Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album

The Courtauld Gallery

26 February – 25 May 2015

Anyone fortunate enough to visit the exhibition of some of Goya’s lesserknown
drawings at the Courtauld this spring will surely endorse the following
succinct statement by Charles Baudelaire: ‘Goya is always a great artist
and often a terrifying one.’ Goya’s name is synonymous with the dark stuff,
as if the artist, ever alert to the rich diversity of nightmarish imagery, consistently
plucks another morbid delicacy from an imaginative netherworld
inhabited by witches, phantoms, horrifying cripples and the leering insane.
Whenever I return to Goya after a long absence, I am struck once more
by the sense of an artist harnessed to an overwhelming expressive necessity,
which, despite consistently questioning the complacent morality of his
times, refuses to submit to the confines of the era. Goya is an artist organically
driven to depict what he sees in both reality and the imagination, as
both shift against each other and overlap, creating an indefinable prophetic
energy. Goya’s oeuvre crucially straddles the late-eighteenth and earlynineteenth
centuries, with one foot firmly in each of these very different
camps, but seems always poised for forward movement. In this vigorously
progressive stance, Goya reminds me of the inexplicably neglected Belgian
poet Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916) who moves from the fin de siècle latenineteenth
century to the burgeoning expressionism of the twentieth, to
become the most internationally significant poet in the French language in
the decade before the First World War.

Recently, the Pinacothèque gallery in Paris showed the Caprichos, all
eighty of them, alongside the notoriously disturbing Disasters of War.
There were few visitors since there were no famous paintings to draw the
crowds. But when I left exhausted and seared by the unstoppable lava flow
of horror-encrusted impressions, ears still ringing with the unhinged laughter
that announces Goya’s timeless human asylum, I felt as if all that had
come after this extraordinary artist was superfluous, and I felt this again
when I left the Courtauld last Friday. In his earlier prints and drawings,
Goya seems to prove the case for being dubbed a Spanish Rembrandt. As
Goya scholar Pierre Gassier confirms, ‘In the expressive drawing of faces
and hands, Goya has reached a plane of greatness comparable with Rembrandt
– a Rembrandt hauled away from biblical Palestine to the vivid everyday
of nineteenth century Spain.’ But in these intimate late drawings,
we see a different Goya, one with a less realistic, looser kind of detailing,
brushstrokes performed as it were on the run, with a sparseness, swiftness
and immediacy that gestures forward to the likes of Van Gogh and Munch.

The Courtauld, under the tutelage of Goya expert Juliet Wilson-Bareau,
has assembled all the twenty two brush and ink drawings which make up
Album D, known as the ‘Witches and Old Women’ album, made between
1819 and 1823. Goya’s prints and drawings were collected in albums coded
alphabetically A to H and Album D comes from the late period, almost
three decades after he was rendered deaf by a serious illness. It was from
this date in 1792 that Goya’s work began to take on a more visibly tortured
aspect and the depictions of witches, outlandish creatures and grotesque
scenes culled from the darker recesses of the imagination pervaded his
work. These ‘visions’ peppered with sardonic humour and irony were concluded
by the intensely morbid ‘black paintings’ which famously adorned
Goya’s house and are now exhibited in the Prado together with the mysterious
and fantastical print series known as the Disparates or Proverbios,
1815-23. But where the latter used aquatint and etching to great effect, creating
tension and unease through the directly contrasting effects of shadow
and light, a technique perfected in the Disasters of War, in the Album D
drawings Goya favours a simple grey wash, the white of the page and gradations
of dark ink to articulate features and garments. True to form, each
drawing is accompanied by a caption in black chalk, often just a word or
two, less elaborate and accusing than those in the Disasters of War.

The exhibition includes works from other collections, namely the Inquisi
tion and Madrid albums, and the Caprichos, works that prefigure those of
Album D or resonate with its themes. Of course, ‘The sleep of reason produces
monsters’ from 1797 is here as necessary ringmaster for the ensuing
circus, and the witches take their cue in ‘Pretty Teacher!’ from the Caprichos,
where two naked witches are riding on a broomstick, the old hag in
front with her pupil behind. The grotesque and the erotic, the implausible
and the plausible intersect here as in so many of Goya’s mischievous images,
where contrast, originality and surprise are everything.

