduction of Picasso’s “Guernica” hanging at the United Nations in 2003.
Perhaps the Spanish authorities didn’t like how much the peasant defiantly accepting execution in Goya’s painting appeared too much like Christ. Perhaps they detected some form of social commentary that was better left unremembered. After all, the Spanish government had aligned itself with France in order to fight Britain before the Peninsular War. Who could have known Napoleon would turn out to be such a tyrant? It would be like aligning this country with the Taliban. There are real limits to political prescience. For whatever reason, we could say that the aesthetically displeased Spanish politicians drew a dark blue curtain over Goya’s painting, relegating it to a dusty corner of the Prada Museum.
Goya’s “The Third of May, 1808” demands that we look and see. The painting depicts the moral affront of war–not two armies poised at a distance from one another, a moment of dramatic irony to be experienced by the viewer, but Napoleon’s mercenaries executing unarmed civilians. Goya shattered painterly conventions so that, if we chose to, we could see. That’s why the painting feels “modern” to us. That’s why it feels so contemporary that we can almost imagine Goya standing in Portland, cell phone in hand, recording the mothers who are holding the line between our descent into authoritarianism and anarchy.
Did Goya witness the massacre of Spanish civilians on May 3, 1808? Was he perhaps peering through the half-shuttered windows of his apartment? No, though the idea of the artist as witness is a compelling one, especially in our age of civilian journalists armed only with cell phones and a sense of social justice; of news, driven by images, that zips around the globe in seconds. Certainly, Goya did witness carnage, famine, and human rapacity. Consider his series, The Disasters of War, for example, which drew on the battlefields he travelled to in person.
Conscious balance is a nightmare for the artist, head down on the surface of a worktable. What is too much orthodox adherence to the rules of any art form? What is too much anarchy, too few discernible reference points for a viewer or reader? “Do not obey in advance,” Timothy Snyder warns us:
“In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.” (On Tyranny)
The middle-path offers no solution, presenting the comforting illusion that concession and compromise are always exactly the mid-point between any set of opposites. But we don’t reflect with gratitude on Neville Chamberlain, do we?
Goya shatters convention in order to tell a story about the struggle to give testimony, to serve as a witness. By doing so, he finds a point of balance between history and fiction, between a chronology of events, a sequence of human follies, and the whim of imagination. He offers us a greater truth about the world, then and now, which is something that makes his work especially relevant to writers.
Do you have a favorite artist who works in another medium and inspires your writing?