The great Spanish Master Francisco Goya was no stranger to dreams and, perhaps more frequently, nightmares, judging by his works. From the terrifying Saturn Devouring his Son to the horrific scenes depicted in his portrayal of the Napoleonic occupation of Spain in The Disasters of War, he seems to have lived in a shadow world of despair. But the troubled artist also produced albums of drawings for his own private use and now London’s Courtauld Gallery has, for the first time, assembled all the known drawings of one of these works in its original sequence.
The late art historian Eleanor Sayre, an expert on Goya’s prints and drawings, first suggested the idea of a series of albums by the artist in a ground-breaking essay of 1958 for the Bulletin of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She identified eight albums executed in chronological order and labelled them alphabetically from A to H. This was no easy task as the works had first been disassembled by Goya’s own son after his death in 1828 and then sold to numerous museums, galleries and private owners by the artist’s grandson.
However, after four years’ work, a team from the Courtauld has brought together all the known pages of Album D, called The Witches and Old women album, in a feat of academic research of which Eleanor Sayre herself would have been proud. By scientific and stylistic analysis, the curators of the exhibition have managed to arrive at a logical and near-complete replication of the original album, in the order in which Goya compiled it. There is only a slight element of doubt over two leaves and one page, probably numbered number nine by Goya, is missing. Yet there must be hope that even this will one day re-appear as did the first drawing in the album, as recently as 2007.
It is believed that Goya compiled the work around 1819 and the presence of witches and old women in so many of the drawings appears to have been an attempt on his part to critique and undermine the Inquisition, which by this time had relinquished its violent past and had become more of a censorship body. So, as the excellent catalogue points out, he could “fuse humans and demons in extraordinarily compelling and realistic images” in order to subvert the status quo. As Juliet Wilson-Bareau notes, “witchcraft had been a major part of Goya’s visually symbolic ‘Universal Language’ and was often used to attack an ‘unholy’ Church, seen by enlightened believers as having failed in its moral and religious obligations. Goya followed established practice in presenting witchcraft scenes as inversions of traditional religious imagery.”
Nevertheless, the artist had to take care not to overtly offend the Spanish establishment. He did not find favour with the reactionary Bourbon Ferdinand VII who had returned to the throne in 1814 and had suspended the liberal constitution of 1812. In 1799 Goya had published a series of 80 aquatint etchings – Los Caprichos – which foreshadow many of the themes of the ‘Witches’ album, featuring as they did hags, broomsticks, flying in the air and falling down again and the theme of old age and decrepitude.
The publication of Los Caprichos was announced in an advertisement in the Diario de Madrid and, according to a catalogue essay by Mark McDonald, it appears Goya was attempting “to mitigate the potentially offensive meaning of the prints and state[d] that the author did not ‘have the intention of mocking the particular faults of one or another individual’. The wording is significant because it suggests a tension between public and private forms of expression: [it] can be understood as an admission that the prints did indeed intend to mock particular faults of particular people by virtue of pre-emptive denial. For Goya, the prints were a personal declaration of attitudes towards subjects that he shared with like-minded liberals, determined to fight against ignorance, stupidity and intellectual oppression. Goya was free to devise witty and satirical captions on the drawings since their audience was limited to people chosen by him, but once the images entered the public realm in the form of prints, their potential to offend or criticise in a society that was hostile to liberalism had to be taken into account.”
By the time Goya compiled Album D, it is clear that he had no intention of publicly exposing the work. This can be seen from the ink stains and accidental brush strokes which were never corrected. The conclusion is that this work, along with others, was not for general circulation but private consumption, no doubt among a circle of like-minded friends, an early form of samizdat.
At first sight, the drawings can seem mysterious and impenetrable to the modern eye. But the catalogue explains how, as Reva Wolf writes, “many of the drawings in Album D can be linked convincingly to literature that was either censored, or else forcefully condemned, by the Inquisition. Significantly new editions of several of these writings appeared in the first three decades of the nineteenth century during brief periods…when the Inquisition was temporarily abolished.”
The works in question included Fray Gerundio (a well-known satirical and anti-clerical novel first published in 1758) and La Celestina, which dates from 1499 and concerns a young man who falls in love with a beautiful girl and is persuaded by his servant to use the old brothel madam Celestina to help gain her hand.
