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Wondrous Witches and Women l Goya at The Cortauld Gallery

Wondrous Witches and Women l Goya at The Cortauld Gallery

Picture of Jillian Levick
Updated: 24 April 2017
The team at London’s impeccable Courtauld Gallery were in the midst of curating and collating the most important pieces in their collection when one of the works, a Goya drawing, sparked many questions. Their subsequent discussions led to the decision to bring together whatever they could of Goya’s work to try and put him into context. Now, reunited for the first time, is the entire collection of known drawings from his Witches and Old Women album: 22 drawings with the 23rd lost or destroyed. Along with pieces from Black Borders, this album is finally being displayed in its original order as Goya intended.
Francisco Goya, Dream of a good witch © The Courtauld Gallery
Francisco Goya, Dream of a Good Witch © The Courtauld Gallery


Francisco Goya, one of the most celebrated Spanish artists in history, had a turbulent later life, plagued by a near-fatal illness that left him deaf. Additionally, he lived in an unstable time due to the calamitous war between Spain and Napoleon. These troubled years profoundly changed the court painter’s perspective, and his already keen interest in witchcraft and the macabre developed with a deeper intensity, culminating in a portfolio of work, including his famous murals known as the Black Paintings, which explores the hideousness and the humor of humanity in its old age.


More records of his thoughts rather than what he saw around him, these drawings represent the corruption and grotesqueness of human behavior and critique society in an abstract way. Witchcraft has always occupied a grey area between fantasy and reality and, in Goya’s brush and ink drawings, they occupy a literal grey area as well. These swift and light figures were created with virtually no sketches, and are essentially abstract in their composition. Layers of light and shade build up the figures from a very basic outline, embodying in the truest sense the layers of lightness and darkness of the human soul.


Francisco Goya, Showing off- Remember your age © The Courtauld Gallery
Francisco Goya, Showing Off? Remember Your Age © The Courtauld Gallery


As the years build up, so too do the layers, so that by the time one reaches old age there are many complexities to contend with, such as the abandonment of reason which Goya examines in his works. He explores the problems with the passions of old age, exhibited in his drawing of an old woman leaning on her stick, which supports her and keeps her going, perhaps as much as her dreams of romance do. In the drawing ‘Until Death’, an old woman sits preening at her mirror while her young attendants try unsuccessfully to hold back their laughing sneers.


These portrayals, however, do not necessarily mock the elderly for remembering their youth; Rather, they raise questions of the strength of the human spirit. Are these old women pathetic in their delusions, or strong and commendable for still retaining hope, passion, and self-love? The same idea is similarly depicted in the drawing titled ‘Content With Her Lot’, in which a toothless old woman smiles and dances despite her withered form. She may look grotesque to some, but she is happy with herself and her life, as she subverts the conventions of aging.


Other drawings are similarly humorous and tongue-in-cheek, such as one titled ‘Complain to Time About It,’ and another titled ‘Showing Off? Remember Your Age,’ which portrays an over-excited man falling backwards down a flight of stairs. Yet the darkness is there, and it is unavoidable. The series of ‘Nightmare’ drawings depict elderly women having grotesque nightmares, in which they are both terrified and terrifying, perhaps representing the nightmares themselves.


Francisco Goya, Just Can't Go On At the Age of 98
Francisco Goya, Just Can’t Go On At the Age of 98 © The Courtauld Gallery


Yet these obviously disgusting and fantastical pictures pack less of a punch than those of subtle sadness. ‘Just Can’t Go On At the Age of 98’ is a distressing depiction of a man hunched over beneath the weight of the years behind him, leaning on two sticks. He takes up only the bottom half of the page, where his low position and isolation on paper represent his similar situation in life. Yet, even in here there is some lightness, not only in the physical drawing, but in the way that, despite the title’s claim that he can no longer go on, he still is, shuffling along with his small shadow trailing behind him. Perhaps this is even sadder, that he goes forward with nothing to go towards. It is up to the viewer to decide the value of hope in the human experience.


Created when he was in his 70s during a physically, emotionally, and historically troubled time, Goya’s dark images shed light on aging, struggle, joy, isolation, loneliness, fear, death, virtue and vice. He referred to images as the universal language, and in these he encompasses all of humanity and all of life.


Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album runs until May 25, 2015.

The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN


By Jillian Levick