Goya’s ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ (1799)

Goya’s full motto for his etching is:

‘Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of her wonders’.

It would appear the etching highlights the value of rational thought and reflection. Without this process there is no correction of thought or elimination of bad elements in our practices.

In the words of Foucault (1990, p.9)

…..what is philosophy today […] if it is not the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself? In what does it consist, if not in the endeavor to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known……

Similarly, Kearney (2003) suggests two different meanings based on the dream/sleep debate. Firstly, ‘reason must govern the imagination’, it must be watchful, otherwise the ‘forces of darkness’, will be ‘unleashed on humanity’. Alternatively, a more romantic approach is that the ‘rationalist dreams’promoted by the ‘Enlightenment’ are just as capable of producing their own ‘monstrous aberrations’.

A visionary work he linked it to the art of Blake’s Tiepolo. A piece from early in his career, it is said to be a critisism of human errors and vices (Ascarelli 2007). The meaning behind it is difficult as much of the subjects in Goya’s works are often obscure and interpretation is purposely difficult.

However, Professor Blackburn (1999) discusses its meaning in his book Think. He suggests that Goya believed that many of the ‘follies of mankind resulted from the sleep of reason’ (Blackburn 1999, p. 10). In other words, when we omit critical thinking or analysis of beliefs or ideas, our perceptions are often distorted. He suggests that ‘convictions are infectious’ (Blackburn 1999, p. 11) therefore, we must be alert to this. He proposes that we reflect regularly on our beliefs and ideas to question whether our perspectives on a situation are either correct or misguided.

The “monsters” are bats and owls flying around Goya in his dream. Robert Hughes (2003) suggests the owls do not represent wisdom; but rather ‘the stereotype of mindless stupidity’, which apparently was how owls were seen in Spanish folklore in Goya’s time. Similarly, he suggests the bats are ‘creatures of night, and thus of ignorance-and possibly of bloodsucking evil as well, in their association with the devil’. These animals are balanced by the watchful lynx, a creature, it was believed, that ‘could see through the thickest darkness and immediately tell truth from error’ (Hughes cited in Uglow 2003, p.1). The dozing intellectual is seen as Goya himself with the owl offering him an artist’s chalk.

Information taken from:http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_meaning_behind_Goya’s_sleep_of_reason_creates_monsters

This image could be compared to the image I photoshopped of the man with a Cine Camera for a head which I realise is my self portrait. I have spent most my life plagued by anxiety and deep thought and for me Goya’s image evokes that feeling of loneliness and torment. Reflection can lead to knowledege but equally in excess can cause misery.


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