The sleep of reason:♦
Goya at Penn
As Bakhtin pointed out, the grotesque is inherently subversive. It deforms the known and accepted; it posits the demonic as the ultimate expression of deformity. The Devil is impeccably dressed, but cannot hide a cloven foot.
Formal dress and deformed nudity are central to the grotesque. In Goya’s Caprichos, at Penn’s Ross Gallery through January 7, a waistcoated jackass proudly shows off the family lineage in And So Was His Grandfather, but the asses who ride the back of the poor men in You Who Cannot Do It are naked— that is, revealed in their essence as aristocratic parasites. The theme of grooming, covering and baring runs throughout the 80 etchings that comprise the series, Goya’s first great graphic album. In What a Tailor Can Do!, a girl kneels before a tree draped with a monk’s cowl, as Goya indicts idolatry, its cousin animist superstition, and clerical fraud all at once. In They Primp Themselves, one demon clips the nails of another, while a third, lifting his dark wings skyward, reveal the claws that irresistibly expose themselves. The fear associated with total concealment is the theme of Here Comes the Bogeyman, in which a completely shrouded figure confronts a woman and her terrified children. The masked figures of Nobody Knows Anybody portray a world of universal deception, in which display signifies concealment.
At the opposite extreme, the seductive exposure of female flesh expresses both the vulnerability of innocence and the snares of depravity, both of which appear as identical. The frankly naked witches, demons and warlocks who populate the series, on the other hand, reveal a truth that wears its own guise— namely that of the hideous.
Goya’s vision is deeply rooted in Spanish sensibility and culture, and particularly the moment at which Enlightenment ideals— a revival of classicism and, in particular, classicism’s most salient elements, clarity, rationality, transparency— clashed with a still-feudal and still-clerical society characterized by privilege, obscurantism, and decadence. Goya does not so much use the former to dissect the latter as each to deconstruct the other. It is in this respect that his startling novelty and modernity consists.
In the most famous image of the series, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, the monstrous figures of the artist’s imagination hover above his slumbering, elegantly clad form. Reason, he suggests, must sleep, and in this surrender of control (and its attendant vice, hypocrisy), our darkest and truest selves emerge. It’s only a step from here to Freud and the surreal; indeed, the step is perhaps a backward one, since the Caprichos express them both already. As my Broad Street Review colleague Andrew Mangravite has already written, this is a show not to be missed on its Philadelphia stop.
To read Andrew Mangravite’s review, click here.
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