A third work which has been cited as an influence on Album D is an official account by the Inquisition itself of a trial of alleged witches in 1610.
For example, Locura (Album D, page 11) shows a declaiming figure wearing a long robed garment at the top of some steps and behind a barred area, representing a type of pulpit or dais. The person resembles a priest or preacher until one sees the clown-like hat with three bells, more reminiscent of a court jester. This is actually a subtle dig at the clergy because the word locura, madness or insanity, contains the Spanish word – cura – for priest. The book Fray Gerundio, itself written by a Jesuit priest, was a contemporary satire on preachers whose verbose sermons were all style and no substance. Today the Spanish even use the verb gerundiar, derived from the book, meaning to speak meaninglessly.
La madre Celestina (Album D, page 22) depicts the old bawd showing off what is most likely a gold chain while holding a wine bottle. This was the role played by the original Celestina character in the 1499 work by Fernando de Rojas and Goya here shows her, legs splayed apart recalling her own early life as a prostitute, her pills and quack remedies resting on the table beside her, all necessary tools of her trade.
The key, unifying element in both Fray Gerundio and La Celestina is the abuse of clerical power. Gerundio, the eponymous priest, is a charlatan whose smooth tongue has gained him wealth and prominence within the church. Celestina has many clients from the clergy and even boasts about being famous among her fellow churchgoers.
The account of the trial of two supposed witches in Logroño, northern Spain, in 1610, being an official document of the Holy Office, could only be published when the Inquisition itself was suspended. “The two drawings of Album D that clearly depict witches,” writes Reva Wolf, “Wicked woman and Dream of a good witch can…be paired with gruesome passages of the Logroño report describing the killing, sacrifice and eating of babies and children. In addition, Goya’s caption for the latter, Sueño de buena echizera, echoes the words “echar sueño”, used repeatedly in the Logroño report to describe casting a spell…what is ‘good’ as a witch is ‘wicked’ or ‘bad’ as a woman. The play of opposites is a key feature of Album D – and of Goya’s work generally.”
The Logroño report also mentions witches flogging each other and the Devil and Inquisitors flogging witches. The subject of Dream of flogging (Sueño de azotes) (Album D, page 6), may relate to these stories. The fall in the first drawing of Album D could also refer to the Inquisitorial belief that the Devil would punish a witch who dared to say the word ‘Jesus’ while airborne by causing her to fall to earth.
The flying figures of album D, unlike those in other of Goya’s works, have no obvious witch-like accoutrements, such as broomsticks. This omission was almost certainly deliberate as the figures also resemble clergymen and nuns with their voluminous robes and gestures. The enlightened view of the time, as shown by Goya’s friend, the playwright Leandro de Moratín, in the annotations in his own copy of the Logroño trial, indicate that the ludicrous superstitions and paranoiac delusions of the Holy Office were as bad, if not worse, than those of their victims, the ‘witches’ themselves.
As Reva Wolf’s invaluable essay points out: “The idea that those persecuted by the Inquisition were heroes and the Inquisitors demons had been a leitmotif in Protestant writings of the 16th century onwards. Such inversion is also a subject of Goya’s art and central to the criticisms of the Inquisition that led, finally, to its permanent abolition in 1834 (six years after G’s death).” It had endured in Spain for 376 years.
There is a general sense in Album D of discombobulation, of the world turned upside down. The phrase was coined in England during the Civil War in a ballad protesting against the Puritan attempt to abolish Christmas celebrations and, by extension, expressed a sense of fear and trepidation at the momentous and frightening changes which were taking place across the land. The first three decades of the 19th century in Spain were similar in terms of general upheaval so it is no surprise that the English phrase – everything’s up in the air – finds an echo in the Spanish estar en aire.
The show is rich and detailed and demonstrates, as ever, the Courtauld’s rigorous approach to original research and exposition. I am only sorry that time is now short to view the display, for which mea culpa, but I urge you to go along as soon as possible to see some of the lesser-known works of one of the greatest artists who ever lived and view them in the way he himself would have seen them. The aim now is, according to the luminaries at the Courtauld, to undertake the analysis and assembly of all seven other albums. As Goya himself might have said – ¡muchísima suerte!