Flying witches, mad old men, cannibals: what was going on in Goya’s head?

It is not impossible to create good art that makes a political point, just highly unusual. Goya’s ‘Third of May’ is the supreme example of how to pull it off. It is a great picture with a universal message — the terrible suffering of the innocent victims of war — and one echoed, with fresh horrors, in the news today. The figure in front of the firing squad, arms flung wide, in Goya’s picture is everyman.

One of the reasons for its power, and for that of ‘Disasters of War’, his series of aquatint etchings, is that images of violence and evil sprang spontaneously from his imagination. There are some clues to what went on in the sombre but sometimes sardonically humorous recesses of Goya’s mind in a marvellous, succinct exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery: Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album.

At its heart is a splendidly old-fashioned scholarly enterprise: the reassembly of an album of drawings by the great Spanish painter that was split up and dispersed to the four quarters of the world in the 19th century. It is known to Goya specialists as ‘Album D’ and was made, probably, between 1819 and 1823, when Goya himself was between 73 and 77.

More than any other major figure in art, Goya straddles the boundary between the old feudal world and the modern age. He was born in 1746, and spent much of his life as the servant of absolute monarchs, the kings of Spain. But by the time he died, exiled in Bordeaux in 1828, the railways had arrived, the French revolution was long over, and he was a free, independent artist. Just like Picasso or Francis Bacon he drew and painted just what he wanted to depict.

His albums of drawings seem particularly private. Some may have been intended as preparations for prints, but many strike one as personal fantasies or meditations. Not surprisingly, since Goya was in his mid-seventies when he produced ‘Album D’, quite a few of its sheets are musings on being old.

The very last of the series shows a figure, enormously aged, bald, bent almost double and of indeterminate gender, shuffling along with the help of two sticks. Like most of the album, it is almost entirely drawn with a brush like a Chinese landscape, in subtle veils of black and grey ink. Underneath, the artist has written a comment, or perhaps a transcription of this person’s thoughts: ‘Just can’t go on at the age of 98’.

In another an old woman is leaning on one stick, with a beady eye — anxious or maybe deranged — on a soft feline silhouette. The caption, in Goya’s elegant handwriting, reads, ‘She talks to her cat’. Typically, it is not quite clear how we are intended to feel about this old lady. Perhaps she is touchingly lonely; on the other hand, she might be a witch.

Sometimes we are given a less ambiguous clue, as in the old woman with staring eyes who is apparently about to sink her broken teeth into a struggling, naked baby. Beneath her, Goya has exclaimed, ‘Wicked Woman’.

Even there, however, it isn’t quite obvious what he means. Does she stand for the horrors that arise from superstitions, such as witchcraft, or more generally for human malignancy? Or is she a figure who has just swum up from the depths of Goya’s consciousness?

He was fascinated by cannibalism, as he was by flying witches, madness and dreams. There are drawings of all those subjects in ‘Album D’. Two are entitled ‘Nightmare’, while a third depicts an old man lying down but in a panic, legs flying wildly, with the inscription, ‘He wakes up kicking’.

Did Goya? On the most mysterious sheet, showing a knot of figures emerging from a gothic doorway, the artist has simply noted, ‘Nothing is known of this’. He might be making some topical point that eludes us; on the other hand, he might be saying: ‘Here’s a drawing, and even I don’t have a notion what it means.’

‘The nightmare of history,’ the painter Leon Golub once remarked, ‘has no beginning and has no end’, a view with which one suspects Goya would have concurred. But Golub, unlike the mighty Spaniard, had mixed success in giving his outrage visual form. That is perhaps why — although the Serpentine Gallery is one of the most delightful smaller galleries in London — the exhibition there of Golub’s work, Bite Your Tongue, still somehow feels too big.

Golub (1922–2004) was a member of an overlooked group: American figurative artists of the post-war years. When abstract expressionism was all the rage, he wanted to make pictures with a more direct human significance. You can understand why, but the line between abstraction and figuration is an elusive one (if it truly exists).

Despite his aims, Golub was best when he was at his most abstract and least Michelangelo-esque. He had a nicely individual touch as a painter — raw and edgy — but lacked the skills to put together large compositions of multiple figures. Nonetheless, that was what Golub attempted. His best-known pictures were, like Goya’s, visual catalogues of the atrocities and disasters of war.

The conflicts of the 1970s and 80s in Central America were the focus of his indignation. The most powerful of these, ‘Interrogation III’ (1981), shows a deeply shocking subject — a naked, blindfolded woman being assaulted by uniformed men — but its impact is muffled by the clunkiness of the drawing.

Some of the later paintings strike me as much better. ‘Are You Ready’ (1993) consists of stencilled writing, ghostly heads and the outline of a snarling dog, all laid out on a canvas smeared and stained with black, like the wall of a burnt-out inner-city building. It emits a sense of menace, darkness and anger which memorably expresses the artist’s sense of the world. But too much of the exhibition is taken up with failures, even if honourable ones.

First published in The Spectator.

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