“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. [Read more…]