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Leisure • Art/Architecture

Francisco Goya’s Masterpiece

The Spanish painter Francisco Goya is one of the outstanding artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Vicente López Portaña, Portrait of Goya, c. 1826.

Born into a middle-class family in 1746, in Fuendetodos in Aragon, he began painting young and was quickly recognised by his contemporaries for his genius. We acclaim him today for, among other works, his masterpieces, The Third of May 1808, his portrait of Charles IV and his family — as well as his series of unflinching prints, The Disasters of War.

However, his most emotionally compelling work is a print he made in 1799, titled — hauntingly and evocatively — The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.

Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, c. 1799

The title is central to the work. In case we were to miss it, it’s even etched on the desk — and sounds yet more eloquent in Spanish.

As Goya knew intimately (he’d been manic depressive since late adolescence), night is when things can become unbearable if our minds are fragile. What each of Goya’s monstrous animals really is is a thought, a thought that can assail us when we are exhausted and depleted. Often, these night-time thoughts are an internalisation of the most awful messages we’ve ever heard from other people (probably those we grew up around): you are no good, you disgust me, don’t you dare to outsmart me

— The owl with outstretched wings might be shrieking: you will never achieve anything
— The furry beaked bat might be hissing: your desires are revolting
— The lynx-like thing at the bottom looks on in judgement: I’m so disappointed in what you’ve become.

During the day, when we feel so-called monsters hovering as we talk to a colleague or have dinner with friends, we can fend the animals off with rational arguments: of course we’ve done nothing wrong. There’s no reason to keep apologising, we have the right to be. But at night, we can forget all our weapons of self-defence: why are we still alive, why haven’t we given up yet? We don’t know what to answer any more.

To survive mentally, we might need to undertake a lengthy analysis of where each animal came from, what it feeds off, what makes it go on the prowl and how it can be wrestled to submission. One beast might have been born from our father’s mouth, another from our mother’s neglect; most of them get excited when we have too much work, when we’re exhausted and when the cities we live in are at their most frenetic. And they hate early nights, nature and the love of friends.

We need to manage our monsters — each of us has our own version — with all the respect we owe to something that has the power to kill us. We need to build very strong cages out of solid kind arguments against them. At the same time, we can take comfort from the idea that the night-time monsters will get less vicious the more we can lead reasonable, serene lives. With enough gentleness and compassion, we can hope to reach a point when, even in the dead of night, as these monsters chafe at their collars and strike at their bars, we will remember enough about ourselves to be unafraid and to know that we are safe and worthy of tenderness.

Goya’s print isn’t just an evocation of night terror: it’s also pointing us — more hopefully — to how we might in time tame our monsters through love and reason.

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