18th century Spaniard sparks Yukon art debate

Goya is to the art world what Shakespeare is to the world of literature: still unbelievably popular despite being dead for centuries.

Goya is to the art world what Shakespeare is to the world of literature: still unbelievably popular despite being dead for centuries.

Francisco Goya was a court painter for the Spanish Crown during a significant time period. The Enlightenment had made its way to the Roman Catholic country, and Goya was the balsy “guy on the inside.”

He wasn’t shy about his ghoulish interpretations of the way peasants were treated by the gluttonous ruling class and his royal portraits are euphemistically described as “lacking diplomacy.”

Because of this, history has remembered Goya as part of the Enlightenment, a revolutionary of reason.

But B.C.-based art historian, Jennifer Crane isn’t so sure.

After eight years of studying art history, with Goya continuously popping up as a theme despite different topics and professors, Crane became slightly obsessed with one of the art world’s biggest obsessions.

She wanted to find out why people were still so enthralled with the guy.

So she took inspiration from one of his most famous pieces and brought it to the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse.

Crane curated an exhibit that ranges from whimsical to cartoonish to interpretive to political. It includes work by 10 different artists from across Canada and the United States.

She was expecting some chatter – all curators hope to get people talking. But Crane had no idea she’d get what was waiting for her on the Yukon’s online art forum, ArtsNet.

“Basically, I showed up and was made aware pretty quickly that there was this discussion happening that was sort of taking issue with my interpretation of the work,” she said.

That discussion ranged from thoughtful pondering to blatant accusations that she had gotten it all wrong.

The 1799 etching pictures an artist, which some speculate to be Goya himself. He has his head down on his desk. Behind him, owls clutter, morphing into bats. It is called “El sueno de la razon produce monstrous.”

“This all sort of stems from the problem of translation,” said Crane. “The word ‘sueno’ in Spanish, it translates as ‘dream’ in English. The work is commonly translated as The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters when in fact, it’s probably more accurate to title it The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters.

“So that one little word changes the meaning completely. Is it the ‘absence’ of reason that produces the monsters or is it the ‘illusion’ of reason that produces the monsters? It completely flips it.”

Crane has interpreted it as the “illusion” of reason – the less-common interpretation.

“That would imply that Goya was actually being a little bit critical of reason itself, that he wasn’t pro-enlightenment, but that he was a bit critical of the enlightenment,” she said.

Just because Goya spoke out against the ruling class did not necessarily mean he was a “soulless man of science,” said Crane.

Goya was a romantic painter. The romantics came in at the end of the enlightenment, when science was proving a formidable opponent to faith, and they reminded people about emotion, said Crane.

“My interpretation is the less-popular interpretation,” she said. “He was definitely a man of the future. He was warning about this dangerous idealism of just accepting reason for the sake of reason and maybe he was pointing out that reason is dependant on interpretation. What is reasonable?”

For her Whitehorse exhibit, Crane uses Goya’s work and her interpretation of it as a foundation.

Two years ago, she started contacting a few artists and conducting studio visits. She didn’t want the artists to specifically interpret Goya’s piece, but she did put out the exercise of “the artist as a dreamer,” she said.

She was really surprised at what came back to her, she said.

The exhibit begins with the work of New York-based Canadian Jeff Ladouceur. His six-piece series showcases a self-caricature, a recurring character in his work. It reads like a comic strip of errors as the penciled cartoon finds itself deflated, dangling and being pecked by woodpeckers. Like an episode of Spy vs. Spy, its comic nature defends against the looming depression.

Next comes the work of Montrealer Nadia Moss. Her obsession with genderless characters manifests itself in a series of chubby wrestlers and a wall infestation of earthworms.

The Yukon’s own Joseph Tisiga surprises most of his long-time fans with an extremely dark political series, complete with mind-looping titles. A mounted bear head watches a projection of a cartoon bear and is called, A Cure for Sight.

Naked women are executed above a basketball court, in a piece entitled The Island Will Not Be Sunk. A garbage bin doubles as a traditional Tlingit box in a series about the past, present and future.

The feature piece, called A Treachery of the Unknown, fills the foreground with a skull-less officer cutting the heart out of a First Nation man’s chest in front of a prison wall.”

“It’s a bit darker than where he’s gone before,” Crane said, describing Tisiga’s works as a mix between nightmare and ceremony.

Around the corner, Inuit artist Shuvinai Ashoona lightens the mood with childlike paintings of excruciating detail. Beside her work, Montreal’s Jim Holyoak, plays with Goya’s bats.

The Yukon’s Sonja Ahlers takes the gallery’s back corner with Stairway to Heavy, an installation piece of a spiraling staircase, webbed with fishing line, leading to a projection of a woman pleading with you to turn back.

New York’s David Horvitz is emailing in a “dream per day.” His corner has blank sheets tacked to the wall, which are slowly replaced by his daily emails.

Vancouver’s Jen Weih presents a video of floating objects, hoping to bring life to inanimate objects. Yukon-based Rosemary Scanlon finishes the exhibit with her fanciful water colours. The series, Shadow People of the Alaska Highway, features a long road with mountains and thin-treed forests on either side filled with characters – flying caribou, bears walking on their hind legs with owl heads for backs, an owl puppeteer, colourful moths and nearly-missed shadows lurking in the hills. She also presented a new animal series that, between the two pieces, offers a mix between religious tapestry and tarot card.

“It worked differently for almost every artist that was in the show,” Crane said of the Goya foundation. “You can experience history in different ways. It is all a matter of interpretation.”

The Sleep of Reason is at the Yukon Art Centre’s gallery until May 19.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at