“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.