Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes was more than the best painter of his generation, he was a revolutionary, standing up to both the strictures of society (in the form of standing up to the corrupt church and government) and those of the art form: he constantly pushed boundaries to create something original. And nearly half a century before Van Gogh would turn his brush not to a subject but a memory, Goya explored the human subconscious in a way that most artists since have attempted to follow.
In a series of etchings called “Los Caprichos” (The Caprices), Goya delivers a collection of images detailing the various corruptions and societal ills of the day, from pedophilia to theft to superstition. They’re all remarkable, but one in particular “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” that seems to exit the outer world of degeneracy and focus on the plight of a reasonable man in such a world. The work depicts a subject asleep at his desk, beset from above by a swarm of owls and other flying creatures that seem to swooping in and out of the unconscious mind.
The etching eloquently depicts the conflicted nature of sleep in a way that very few works do. To understand more about the work and its reverberations in the fine art world, we turned out to Maya Freelon Asante, an acclaimed visual artist and one of Cosmopolitan’s 2015 “Art Stars.” Goya and dreams in general, had a resounding impact on how she approaches her work.
What has your perception of Goya’s work been as an artist since studying him in art school?
In my studies he struck me as someone who captures really beautiful moments of pain. At a lot of museums, especially when I studied abroad in Paris, I was able to see some of his paintings up close. The size of them and how detailed they are, when you see something like that up close, is stunning. He’s somebody who’s always been in my register of artists to know and remember.
What effect did “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” have on your work?
It’s interesting to me in particular because dreaming is something all humans have in common and is a theme in the work of a great deal of artists, including my own.
How do you feel specifically about Goya's dreamer in "The Sleep of Reason..."
In Goya’s piece, the person who is having the nightmare is either in the dream or it’s happening around them. Or maybe it’s some manifestation of the dream. But the owls and the creatures that lurk within that spirit realm are important to a lot of different cultures, and that connection to humanity is something we’re pulling away from in art. If you look at a painting from the 1800s or some kind of older artwork, we can see similarities and things we can still appreciate, but we can also appreciate how far away we’ve come as artists from these [older ideas] of what dreams mean, human relationships with animals, and the significance of omens.
And your art education furthered this idea of dreaming through art?
For me, I have to supplement a lot of my art history education because what I was going to learn about black female artists I had to learn concurrently on my own. It just wasn’t something that was taught—at least not taught thoroughly—at art school. I really resonate with those artists who are able to capture not only a dream in a subconscious state, or sleeping, but dreams for the future, dreams of things beyond physical grasp.
How do dreams manifest through your work?
As an African American female artist, there’s a constant state of dream—whether it’s daydreaming or real sleep dreaming—[manifesting through art.] There are dreams our mothers had, dreams of freedom, of a kind of triumph over adverse circumstances and situations.
What about nightmares like Goya’s subjects in “The Sleep of Reason…?”
Sometimes to be a black woman in a America is a nightmare. For women artists, we’re often not only objectified, but there’s a duality of fantasy and repulsion for us. So nightmares do manifest in art. When we share nightmares, we’re expressing vulnerability.