The Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828), along with the English poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) and the French pornographer and philosopher the Marquis De Sade (1740-1816) completed the Enlightenment by showing its reverse. These very different figures with very different opinions and beliefs instinctively realised that humanity cannot bear the harsh glare of reason for too long, and that you ignore the dark irrational impulses residing within the mind at your peril.
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is No 43 of the 80 etchings that comprise the satirical series Los Caprichos. Showing the artist asleep at his work desk, he is surrounded by the creatures of the night, including owls, which from the Middle Ages symbolised folly, and bats.The full epigraph for this etching states, ‘Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.’
Goya however was fascinated by these monsters produced by the sleep of reason. From 1790 onward Goya produced one searing work after another on the subjects of the Witches Sabbath, the disasters of war, the continued presence of superstition and the horrors of the Inquisition. In his home outside Madrid in the last years of his life he produced the brilliant yet extremely disturbing murals known as the Pinturas Negras (see Painting It Black and The Dog).
The last thirty years has seen an excess of rationality, a supposed end of history as the globe embraced free markets and liberal democracy and we all bowed to the logic that quantity would bring quality of life. As Goya, De Sade and Blake showed us at the end of the eighteenth century, examples that Nietzsche and Freud followed and expanded, reason only satisfies so much before it becomes too much. At the moment we are drifting off into sleep, waiting for the monsters produced to be unleashed.