How Goya Abandoned Superstition Through His Art
The symbolic interpretation of Los caprichos - "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters"
"Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders."
- Francisco Goya
Francisco Goya not only became famous for his incredible artistic repertoire but also for his satirical and scathing social commentary on the monarchy and Spanish Inquisition. Over the course of his long career, Goya moved from playful and lighthearted paintings to deeply pessimistic and satirical drawings, etchings, and frescoes.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, while Europe strived towards the 'Age of Enlightenment' discussing an array of ideas about liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, and separation of Church and state - Spain was still struggling under the umbrella of superstitions, witchcraft practices, religious orthodoxy, and the fanatical Spanish Inquisition.
Goya heavily criticized the social construct, traditional and religious practices targeting the clergymen, the ruling class, and general hypocrisy in the Spanish conservative society. In fact, in 1801, Goya created an oil painting of Charles IV and his family with such naturalistic strokes that it marked the departure of portraying royal figures with opulence and splendor.
In 1799, he created a series of etchings utilizing the popular technique of caricature and enriching it with artistic innovation. Los caprichos - meaning "follies" or "caprices" - is a series of 80 etchings created to abandon ignorance and emphasize the "importance of awareness" in the Age of Enlightenment. To make his cryptic drawings relevant, Goya added brief explanations of each image to a manuscript that is now present in the Prado Museum.
The series of works incorporated superstition, delusion, irrationality, and human vices including vanity, greed, and promiscuity. Goya supplemented these works with caustic and sardonic captions, augmenting the satirical effect. Among all the 80 drawings, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters became one of his famous artworks exhibiting human irrationality and excessive illogicality, without the counterbalance of reason.
In this article, I'd briefly delve into some of the plates.
The symbolic interpretation of Los caprichos
(Plate Number 2) They say yes and give their hand to the first comer - The woman gets married to an old and ugly man because he is rich. She wears a mask both on the front and back of her head as a symbol of her two-faced nature.
(Plate Number 6) Nobody knows himself - In this plate, awoman in a white dress and mask on her face is approached by apparently a young gallant man. In the background, several men with monstrous costumes ogle at the couple. Goya condemns the lack of self-awareness in the people and while deceiving others, Goya thinks, these people are deceiving themselves.
(Plate Number 12) Out hunting for teeth - is a macabre illustration showing a woman stealing a gold tooth from a corpse. Although she faces away from the corpse in feint repulsion as her hand reaches the mouth of the corpse, her extreme need or greed is portrayed.
(Plate Number 26) They've Already Got a Seat - shows the foolishness of two young ladies. These two women, blindly follow fashion up to a point where they are wearing their petticoats and upturned chairs on their heads. The onlookers are staring and mocking them.
With the title Ya tienen asiento, Goya makes a play on the Spanish word asiento which means both "seat" and "judgment," suggesting that these young ladies are thinking with their bottoms.
(Plate Number 37) Might not the pupil know more? - shows a 'donkey teacher' teaching young asses showing the image of 'A' several times - and when the alphabet is read multiple times, it would sound like a donkey braying. A donkey is symbolic of ignorance and Goya here denounces the pedagogic shortcomings through the incompetence of teachers.
(Plate Number 43) The sleep of reason produces monsters - is one of the most iconic images of Los caprichos. This image can be viewed as Goya's personal manifesto where he is asleep amidst his drawing tools and creatures like owls and bats prowl in the dark. In Spanish folklore, the owls symbolize symbols of folly and the swarming bats symbolize ignorance.
The full epigraph for Capricho Number 43 reads; "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."
Goya had a strong aversion to superstitions, and he felt, belief in fantasy with no reason would hinder society's progress; rather being imaginative with a reason produce artistic innovation.
(Plate Number 49) Hobgoblins - is a thinly veiled attack on the corruption of the Spanish Church. The grotesque figures are portrayed gorging on bread and wine. The central figure with jagged teeth and enormous hand shows the powerful grip the church had over the country's wealth.
(Plate Number 68) Pretty teacher - this was Goya's satire towards witch culture and practices. A haggard old nude woman carries a young nude woman on her broom accompanied by a night owl - a Spanish slang term for prostitute - that suggests a deeper meaning to the nocturnal scene.
The drawings were an artistic experiment: a medium for Goya's condemnation of the universal follies and ignorance prevalent in the Spanish society in which he lived. This piece of art enlightened humanity in general and became a precursor to the modernist movement a century later. In fact, some of the prints are still relevant in modern society revealing human vices including greed, folly, and prostitution.
During the time, when artists were busy pleasing their patrons, Goya transferred from being a court painter to a social critic. Goya initiated "activism in art" long before we could imagine.
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