The theme of rising and falling, of figures defying gravity, is prevalent
in Album D. In ‘They descend quarrelling’, old women cartwheel down
through space, clutching at each other’s hair as if in the midst of a cat
fight. Yet the theme emerges earlier in the Caprichos, with ‘To rise and fall’
where a monstrous muscular satyr holds a slim well-dressed grinning man
by his legs, as all appear to plunge downwards. One of the most brutally
stark, disturbing and ‘modern’ images here, ‘These witches will tell’, shows
a naked, half-emaciated witch suspended on a white background, bestially
absorbed in consuming a writhing bushel of snakes that darken her drawnup
knees. Her black hair is on end, as if combed upwards by some blast
of air, underpinning the sense of irrationality and horror. Incredibly, this
tortured face visibly recalls those anguished self-portraits painted by Egon
Schiele, which recently filled these very rooms. This drawing echoes what
is perhaps the most terrifying image in Album D, ‘Unholy Union’, where
a strident witch resembling an ageing prostitute carries off an unfortunate
soul above her head, arms and legs bound with serpents. The limp victim’s
ghoulish horror-struck face is brilliantly executed with a handful of strokes
of grey wash against the white background. Has a look of abject human
terror been more convincingly rendered in art? Here, Goya’s imaginative
genius has somehow alighted upon the most devastating allegory for the
endless procession through history of such diabolical pairings of victim
and executioner. In ‘Wicked woman’ and ‘Dream of a good witch’, babies
are featured as mere plunder and food for witches. In the latter, a contented
crone bent with age, leaning on her stick, travels on her way. The scene
would be normal if it were not for the fact she has a booty of trussed babes
tied to a stick on her back, like so much game. The ‘Wicked woman’ shows

another crone kneeling on the ground with plates and bowls ready, holding

up a struggling baby which she is about to devour. In one of several images

entitled ‘Nightmare’, we see a man falling headlong arms outstretched, a
fleshy leg laid bare as his gown falls away. This image recalls a scene from
the Disasters of War, where a murdered family spills from a house destroyed
by cannon, like so much human detritus, a configuration which the
German artist Otto Dix later borrowed for one of his war etchings, ‘House
destroyed by bombs’ of 1924.

Other less overtly sinister drawings show prone figures of indeterminate
age and sex struggling with the indignities of the human body, such as
snoring. In ‘I can hear snoring’, Goya shows a man on his back almost
convulsing, caught in the act of a rasping snore. In ‘He wakes up kicking’,
a wizened old bald man is caught in the moment of coming awake, kicking
out in confusion. The helplessness of the subject’s involuntary movement
is brilliantly transmitted and the detail in the almost shrunken screwed up
face quite exceptional. We may simply never know what Goya means when
he shows an old crone carrying a pair of skeletal men on her shoulders, one
of whom seems delighted to be there. Is it, as the catalogue writers suggest,
a satire on the theme of Hercules and Antaeus or an allegory of sexual
vitality, or is it merely a circus performance Goya witnessed or none of the
above? Each of Goya’s drawings teases us with multiple interpretations
and it is perhaps wiser not to fight for meaning, but to allow oneself to enter
into these visions leaving one’s need for rational consequence aside for a
moment. The cryptic and unsettling vision of ‘Madness’, where a portly
old man wearing a fool’s hat, a kind of Lear figure, stands in mid-harangue
behind the rails of a ‘garde-fou’, arms desperately outstretched, imploring
the viewer to hear him, is a case in point. Somehow, Goya seems to have
prophetically gestured forward to the era of dictators in the thirties, where
over-expressive despots fulminated from such a podium. It is as if the railings
both prevent the deranged figure from escaping into the unseen audience,
whilst at the same time they elevate him to some superior status of
his own deluded design.

The final image in the series, one of the most impressively executed, enti126
tled ‘Just can’t go on at the age of 98’, is surprisingly explicit. Across the
white wasteland of the page an old man, bent over on two sticks, inches
forwards. He has nothing but his own shadow for company, and even this
has no human shape, but is just a vague block of shade signalling a presence.
This work must rank as one of the most moving depictions of old
age in art, you can almost feel the struggle of the man as he pours all his
remaining will into the next step, leaning on those gnarled sticks which if
removed would spell the end. The robe of the man, possibly a monk, shows
a gradation of ink in three stages from dark at the top to light lower down,
and the bald dome of the head seems to take the full force of the light. But
is he blessed or burned? The figure is an expression of ultimate loneliness
before death, the sense of isolation enhanced by setting the aged being in a
void, where nothing is shown to indicate where he has come from or where
he is going. The old man is merely adrift as we all are, Goya seems to
be saying, moving forward irresistibly but mechanically between life and
death; the perceived points of anchorage in religion, family, social status,
sexual prowess, marriage are vain illusions, but necessary ones.



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