Exorcising Demons

“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her (reason), she (fantasy) is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”

Museo del Prado epigraph of etching no. 43 “The Sleep of Reason”

Los Caprichos Series by Francisco de Goya

            The Artist has a crucial role in society he finds himself in. More than portraying his physical environment so it may be preserved and studied throughout generations; more than expressing his emotions or simply making “Art for Art’s sake.” the artist has also the civil duty of representing the metaphysical reality of his socio-cultural environment, so that Art can serve as a mirror reflecting the current moral standards of a given society and others may ponder upon them.

The etchings series Los Caprichos (The Caprices) by the Spanish neoclassical artist Francisco de Goya y Lucientes served as the first of many series of artworks funded by the artist himself and published in the main newspaper of Madrid, El Diario de Madrid. Goya being a neoclassical man who praised reason above all faculties of human nature, published his etchings as a way of presenting to the nineteenth century Spanish society his views on its moral depravity.

When we ask ourselves “why does an artist produce the works he does?” we are asking this as a way of gaining a better understanding of the artwork itself. Goya, being a man who praised reason above all, could have found himself tormented by  he despicable acts immorality he witnessed in his society and hence produced his etchings to both exorcise himself from the torment brought to him by the moral decay of the Spanish nineteenth century society, product of human beings allowing themselves to be possessed by their inner demons.

The Etching no. 43 from the Series Los Caprichos by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, found at El Museo del Prado, is often regarded as the etching entrapping Goya’s main motive for producing the entire series; suggesting the dangers and benefits of our imagination. Goya writes on the illustration “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos.” (The sleep of reason produces monsters). In the illustration he depicts a man (possibly Goya himself) sleeping on a desk with open books, this, serving as a way of illustrating his first premise of “The sleep of reason”. Behind the man we see near him owls, animals often related to wisdom and knowledge, and therefore emphasize the motive of reason; however we see that as the figures distance themselves out of the frontal plane and into the background they turn into bat-like monstrous and terrifying figures. Goya perhaps implying (as it is said in the epigraph of the etching at Museo del Prado) that imagination, which comes from when reason is asleep, can be beneficial but the longer the sleep of the reason is, the more this once beneficial ideas (the owls) may turn into detrimental, demonized, crazed ideas (The bats).

But, can these already crazed ideas, cause by the sleep of reason, be also mothers of great Art? During the mid 20th century with the emergence of psychoanalysis, and psychotherapy Art began to be employed by therapists as a method of communication between them and their patient’s psyche. Today, we see Art Therapy as a branch of mental health professions in which the artworks are viewed from a clinical perspective. However, Art is in itself therapeutic and we see artist such as Vincent Van Gogh interned several times at psychiatric facilities; creating artworks not for a clinical purpose but to both self-express and tame the tormenting thoughts in his mind. Needless to say Van Gogh is one of the main post-impressionist artist of the 20th century, and had successfully joined the list of the many great artists in the history of Art.

Could it be that the monsters Goya was warning us of in his etching no. 43 in Los Caprichos be the mother of great art works as well? Would have Vincent Van Gogh’s artworks had the same impact in the art world, had he tamed them with reason? We all have demons tormenting our minds every so often, which at times escape our ability to rationalize through them. When this happens, when our demons escape from the hands of our reason, it is up to us to find healthy methods of exorcising ourselves from them. Some use exercising, reading, walks on the beach, or journaling; but may I also suggest Art? While it is true that not everyone can be a great artist, a great artist can come from anywhere, and who knows, maybe the next Goya or Van Gogh of our times could be you.

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Demons according to Goya

“May the people, recognizing itself in its misery, learn to blush at its cowardice and to hate its tyrants; may the aristocracy, exposed in its fat and obscene nakedness, receive, on each of its muscles the flagellation of its parasitism, its insolence, and its corruption.”

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

          Though the nineteenth century French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon directed his commentary favoring the works of the French painter Gustave Courbet and his praise of realistic subject matters and the moralizing role it played on its observers, this dismissal of neoclassical tradition which sought to engage in its didactic duties through mythological or literary subjects, making the message rather distant and vague to the audience, in exchange of facing the viewers with the crudest and grimmest reality of themselves can be attributed to no one more than the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. Goya’s works succeed in bridging two traditions that seemingly appear to be on opposite sides of the artistic spectrum, this is done by having the praise for reason characteristic of Neoclassicism come to life through nightmare-like and fantastic subject matters. As a result, Goya succeeds in providing us a dystopian outlook of what happens when we fail to tame our monstrous inner demons through rationality.

