The Courtauld Gallery, London, presents Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album. The exhibition features drawings by Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) created during the first two-and-a-half decades of the nineteenth century.
Witches and Old Women – An Exceptional Exhibition
The Courtauld exhibition is exceptional for many reasons. Goya created a number of themed albums and this exhibition brings together all twenty-two surviving drawings from one specific album, known as the Witches and Old Women Album.
The exhibition is also exceptional because of the sheer number of lenders involved, including some of the world’s most prestigious museums as well as several private collections.
Goya executed eight albums in total, lettered A through H.
From Album E, known as the Black Border Album, we see Nightmare (c. 1819-23). Goya depicts a disheveled woman sitting astride a flying bull, an image that traditionally personifies the European continent.
Goya’s drawing shows the woman entangled in her bedding, screaming in terror, with eyes bulging prominently, perhaps a reference to the turmoil in Spain immediately after the Peninsular War.
He also created a series of drawings known as Los Caprichos. As the subject matter is closely related to the witches the exhibition also features drawing such as The sleep of reason produces monsters (1797-8).
In this drawing Goya shows a man apparently sleeping peacefully as owls and bats attack from all sides. A wide-eyed lynx sits alert, and another creature looks directly at us, rather than the sleeper.
Goya has this wonderful ability of making the viewer an active participant in the scene – are these monsters threatening us?
Life-threatening Illness Brings Change of Direction for Goya
In 1793, at the age of 47 years Goya was well established as a Court Painter. Following a severe illness, he took leave from his duties to recuperate in Seville. Whilst recovering, he suffered another very severe life-threatening illness from which he recovered, but which left him completely and permanently deaf.
Goya returned to Madrid later that year. He continued his work for the royal court, immortalizing the great and good of Spain, but also began drawing increasingly for his own pleasure. Goya drew a series of small-sized pictures to prove to himself and a circle of friends and collectors that neither his illness nor his deafness diminished his powers of creativity.
His subject matter ranges from the humorous and downright satirical to the fantastic, diabolical, grotesque and sinister. Goya shows the complexities of human nature, examining our dreams, nightmares, superstitions and mortality.
Goya focused these drawings in a very striking way, usually placing just one or two figures on the page. Other than a comment at the foot of the page he gives no setting or narrative. Just occasionally he adds an architectural feature. He takes the viewer’s attention directly to the expressive figures and their gestures and expressions.
The Albums Were Dismantled After his Death
Goya produced eight albums in total, containing some 550 drawings. After his death in 1828, his son dismantled the albums, keeping all the drawings in three large volumes.
When Goya’s grandson inherited the estate in 1854, the Spanish state bought some drawings and others were split between a group of friends. These included the artist and museum director Federico de Madrazo who retained a fair number, dividing them into three groups, comprising a mixture of album pages.
He sold two albums at auction in 1877 and gave one to his grandson, Mariano Fortuny. That album, containing fifty drawings was shown in Paris in 1935, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art later acquired it. The empty album shown is one of the three albums created by Federico de Madrazo.
What Was the Nature of the Albums?
It’s important to understand the nature of those albums. Dr Ernst Vegelin, speaking at the Courtauld Gallery in February 2015, tells us the albums are not little sketch books or books in which Goya was planning or preparing compositions.
They are not records of what he saw while he was walking around in the countryside or the city. They are best described as records of what he thought, of his ideas, his imagination, his fantasy, his inventions. Fundamentally private, they were never intended for publication or for scrutiny by the wider public. He drew for his own private enjoyment, and possibly for discussion among friends.
He gave no titles to the albums, simply numbering them A through to H. The Witches and Old Women Album is a title used by modern scholars to refer to these groups of drawings and to characterize their subject matter.
Goya’s Fascination with Witchcraft
Witches and Old Women reconstructs Album D and explores themes such as old age, madness, witchcraft, dreams and human folly. The idea of witches was something that particularly interested Goya a great deal. That doesn’t mean he believed in witches and women flying around on broomsticks. It’s much more subtle than that.
He was probably more interested in the hold that witchcraft had on the popular imagination. For Goya, witchcraft was a metaphor for the perversion of normal human behaviour. Witchcraft occupied a grey area between fantasy and reality from whence his inspiration came.
An Interview with Co-Curator Juliet Wilson-Bareau
The curators of the exhibition are Juliet Wilson-Bareau, a leading authority on Goya, and Stephanie Buck, Martin Halusa Curator of Drawings at The Courtauld Gallery.
Juliet Wilson-Bareau spoke exclusively to Decoded Arts about the exhibition.
Decoded Arts: You’ve had to work with a number of museums and several private collectors. How difficult was that?
Juliet Wilson-Bareau: Well… I already knew most of them. Most of them are museums and I knew the few private collectors that were involved. It was a joy to work with them.
The Courtauld sent out loan letters saying what we wanted to bring together this single album, something that had never been done before. People were convinced by the idea and they wanted to lend. They thought it would be wonderful, enlightening and useful to have this thing put together. We didn’t just say to lenders that we wanted to just stick the pages up on the wall. We wanted to investigate them. For Album D, we looked at every single sheet. We made a very, very acute analysis of the front, and the back of the sheets, so we were able to get them into the right order.
Decoded Arts: How did Goya’s illness influence his work?
Juliet Wilson-Bareau: I always say he didn’t really change. What happened was, by the time he got ill, he had already decided he didn’t want to go on painting tapestry cartoons – decorative paintings that were going to be translated into tapestry for the royal apartments in the palaces. That didn’t interest him – that was decorative art, it wasn’t great art. So he was trying to push away from that and really become an artist in his own right.
He was smitten by the illness which left him totally deaf and convalescent for quite a long period. My guess is that during that period, when he was so weak and nearly died, someone gave him a notebook. He started drawing and got bitten by the bug. He realised that he could actually say whatever he wanted to say in these notebooks.
Decoded Arts: Do you think he planned his drawings as a series?
Juliet Wilson-Bareau: Yes, he was a man who thought in series. In a sense, those tapestry cartoons were always a series, created for a particular room: the theme of the four seasons, or a theme of something else. He was always thinking in groups and series, and things that made sense one with another. In a way, what happened when he became ill, was that he got into the habit of making these images for himself, not just for commissioned works, and that’s where it went on from.
Decoded Arts: What is your favourite item, and why?
Juliet Wilson-Bareau: In a way, they are all favourite drawings in different ways, but the one that I find extraordinarily striking is called Mirth. The energy that is in the two figures is quite extraordinarily. The two figures are leaping into the sky, but look at the turn of that foot, or the kick of the other foot. He just produces a kind of jet engine energy, and there they are clicking their castanets and floating up in the sky. It’s completely wonderful and crazy. It’s just a marvellous composition on that totally blank page. That’s just one of my favourites, but there are many more.
Goya – A Man of the Enlightenment
According to Patricia Fride-Carrassat in Great Painters (Chambers Arts Library) Goya was a ″man of the Enlightenment, a modern, humane, impulsive ‘visionary’ who rebelled against convention.″ The drawings on show at the Courtauld certainly seem to confirm and expand this view.
Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album is on show at the Courtauld Gallery from 26th February to 25th May 2015.