In my opinion Goya is not a great artist in terms of technique: his portraits of the Spanish royal family or our own sainted Duke of Wellington are pretty flawed, are not figurative painting of the first order. His large body of work is very uneven.
What he does undoubtedly have is an extraordinary intensity of vision. This is why he is more remembered for the famous Disasters of War series than any of his ‘official’ works – they have an intensity and inwardness, a sympathy with the grotesque and horrifying, an obsession with experiences at the border and over the edge of what it means to be human which has echoed down the ages to our own violent times.
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes lived from 1746 to 1828 ie a long life, dying aged 82. Professionally, he was a great success, rising to become official Painter to the Spanish Court in 1790, aged 43.
In 1793 he suffered an unknown illness from which he recovered but which left him profoundly deaf. In his convalesence he began to paint small pictures for himself, exercises of the fantasy and invention which could find no outlet in the formal portraits he was commissioned to make. He also began to create albums of drawings, small intensely-felt images of people, which he was to keep up for the rest of his life. We know about eight of them. Rather than conventional sketchbooks which might contain quick sketches of things observed for later use, angles and aspects of the world, the albums explore thoughts, ideas, feelings and fantasies in fully-finished images.
The Witches and Old Women album was the last one he made, between 1819 and 1823, when he was aged 73 to 77. An old man. After his death, the albums were cut up and the images filed into larger books, before being sold off in job lots by his descendants and scattered to the winds.
This is the first time all known 23 images from the Witches and Old Women album have been gathered in one place; in fact, it’s the first time the complete contents of any of the eight albums have been reunited for 150 years. It is a triumph for the patience and scholarliness of the curators involved.
There are just two rooms in this small exhibition.
Room one sets the scene, using 20 or so images from other albums and sources, images of nightmare and fantasy including Goya’s greatest hit, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters from the album Los Caprichos, to give context to the Witches.
The second room contains the 22 images from the Witches album, complete with page numbers and titles written in by Goya himself – alongside another dozen or so images from other albums, and lithographs from other sources, to give ongoing context.
The Witches and Old Women album
For a start they aren’t all witches or old women, there are a number of old men too and a number of figures who could be either sex. The title was given to the images well after Goya’s death and, I think, restricts ways of responding to works which are much more varied and strange than it suggests.
A large amount of scholarship has gone into analysing the album and the individual images, evident in the notes to each image and in the exhaustive book of the exhibition. As an amateur trying to make sense of what I saw in front of me, I divided the 23 images into four groups:
- Visionary (people flying)
- Humane (the pity of old age)
- Types (stereotypical types eg the miser, the crone, the madman)
- Horror (eating babies)
For me the dynamic flying figures are best. They convey a ballet of grotesques, visions of dynamically interlinked flying human forms. Goya is great at depicting the human figure in movement and your eye is drawn to the attractive patterns and shapes of moving bodies (as in number 4, above, or number 1, below) – to their energy and strange grotesque enthusiasm.
Conversely, the more static the image is, the more it reveals Goya’s shortcomings as a draughtsman, especially as a depicter of human faces. I’d rank number 15, below, as one of the three or four ‘Horror’ images, in which babies are being taken away to be sacrificed, tortured or eaten (we know this because other images show an old woman preparing to eat a baby).
Obviously the image is gruesome and macabre – my point is that it’s also a bit cack-handed. Look at the woman(?)’s face, typical of a range of badly drawn faces throughout the exhibition.
Look at all the faces in the half dozen images in this review: they are very hit and miss, but I think they miss most often in the static images where the poses are simpler, boring almost, and therefore you look for human expression and human meaning in them, which they often don’t provide.
In one or two places the commentary on the wall labels by each image seemed to me to incongruously and inappropriately raise the issue of sex.
In one image two figures are shaking tambourines, one of them with a dark blotch in the middle, maybe string or dirt or simple damage. The commentary says: ‘The hole in the tambourine may allude to sexual penetration.’ Really?
In image 20 an old woman seems to be carrying two skinny old men entangled on her shoulders. It strikes me as another variation of Goya’s obsessive theme of poor, decrepit humanity contorted into bizarre shapes of suffering or torture. Images which are deeply personal expressions of his unknowable but obviously bleak and comfortless thoughts and feelings. The commentary surprised me with another sexual interpretation: ‘This unwieldy tower evokes a circus act but the figures’ energy may also suggest lasting sexual vitality.’ Hmm.
Similarly, number 3 is a strange image of an ugly middle-aged-looking woman playing a guitar and howling while levitating over another figure, an old woman. Strange, grotesque and – in my opinion – badly done, not one of the ‘good’ images. Anyway, the old lady on the ground is looking up and holding her nose. I would have thought this is because of the awful smell emanating from under the levitating woman’s skirts – a rare outbreak of human reality in a ‘work of art’ and quite a comic image in a Chaucerian vein.
The commentary says: ‘The object on the ground might be a bowl with a spoon, implying that the woman’s levitation is caused by magic. It could also refer to a mortar and pestle, underlining the sexual dimension of the upward gaze.’ Is that the main thing going on here?
Unless you’ve spent time caring for elderly relatives or working among the very old it is maybe difficult to grasp the misery and shame of being doubly incontinent, impotent, paralysed – the horror of being trapped in an utterly derelict, malfunctioning body.
Literary theory, certainly, and art theory, maybe, are saturated with psychological or psychoanalytical interpretations which dwell on sex, images of sex, wishes about sex, denials of sex, unconscious revelations of sex, as well as plenty of biographical scandal about the artist’s sex lives, all of which are immediate and present issues to the people in their prime who are the leading academics in these fields.
But being 70 years old in the 1820s must have meant something a lot different and a lot worse than being 70 in 2015, and Goya knew it and felt it and depicts it in these images.
No doubt there is much interesting interpretation to be written about the stereotyping of old women or about the long lineage of the way the figure of ‘the witch’ was used to define, control and demonise old women – and, from another angle, the album certainly also includes images of horror which are direct descendants of the famous Disasters of War and speak to us about man’s inhumanity to man.
But this time round, on this viewing, I was:
- delighted by the half dozen images of figures flying, falling, twisting and dancing through the air (as in Regozijo and Bajan riñendo, above), which I found uplifting
- and moved by the stoic images of poor suffering humanity, which I found humbling
Does the final plate, number 23, depict an old woman or a man? Surely it doesn’t matter. Surely the point is that it’s a deeply sympathetic image of old, old age and the burden and weight and frailty and pathos of suffering humanity. A burden more people in my generation are going to experience than any previous generation in history…
- Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album @ The Courtauld Gallery continues until 25 May
- CultureWhisper review
- Guardian review
- London Review of Books review
- Telegraph review
- Time Out review