Lake City has a plan. It’s an ambitious, art-centered agenda that has already yielded impressive benefits to art lovers across the Southeast. The two-year-old ArtFields Art Festival and Competition is an example. The annual event will return, much-expanded, in 2015.
The city’s efforts are ongoing, and development plans aren’t limited to a single annual event. Case in point, the Jones-Carter Gallery. It opened in 2013, coinciding with the inaugural Artfields, and since then it has hosted a good number of festival artworks in its spacious interior. Now, after two years working to realize their most recent project, Jones-Carter is hosting Francisco Goya: Los Caprichos.
Los Caprichos (The Caprices) — a set of 80 prints — is among Goya’s most influential work. Along with a later series of etchings called Disasters of War (1810-20), Los Caprichos has led many critics to name the 18th-century Spanish painter the first truly “modern” artist for Goya’s ability to not just render reality but actively comment upon it. Both series explore not only human nature but also the broad sweep of that humanity expressed as society’s impulses. Neither comes off very well once Goya has at them with his acid intellect. For some, Los Caprichos and Disasters of War have been interpreted as satire but even that somehow falls short.
Two centuries after their completion, these etchings and aquatints remain a subject of debate and speculation. The often confounding images with bizarre titles like “Out Hunting for Teeth” have achieved a level of devoted study that has continued to fuel masters’ theses and inspire contemporary artists. (The Jones-Carter exhibition also features a selection of contemporary works based on Caprichos.)
Long before the Surrealists began digging around their subconscious boneyards like tourists feverishly snapping pictures of everything in sight, Goya pressed into service his own carefully curated dreamlike images to explore the foibles of Spanish society with Los Caprichos. The topics on which he trains his eye are love and marriage, wealth and excess, justice and poverty. If all the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare would have it, then Goya looks at the world around him and sees goblins, witches, mules, monks, and devils populating the wings.
Anyone who’s ever awakened sweat-soaked and gasping from a nightmare understands both the dramatic power of that little mental theater and how it periodically throws open its doors to some truly disturbing images. Likewise, those wild flights of imagination, the dazzling, made-to-order fantasies, leave Hollywood blockbusters in the dust. Pop psychology tells us that hidden in the riddles of our subconscious playhouse, there’s a treasure-trove of insight. Art critics like Goya biographer Robert Hughes argue that only a few artists have shared those insights as boldly as Goya did with this groundbreaking work.
Among the most famous images in the series is No. 43, entitled “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” Here, the artist is asleep at his working desk surrounded by a flock of menacing bats and owls and supernatural creatures. Goya provided an epigraph to this (as he did to all etchings) which sums up the spirit of the series. “Fantasy abandoned by reason,” Goya says, “produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.” All of the Caprichos express the balance of reason and fantasy. “Can no one untie us?” (No. 75) shows a husband and wife bound together to a leafless tree while being tormented by a huge owl. The image is both Goya’s comment on the dreadful outcomes of arranged marriages, as well as an indictment of the fact that many of the presumed victims of these arrangements agreed to them for financial gain. The drama of Goya’s fantastic rendering underscores a perfectly reasonable moral judgement.
In his own time, Los Caprichos was taken rather more literally, arousing suspicions that in these images Goya might be poking nasty fun at specific members of the Spanish court. Goya was not foolish enough to leave that possibility entirely open. In fact, he may have been responsible for one of the very first “any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental” legal disclaimers attached to a work of art. Goya’s disclaimer read, “In none of the compositions which form part of this collection has the author proposed to ridicule the particular defects of any one individual.” Right.
The images are sometimes grotesque, unflinching in their depictions of corruption, folly, and ignorance. Viewed together in this exhibition, they are also haunting. That they continue to speak to us, fascinate us with their candor and fanciful invention perhaps reveals an awkward constant in human nature. We are as foolish as our forebears, still making all this up as we go along. Los Caprichos merely reminds us that we might do better. Artists are rarely so bold these days.
This complete, beautifully-preserved edition of etchings has toured the U.S. since 2005. After Lake City, there’s only one more national exhibit scheduled, after which it’s back home to Madrid’s El Prado Museum. Consider it a don’t miss.