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Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album

5 out of 5 stars

Monster masterpieces in miniature


Time Out says

Superstition, madness, monstrous cruelty… but enough of the news. Let’s see what was going on 200 years ago in Spain, when Francisco de Goya began work on the extraordinary ink drawings in his ‘Album D’. Oh, it was pretty much the same. That’s the incredible thing about Goya: even when he’s commenting on, say, the ulcerous 1807-14 Peninsular War, or the interminable shadow of the Spanish Inquisition, he does it in a way that’s supremely relatable to today; to Ukraine or Syria or… take your pick. Of course, by extension, that’s also the fairly shit thing about the world. Young artists, take note: make conflict, corruption and hypocrisy your targets, and you’ll never go out of style.

What Goya gives us here are the deft sketches of an old man, an artist-warrior left deaf by disease, yet at the height of his creative powers. He doesn’t need much to convince us of his genius. Building up lines of ink on small sheets of paper, he describes faces and bodies contorted by grief, rage, madness and old age (he’s incredible at doing paper-thin skin over ancient bones). There’s no narrative context – figures rise up or fall through the blank space of the page – and very little background detail. ‘Madness’ is one of the few images to offer any architectural setting. It shows a figure appealing to us from behind the rails of a balcony, like a clown or a monarch.

As with most of Goya’s albums, ‘D’ was given its ‘Witches and Old Women’ tag after his death, when the book was broken up and distributed to collectors around the world. They tended to do helpful things like cut off the page numbers, which makes the assembly of all 22 surviving works in this series, in sequence, one of the great curatorial feats of recent times. The gender of these desiccated biddies is far from obvious. You won’t find many witches of the broomstick-riding variety either, though you could use the title to tempt reluctant kids. They’d enjoy the farty humour of ‘Singing and Dancing’, in which one crone holds her nose while staring up the skirt of another, but possibly not the baby-eating ‘Wicked Woman’. Goya, of course, didn’t believe in spell-casters with pointy hats and bubbling cauldrons; his witches and hags are metaphors for disorder, unruly behaviour, dreams, visions and, nightmares. Categorising them under ‘fantasy’ does them a disservice. Not least because, ringing with truth, they look like observations from real life, like ordinary monsters. And we know what they’re capable of.

Martin Coomer 


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