Towards the end of Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album, there is a drawing of a poor old woman, confused and terrified, legs up in the air, tumbling down a flight of stairs. The title of this work is Showing off? Remember your age. Goya was a funny man.
One of the things that makes Goya such a fascinating artist – and an influence to so many – is the access we have to the man’s own visions, obsessions and passions, not just through his paintings for the Spanish court, but through works he made only for himself and his small circle of friends.
Besides the slightly famous Black Paintings he made as decoration for his house, Goya, deaf and well into the second half of his career, also produced eight albums of drawings in which he explored the themes that struck him the hardest: dreams and nightmares, the macabre, madness, witchcraft, and old age. After his death, these albums were broken up and the pages scattered all over the world.
Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album, at the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House, brings together, for the first time since they were separated, the 22 pages of one of those albums. The drawings, all of them in brush and black (and sometimes grey) ink, show us an old master creating in total, unrestrained freedom, fixated on the superstitious, on sleep and dreams, and on the folly of human nature as we grow older and our body begins to crumble and our mind to fade away.
And so figures contort, falling through the empty space, pulling at each other’s hair or flying in dark, lustful extasy. An hideous old hag, carries a bundle of babies on her back and smiles a toothless smile that says “I did good today”. A decrepit witch, wicked woman, clutches a fat baby in her arms. A plate, spoon, and wine glass sit on the floor, next to her…
In some of the drawings, though, it’s as if Goya is like some sort of empathetic alien observer, walking the streets of Spain, during the tumultuous years following the Peninsular War, recording the bizarre behaviour of these so called human beings: The mad man in the fool’s hat, shouting from behind a railing, as if he’s preaching. The two very undignified old crones wrestling one another, God knows why, or, one of my personal favourites, the ever hopeful elderly woman dreaming of a marriage that will never happen. The drawings are frequently grotesque, oftentimes hilarious, and always brilliantly executed (of course), with powerful washes of black and grey adrift on white, or the most subtle hairs of ink, bringing these mad creatures to life in all its disturbing, terrifying, and moving glory.
This exhibition is a rare opportunity to see all these works under the same roof, as it was possible only through the cooperation of over several museums and private collectors. From New York, Boston, Los Angeles to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Paris, Berlin, and yes, Madrid too, all these instituitions worked together to not only study, organize and reunite the surviving pages of The Witches and Old Women Album, but also to bring some related drawings from the Black Border Album, as well as a few prints from the famous Caprichos volume, like the iconic The sleep of reason produces monsters. So do yourself a favour, if you haven’t already, stop procrastinating and make your way to the Somerset House.
Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album will be at the Courtauld Gallery, London, until the 25th of May.
Left: Just can’t go on at the age of 98, c. 1819-2. Brush and black and grey ink (233 x 145 mm). Los Ángeles, J. Paul Getty Museum.
Right: Showing off? Remember your age. Brush and black ink with scraping. 266 x186 mm. Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett.
Full info about the exhibition: http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/exhibitions/2015/Goya/index.shtml