Sale 19889
The Sleep of Reason: Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos
Online 8 - 23 October 2020
Literature

Delteil 80; Harris 78

‘This print marks the beginning of a new series of compositions intended mainly to excoriate the ignorance of the common people, the vices of monks and the stupidity of the great. The superstitious beliefs still widespread among the people at that time, and encouraged by monks, furnished Goya with considerable subject matter. The present print reflects the world of nightmares: Goya does not convert reason into truth, and he refrains from judging the monsters. He simply shows them, presenting the world of the night that characterizes all of the Caprichos: a reversal of the day. Alcalá Flecha offers three interpretations of this image. The first emphasizes the artist’s firm belief in the capacity of reason to ward off darkness and obscurantism, revealing the Enlightenment’s confidence in the unfading power of reason to banish human errors and vices, repelling the darkness of ignorance and error and extending and propagating the light of truth. The second views it as the expression of an esthetic principle rooted in neoclassical art criticism, which considered reason and fantasy antithetical principles that an artist had to know how to combine. In other words, the artist had to use reason to moderate excessive fantasy, which would produce only impossible monsters in its absence. Finally, the third interpretation reads it as a display of bitterness in the face of the irremediable failure of reason at a time when the Enlightenment had elevated it to such heights. In the battle between light and shadow, the latter has won; the world ordered by reason has succumbed and is now inhabited by animals that are the demonic lords of shadows.’ 1

‘A series of pen and ink drawings intended as preliminaries for the Caprichos etchings…used dream as a vehicle for satire. In the upper margin of many of these drawings he penciled the word Sueño and in the lower margin added a longer explanation of the subject.. The first Sueño plays on the dual meaning of Sueño as sleep and dream by showing a man sleeping at his desk, on which is described the proposed title for the series: ‘Universal Language Drawn and Etched by Francisco Goya; Year 1797. The caption in the lower margin explains the artist’s motive: ‘The author dreaming. His sole intent is to challenge prejudicial vulgarities and to perpetuate with this work of Caprichos the solid testimony of the truth.’ By giving ‘prejudicial vulgarities’ form, Goya would reveal to all their inherent absurdity…the sharp-eyed lynx, able to see in the dark…immediately behind the artist, owls proliferate like Alfred Hitchcock’s birds: one even stands on the desk, apparently poking the napping artist with a holder loaded with chalk – the medium Goya would use for preliminary drawings for the Caprichos created after the Sueños drawings. The image is the only one in the series of eighty etchings not to have a caption in the lower margin (instead the inscription is inscribed on the side of the desk) as if the words glow eerily – and ephemerally. Bearing the title Universal Language, the first Sueño was clearly intended as a frontispiece. In the published series, however, the self-portrait of the artist portrayed as a gentleman casting as the sidelong glance at the folly surrounding him serves as a frontispiece, while (the present composition) is placed a little more than halfway through the series. With few exceptions, the images preceding The Sleep of Reason present social satires that invite comparison with English satires of Goya’s day. Vices are enacted by caricatured types including prostitutes, crones, misers, and quacks, and when Goya departs from such characters based in reality, human foibles are enacted by asses, a traditional vehicle for satire. Although the division of the series into two parts is not hard and fast, this image might signal the turning point when fantasy (or disorder) takes over to trump reason. Exhausted by his endless task of challenging ‘prejudicial vulgarities’, the artist relinquishes control to become a medium for the communication of his dreams. As he sleeps, visions of witches, warlocks, goblins, and devils take over, often defying reason and order as they float and fly through the night sky.’ 2

1. Website of the Museo del Prado, Madrid.
2. Stepanek, S.L., Tomlinson, J., Wilson-Bareau, J., Mena Marqués, M.B., et al, Goya: Order & Disorder, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2014., pp. 248-250.

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