Courtauld Gallery, London
This extraordinary exhibition lays bare Goya’s thinking as he painted some of the most terrifying works of art
Monday 23 February 2015
The hell of Francisco Goya has no parallel in art. No one has ever painted and etched such convincing and utterly terrifying visions of cruelty, superstition and madness. Goya’s Black Paintings unveil a world without hope. A dog drowns in quicksand. The god Saturn eats his children. The Fates – or are they witches? – float airborne over a barren twilit landscape. These visions that Goya painted in his late years on the walls of his house outside Madrid – they were later transferred to canvas and now hang in the Prado – have a unique atmosphere of reality, as if we are seeing matter-of-fact reportage from someone’s unconscious.
Even their most extreme and repulsive details have this quality of honest observation. They are not fantasy art. They are the awful truth. Now, at last, we know where these appalling pictures come from. An extraordinary exhibition at London’s Courtauld Gallery lays bare Goya’s thinking as he painted some of the most terrifying works of art that exist. This exhibition, it seems, is the key to the Goya Code, the door to this private artist’s inner world. It reveals exactly why his horrific scenes are so convincing, immediate, and yet inscrutable.
The exhibition reassembles Album D, a long-scattered sketchbook that Goya filled with drawings of witchcraft, old age and other obsessions in about 1819-23. These were the years when he was creating the Black Paintings on the walls of his house. Album D thus exposes Goya’s imagination at work as he looked into the darkness of his own mind and dredged its secrets.
The faces in these drawings are harrowing. They are tiny masks of monstrosity. Each face is drawn with microscopic precision. Each is utterly demonic. Some of Goya’s witches laugh. Others grimace. In his drawing Visions – the titles are written by Goya beneath his sketches – one face glares darkly at us while its partner, nuzzled close, grins emptily. Neither personage is quite human. Calling these images “old women” seems debatable: most look more like demons or ghosts than mortal humans of any gender. They all look more dead than alive.
Woman Carrying a Bundle of Babies
Goya’s merciless depictions of aged faces go beyond cruelty. These sagging, lumpen visages show the skull under the bone. The grave is at hand. That mixture of death and life is at the root of the horror that creeps up on you bit by bit. The horror is not just some Gothic schlock. It is a painfully true recognition of corruption, decay and dying. The bodies of the witches, as they float up into an empty white sky, are round and plump like children painted by Bruegel, but their faces give away the deadly truth.
“He can no longer at the age of 98, circa 1819-23”
In his drawing Wicked Woman, a creature with just a few shreds of skin on its skull, as emaciated and evil as a vampire, is about to eat a baby. This and all the scenes here have even more truthfulness than the Black Paintings. The calm accuracy of Goya’s brush and ink uncannily creates a sense that he actually saw this. The bestial baby-eater pauses in its meal and looks directly at the artist. The exchange of looks is terrifying. We really seem to be looking at a cannibal caught in the act.
If the curators are right in the sequence they have reconstructed for Album D, what happens next is a direct window on Goya’s creativity. After the drawing of a female monster eating a baby, we see a man kicking violently as he wakes in his bed. This drawing is called He Wakes Up Kicking. It’s obvious the man has woken from a nightmare. He kicks his legs as if to drive off some ghoulish horror. Goya shows us what his dark images really are. They are records of his nightmares. The creatures he sees are not imagined by him – at least, not by his waking mind. They are things he sees in his sleep.
Other drawings confirm this. In a drawing called Nightmare, a man who looks like the artist is falling through empty air. His bed has become a clifftop. He plummets into the void. Another vision, of an old woman bearing what look like two living corpses on her back, is also called Nightmare. But it is the poor dreamer kicking in terror who takes us to the heart of Goya’s darkness. The artist is revealed in these works as a kind of shaman. He sees things. His nightmares are icily lucid.
A detail from Nightmare, circa. 1816-20
These drawings are not about old women, but an old man. Goya, facing illness and age and death, stares at the monsters in his dreams. He finds fascination there, not to mention artistic inspiration, grotesque humour, the beauty of great drawing. He finds everything, except comfort.
Goya: the Witches and Old Women Album is at the Courtauld Gallery in London from 26 February to 25 May.