During 1799, Goya’s respected position as First Court Painter led Goya to feel confident in venturing in printmaking, the production of the prints were both financed and marketed by him. His first series of Prints Los Caprichos was advertised in the main Newspaper of Madrid, El Diario de Madrid, where he described the prints as a series of scenes, errors and vices of every civil society which seemed the most appropriate to be ridiculed. This ridicule of the errors in the Spanish society or satirical social criticism was not new to the Spanish people, for British prints were already distributed throughout Europe. They were introduced in Britain artists William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray; Goya simply adopted the ideas and motifs to those encountered in every day Spanish life. Though the Prints didn’t generate a generous income, it was more about Goya establishing his independence and his own voice and style as an artist.

Goya’s prints utilized a technique known as Etching, which next to engraving it is the most commonly used method employed in print making. Professional printmakers usually practiced engraving, but etching on the other hand was the method that caught the attention of many well-known artists aside from Goya, including some Tiepolo and Piranesi during the seventeenth century. Throughout the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, etching techniques became for sophisticated with the invention of the aquatint. In this process, soluble granules are mixed in the ground in a way that the acid is able to create a finely pitted surface; this technique was mastered by Goya and hence employed in the production of his prints.

The series Los Caprichos consists in a group of around 80 prints depicting the social decay of Spanish society. The first 40 prints of the series seek to provide a straightforward representation of what Goya believes are the illnesses Spanish Society encounters. The second group of the prints makes use of nightmare scenery and subject matter as an alternative way of showing the social decay Goya strives to emphasize in his prints. Understanding the socio historical context of Goya and his motives in the production of his print series Los Caprichos, paves way to further discuss the artwork featured above:

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes’ print No.66 “Allá va eso” (there it goes) from the series Los Caprichos first published in 1799, temporarily exhibited at Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts a gift by William and Dorothy Walmsley; was witnessed first handed on November 15, 2015. When analyzing the subject matter of the print it is important to remember that print No. 66 belongs to the second group of prints within the series that utilize dark creatures such as witches, goblins, demons, and bats for the purpose of Goya’s satirical criticism. To further understand the subject matter its important to compare the print to a similar one that can expand or clarify the creative process of the artist. This work brings to mind Goya’s print from Los Caprichos No. 68 “Linda Maestra!” (A fine teacher) in which one views a witch teaching a young lady how to fly on a broomstick, bringing to the viewer’s attention to Goya’s commentary on bad examples. Almost suggesting that following the teachings and lessons of the old, ugly witch will evidently lead the young lady to a similar path. The same can be said of the Print No. 66 “Allá va eso” where just like in “Linda Maestra!” we evidence an old witch teaching a young girl how to fly on a broomstick. There is a main difference between both prints can only be explained by analyzing the composition. Goya unlike in print no. 68, does not show the figures separately in fact, he places them in such a way that one appears to be part or an extension of the other; also the young lady has her eyes shut into the action, it is only the old witch the one aware of the environment.

Based on this it can be argued that while the old witch is a bad example it is up to the blind judgment of the young girl to follow her example, and when viewing the bat wings that stem from the young lady’s back, in a way they emphasize the idea that it is indeed the young girl listening and acting upon the bad example of the old witch was truly enables them to have the wings to fly. When relating the title to the main action of the print it is important to think that Goya does not refer to them as individuals or even separate beings, but rather as one conjoined, deformed monstrous thing seen from a far, and that might perhaps be best to see it from a distance – “There it goes”. Goya manages to place the town in the background suggesting the women are flying in the outskirts of the city. Their monstrosity leads them to be casted outside of civil society. The figures are placed directly in the mid-section of the picture plane to emphasize its importance and message. High contrasts and great detailing in the bodies add to the grotesque and unpleasant display of their bodies.

When thinking of modern Spanish art it is impossible not to bring Goya’s works into mind, even though he was not the only recognized painter at the time. Nevertheless, Goya managed to cast under the high contrast shadows of his paintings, most of his contemporaries. Goya’s works continue to serve as poignant reminders of human nature and in his works we can evidence the tragic ending of a man born in a world that praised reason, and to die in a world of decay, irrationality and chaos, leaving behind nothing but the cruelest most grim portrayal of the reality of the depravity our human nature is capable of in his artworks. As the 19th century philosopher, Pierre-joseph Proudhon would have mentioned and agreed: Let us recognize ourselves in our misery and learn to blush at our cowardice.