Madeleine Morley takes a look at the private drawings of Francisco Goya, Spain’s last Old Master
An image depicts two old women jumping into the air and embracing joyfully, a second shows an elderly man tumbling down the stairs, and in the third a woman has a bundle of babies strapped sinisterly to her back. These three drawings, currently displayed at the Courtauld Gallery, were made in 1793 when Goya was severely ill; he’d been stone deaf for 20 years and had taken to producing private albums of images.
The albums were like visual diaries, containing sketches that expressed the artist’s fears and desires, responses to the realities and subsequent anxieties of growing old and increasingly ill. The three images are from the fourth album Goya created, otherwise known as the ‘D’ album; a series of 23 pictures renamed Witches and Old Women in reference to what’s depicted on each page. Only 22 remain, and for the first time in over 200 years, through forensic scrutiny and thorough detective work, the Courtauld Institute has brought these pictures back into their original sequence. Sat in the prints and drawings room at the Courtauld, co-curator Stephanie Buck tells me about the artist’s process in relation to the sequencing of images.
‘He would have had the book in front of him and as he turned each page, the next idea would have come from the image he’d just produced.’ As a result, the themes in the album overlap and intertwine, transitioning subtly from drawings of floating figures to nightmarish visions to depictions of old age and struggle. As Stephanie says, ‘By putting them in the original order, we get close to Goya’s line of thought.’
This layout of images around the gallery’s wall becomes a trail echoing Goya’s processes, both in terms of thought as well as the physical labour that went in to each drawing. Stephanie shows me a picture that is just about to be framed and hung for the exhibition: it’s one of the floating images, and brownish ink at the top of the sheet belonging to Goya’s hand marks it as drawing number ‘3’. Leaning close to the page, I can see where Goya has scraped the paper, physically removing a layer to erase something that he wasn’t happy with. These drawings aren’t just images, they’re objects that have been marked and reworked, and looking closely at these physical traces gives us an insight into the mind of one of Europe’s most mysterious Old Masters.
Peering closely at the knotted, wizened faces of Goya’s characters, you see that he was not only a skilful craftsman; the breadth of strange scenarios and intricate depictions reflect a boundlessly inventive imagination.
In drawing ‘3’, entitled ‘Singing and Dancing’, a figure sits crossed legged on the ground with a guitar. A potion or bowl of wine is in front of them, and an old woman floats in the air above. The sitting figure holds his/her nose and looks under the floating woman’s skirt – it’s a playful, silly image, evocative of flirtation or teasing or funny moments with a friend. ‘There is this relationship between the two but the story is not self evident, so we make the story ourselves,’ Stephanie explains, ‘Its creative looking and everyone can get something different from it.’
Most of the drawings depict fantastical moments like this one, yet like all of the best myths and folk stories, magic is a metaphor. ‘The pictures are about human behaviour in all its facets, from total happiness to sexuality to horror and vice,’ says Stephanie. The feeling of happiness is conveyed in the floating, and cruelty is depicted in the more sinister images of witches kidnapping babies. ‘It’s the emotions involved that we can relate to – witchcraft becomes a way to reflect the depths of human behaviour.’
For this exhibition, the dialogue created between sketch and viewer is an intimate one: the blank backgrounds eliminate a setting for us to anchor narratives onto, so we must work with Goya to fill in the blanks of his stories. The drawings are ruminations on big and overwhelming themes like life and death, folly and vice, and the show celebrates the way that the imagination, both Goya’s and our own, makes sense of human emotions and the inevitable passage of time.
As Stephanie says, ‘There is something very general and universal embedded in this little album’. The work is concerned with a prophetic artist’s own mortality and the anxieties of bodily decay, and to see it reunited after so many years is reassuring: it confirms the artwork’s enduring relevance.