Goya: Witches, Madness & Nightmares

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Francisco de Goya, Regozijo (Mirth)
Francisco de Goya, Regozijo (Mirth) (left) and Bajan riñendo, (They descend quarrelling) (right)Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America & The Courtauld Gallery

We explore The Courtauld's exhibition of drawings from Goya’s celebrated private albums

Francisco Goya is widely hailed as the most important Spanish artist of his time. Most famous for his public role as a court painter, today he is equally celebrated for his private work, the majority of which was created after 1793 when a near-fatal illness rendered him completely deaf, profoundly changing his life and work. This included eight private albums of drawings documenting his fears and fantasies alongside his deepest, darkest thoughts on society and human nature.

All of these albums were sadly broken up after his death, their pages scattered around the globe, but now, a rare and captivating exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery has reunited all of the known drawings from the Witches and Old Women album (c.1819-23). Here we explore the key themes presented in this exquisite yet unsettling series (all of which apply to Goya's oeuvre at large) alongside some of our favourite images.

1. Witchcraft and Superstition
As its title suggests, Goya's enduring obsession with superstition and witchcraft is central to the album and depictions of witches appear throughout. Its opening page, titled They Descend Quarrelling, is the first in a series of energetic drawings "showing figures levitating, flying and tumbling through the air, sometimes with erotic abandon," while Dream of a Good Witch (which sees a haggard old woman carrying a bundle of babies on her back) and Wicked Women (a terrifying cannibal about to consume an infant) explore a far more chilling aspect of the occult. 

2. Madness
Although it was a subject that preoccupied eighteenth century society at large, lunacy and the line between reason and madness became an area of particular fascination for Goya following his illness, which took its own toll upon his psychological state. He investigated the theme extensively in both public and private works, including the Witches and Old Women album where, in a powerful work titled Madness, a gaping figure in a fool's cap reaches out pleadingly to the viewer from behind the bars of a railing.

3. Dreams and Nightmares
Sleep, and the dreams and nightmares that accompany it, was another of Goya's favoured topics of research (think his iconic Los Caprichos print, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, a version of which also appears in the exhibition). The theme weaves its way through the album manifesting itself in different manners, from the amusing I Can Hear Snoring – where a man lies asleep, mouth agape in such a well-observed pose that one can almost hear his snores – to the fantastically nasty Nightmare, which sees "a mischievously grimacing crone" carrying two skeletal old men on her shoulders in what is perhaps an allusion to her continued sexual vitality. A nightmare indeed.

4. Ageing
But perhaps the most poignant field of study within the series is the Spanish master's depiction of old age, which dominates the final group of drawings. An old man himself at this stage  – he was around 73 when he began the album – it was clearly a subject with which he was very much preoccupied. In Mirth, an elderly man and woman dance merrily, oblivious of their age, while She Talks to Her Cat gently satirises the "lonely old woman" stereotype. The last surviving page of the album, and the final piece in the exhibition, titled Can't Go On Any Longer at the Age of 98, is particularly moving and leaves a lasting impression. It shows a decrepit old man inching slowly forwards across the blank paper, heavily supported by two sticks. Not only does it exemplify Goya's total mastery of pen and ink and his power to convey extraordinary subtleties of emotion with the of smallest dashes, but it also appears to represent the artist himself, resolutely battling on (creatively and generally) despite the tribulations of old age and illness.

Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album is at The Courtauld until May 25.