(HOST) A dramatic image depicting artistic inspiration is currently on view at the Fleming Museum in Burlington. Commentator Anne Galloway went to see it recently and was surprised to discover that she can relate to it – quite personally.
(GALLOWAY) I never know what I’m going to say when I sit down to write. I stare at the blank computer screen, waiting for words to come. Sometimes they flow in a flood, but more often than not I struggle.
And experience hasn’t helped me much with the initial panic of getting those first few words down. I often go into a stupor – a bleary eye lock with the screen, fingers mechanically pushing keys – letting the subconscious take over until the writing, usually an art review cranked out on deadline, is done.
I don’t think about my creative process much, but recently I saw an etching and aquatint by Spanish artist Francisco Goya that helped me visualize it in a new way.
In his print “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” a man, presumably Goya, sits slumped over a desk. He dozes as a swarm of bats and owls descend on him.
The artist is in a state of utter surrender as the menacing creatures take over; one of the owls even picks up his paintbrush with its beak as if it will do the work.
“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” is plate 43 of “Los Caprichos,” a large body of work of eighty etchings and aquatints by Goya. In this masterwork of the printmaking medium translated as “The Caprices,” in English, Goya uses the techniques of etching and aquatint in tandem to create highly detailed action portraits amid a wash of shadows.
“The Sleep of Reason” is a central image, marking the halfway point in his stunning series of prints.
Up to this point, Goya has played the instructive moralist, railing against the backward culture of Spain that at the end of the 18th century remains steeped in ignorance and superstition. He shows us the reprehensible activities of adulterers, prostitutes, greedy priests, and of innocent victims, particularly young girls who are abducted or married off to wealthy old men.
“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” is often interpreted as a caveat for the remaining thirty-seven prints in the show, which include Goya’s most scathing commentary on the nobility, the royals and the superstitious witchcraft of the mob.
The image is a foil for the artist that enables him to escape the wrath of the Inquisitors and the King. It’s as if Goya is saying, “You can’t hold me responsible for what you see here. Those monsters made me do it.”
Beyond the depiction of the subconscious mind at work, it’s that cowardly bit of self-protection that I identify with as an art reviewer. Only in my line of work, there is no such literary device to hide behind. Casting judgment is just part of the job. And in view of that, the struggle to find the right words is easy by comparison.
Anne Galloway reports on the visual arts for The Times Argus. The exhibit runs through May 14. Our music is “The Sleep of Reason” from the 24 Caprichos by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, performed by Lily Afshar.
Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, (Plate 43 of Los Caprichos, 1797-1799. Etching and aquatint. Courtesy of Landau Traveling Exhibitions, Los Angeles, CA.