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Drawing on our fears: Timothy Hyman RA on Goya

Published 11 March 2015

Timothy Hyman RA ponders the dark and visionary nature of Goya’s drawings, as an entire album of his sheets come together in a rare reunion.

  • From the Spring 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    There hangs over all Goya’s imagery of the supernatural – the witches’ Sabbaths, floating figures, wraith-filled limbos – a question of interpretation: should we see them as Dream, or as Satire? In his mid-70s, Goya made a sequence of brush drawings in a bound volume (now known as ‘Album D’, or the ‘Witches and Old Women Album’) long since dispersed to public and private collections all over the world. But this spring all 22 of the surviving drawings are reassembled at the Courtauld Gallery, together with related sheets from the other albums, as well as several of his greatest etchings and lithographs.

    Album D, with its drawings now dated to around 1819-1823, arrives just after Deanna Petherbridge’s fascinating survey at the British Museum, ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’. What is striking is how little of the lurid, often pornographic, witch imagery by artists such as Jacques de Gheyn and Salvator Rosa was taken up by Goya. His witches are sordid rather than exotic, heavily clothed rather than naked. The Courtauld’s own sheet, Singing and Dancing, shows an old woman levitating and bawling out a song to her guitar, while below, her masked companion gazes up into her petticoats – and holds her nose.

    A page from the Art Institute of Chicago, Dream of Flogging, has three witches in mid-air hauling up a male figure, pulling back his nightshirt to bare his pale bottom for beating. A drawing now in the Met (originally inscribed Vision, but retitled Nightmare, below) presents an old woman bent beneath the weight of two unruly old men balanced crazily on her shoulders.

  • Francisco de Goya, Nightmare

    Francisco de Goya, Nightmare, c.1819–23.

    Metropolitan Museum of Art.

  • While each of these could be understood as comical carnival fantasy, a further Nightmare (recently rediscovered in Marseilles) has an upside-down figure, fists clenched, falling headlong into the void. As in so many of these drawings, the placing within the page is extremely telling, the shapes intensified by Goya’s scraping into the white paper. If the wash- and-ink comes out of 18th-century Venice, spiced with English caricature, the draughtsman who comes most to mind is Rembrandt – as in the dark, powerful figure in Covetous Old Hag, bent over her money bags. In all of these images, only the cadaverous Wicked Woman – hooded, teeth bared, about to take a mouthful out of a struggling infant – seems truly horrific, until we recall that Goya in these same years decorated his own dining-room with Saturn Devouring His Son.

    Like much of Goya’s later work, his albums remained little-known far into the 20th century; this is the first time any has been shown complete and in its original sequence. Curator Juliet Wilson-Bareau has given much of her life to Goya, and also curated the Hayward Gallery’s Goya: Drawings from His Private Albums (2001), which included seven sheets from Album D. In the later 20th century, reacting against the romantic legend, art historians recast Goya as an Enlightenment intellectual, the ‘Caprichos’ series of prints as social criticism.

    Goya began making his informal image-books after the life-threatening sickness in 1792 that left him not only deaf but liable to recurrent fits of delirium, partial blindness and paralysis. The boundaries between real and imagined became more porous. Goya’s self-portrait of 1820 emerged from another near-fatal episode – in bed, raised in the arms of his medical saviour Dr Arrieta, but with demonic countenances glimpsed in the darkness behind. One hypothesis is that Album D served Goya’s convalescence, when he was still too weakened to stand and paint.

    His master Domenico Tiepolo made his album of 104 Punchinello drawings in his 70s; and in the 1820s, near the end of his life, Blake would sit up in bed, working on the folio of Dante watercolours. By contrast, Goya’s sheets, although numbered, are without any narrative continuity; they are more akin to ‘associations of ideas’. But when we try to lay hold of those late thoughts, their meaning remains as elusive as our own dreams. In the graphic cycle closest in time to Album D, ‘Los Disparates’ (translated as ‘The Incongruities’), nothing ‘makes sense’. The lucid follies of his ‘Caprichos’ are exchanged for horizontal many-figured compositions, evocations of that half-life where fears assume visible form: each conjures not allegory or emblem, but a parallel world. The Album D drawings seem more in the nature of play – perhaps even ‘playing with one’s fears’. (The exhibition catalogue relates them to an 1811 report on a witch trial of 1610, written by Goya’s friend Moratín.) However we may interpret them, this close-focus exhibition offers an unrepeatable recreation of Goya’s intimate thought sequence.

    Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album is at The Courtauld Gallery, London, until 25 May 2015.

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