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The dark dreams of Goya’s witches

Marion Coutts on an exquisite suite of drawings

Marion Coutts | February 27th 2015

Twenty-three of the most extraordinary images you might wish for are on show at the Courtauld in London. You might wish for them, but you would scarcely be able to imagine them for yourself. The show recreates for the first time the sequence of drawings from “The Witches and Old Women Album”, or “Album D”—one of eight, late albums Goya drew for private consumption between 1819 and 1823. These were drawings made for himself and a group of friends. All market pressures were off, and the liberation is palpable. He could do exactly what he liked.

In “Singing and Dancing”, an old woman levitates while playing the guitar. Her mouth is a discordant O, set in a yowl. Her skirts balloon around her legs. It’s clear she stinks, as directly beneath her sits another old crone holding her nose and eyeing up her skirt with malevolent glee. This is the only drawing the Courtauld owns and it started off the paper trail to reunite the sequence. It is so peculiar, you can see why. The first four images are flyers: people fly, fall, they go up, they go down. “Mirth” has two airborne ancients locked weightlessly together, playing castanets and gurning at each other. Goya works here the themes he had been working all his life: witchcraft, superstition, cruelty, music, death, dreams.

The drawings are in brush and ink, line and wash. By this stage he knew how to make every blotch count. Each mark has a different weight and the ink goes effortlessly from light as spider silk to black as carbon and the full range in between. After his death in 1828 the market swooped in: the drawings were separated and went on to have scattered lives in various collections, to be cropped and hacked about further. The reassembling of this exquisite suite of pages marks a long piece of global detective work by the curators Juliet Wilson-Bareau and Stephanie Buck: tracking stains, foxings, dog-ears, checking the reverse of a page for the imprint of ink, the ghost of a drawing on the next page.

Goya is always attentive to clothes. When you get old, you get cold, and his witches and old women seem to be wearing all their clothes at once. They are bundled and animated by the stuff swirling and bunching around them, all the better to grab hold of and pull each other about. Old they may be, but tired they are not. These geriatrics have supernatural strength. They sleep, snore, hoard money, whip each other, sing, fight, drink, signal obscenities, rage, grope and tussle together. They are full of desire and their heads are still full of dreams, however mad. They prey on the young. They are all paradox: ancients with the strength and the will to fly, to murder, to do battle.

One of the beauties of this series is the figures’ isolation. Goya gives few indicators of background. He does not set a scene. The white page is all, and knowledge of context is suppressed. One image gives us an inky archway and in another, “Locura”, a swiftly marked railing pens in a lunatic wearing a jester’s hat. Mainly the ground is indicated by a casual shadow, a mere dark streak. Or no ground at all. Only air.

“Album D” comes from the period when Goya bought the property outside Madrid where he painted the murals known as the Black Paintings. He was in his early 70s and had been deaf for 20 years. The series is replete with darkness, the outrages of Goya’s imagination. Yet dark though they can be—one skeletal witch is about to eat a baby, another has newborns trussed like onions on a stick (“Dream of a Good Witch”, above)—they look like drawings made with immense enjoyment. The world is upended. Here are elderly people who are not victims of their bodies but still protagonists. The drawings perform like folk emblems but unlike emblems they are not general in any way and their force lies in specificity, acute observation and things seen. Yet the import of these images is unreadable and there is an inherent mystery that Goya keeps close. The titles alone are worth the price of entry. “They descend quarrelling”, “Nothing is known of this”, “Covetous old hag”: each title written lightly beneath the drawing in black chalk.

Only towards the end of the sequence do the pressures of embodiment reassert themselves. On the last sheet, “Just can’t go on at the age of 98”, the man is a quadruped, bent double on two legs and two sticks. Here the white page renders him simply lonely. He moves across: his shadow behind him is but a smear of ink.

Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album The Courtauld Gallery, London, to May 25th

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