Monday 16 March 2015

Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album - Chillingly Brilliant

This exhibition was a must see for me as soon as I saw it advertised and the reviews did nothing to damped my enthusiasm.

Like most exhibitions at the Courtauld gallery it hones in on one aspect and investigates it in depth. In this case, an album (Album D) of drawings that Goya produced in the later years of his life.

The real feat of the curators is to have brought together all the pages from this book known to be in existence. The sheets come from museums far and wide who have graciously contributed their drawings to allow us a unique insight into the artist’s psyche. As you go around I recommend you take note of the names of the contributing galleries just to recognise the work that has gone in to getting them there.

The first room sets the scene effectively including prints and drawings which demonstrate Goya’s preoccupation with the occult with age and its troubles and vanities. Then in the second room we get to the real business of the exhibition, the album itself.

The masterfully executed ink drawings veer from the hauntingly horrible to the poignantly beautiful. In the first pages images of gnarled witches abound with their stooped postures, jutting chins, broken teeth and sunken malevolent eyes. Some fly through the air either tumbling down to hell with reckless abandon or swooping up by the power of their magic, others gnaw on babies or collect them to take to the great witch master. There is madness and a primal erotic and voyeuristic charge in many of the images. Figures look up each others skirts or are clinched in twisted embraces. 

Wicked Woman Goya

However in the last pages of the book, the subject matter shifts. Goya shows us aged and stooped figures leaning on sticks with toothless grins. My personal favourite drawing belongs to this category.  It is an image of an old woman dancing to the music of the castanets in her hands. She throws her left leg up in a joyful gesture seemingly carefree and with little regard to her frailty. These later drawings appear to show sympathy and care we see that the cruelty reflected in them is not a fictitious mythical and fantastical one but rather the everyday cruelties of age. 

He can no longer at the age of 98 Goya

Goya appears to answer the inevitable question of where these images came from within the series itself. After the particularly repulsive image of a witch about to tuck in to a supper of raw baby which is shown above we see an image entitled by Goya  He wakes up kicking. It shows an old man appearing to wake from a nightmare with that horrible start which we all know well. The implication is that these are images and visions drawn from Goya’s own dreams and imaginings reflecting his darkest fears and preoccupations. This is also eloquently expressed in the print below from his Capricios series in the first room entitled The sleep of reason produces Monsters.

The Sleep of Reason produces Monsters Goya

The album is roughly dated to 1819-23 coinciding with the artist’s famous Black Paintings which he painted directly on to the walls of his house in Madrid. Like these paintings it is unlikely that these drawings were intended for public consumption. Luckily for us both the paintings which were stripped from the walls and the drawings have survived the test of time. Most of the sheets even maintaining the fascinating titles that Goya gave them. Allowing us a privileged look into the head of Goya as an old man.

One of Goya's Black Paintings Two old men eating soup 

Exhibition runs until 25th May 2015. For more information and to book click here

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