Witches and Old Women: Goya

One of my favourite childhood books, ‘Cakes and Custard’, contained beautifully illustrated, sour little cautionary tales. ‘When Jacky’s a very good boy / he shall have cakes and custard / but when he does nothing but cry / he shall have nothing but mustard’. The accompanying picture looms large in my memory, a slightly terrifying red-faced child bawling in contemplation of a pot of mustard for his dinner.

It’s probably the sort of volume that would be frowned on now, with its slightly harsh and uncharitable vision of the world –  but my brother and I loved the cruelty of this book in which people were starved, cooked alive, and had their limbs smashed apart by unrepentant fist-shaking train drivers.


I experience echoes of this childish schadenfreude as I wander through the new Goya exhibition ‘Witches and Old Women’ at the Courtauld Gallery. An old lady falls down the stairs. ‘Showing off? Remember Your Age’ laughs the caption, written in Goya’s handwriting. Another lady, wrapped in a cloak, peers with hollow sunken eyes towards the empty expanse of page to her left. ‘What Folly, Still to be Thinking of Marriage’, snorts the caption. These are not cautionary tales for the bedsides of children, though. Nor are they admonishments to the elderly penned by some arrogant youth who doesn’t believe this will ever happen to him. Goya himself is old as he sketches these scenes. He points his finger at the world, but he also points it at himself.

Goya Regozijo-Mirth

This show brings together, for the first time in one gallery, the surviving contents of three albums of ink and chalk drawings, made privately during the latter decades of Goya’s life. Originally kept in books, they have long since been cut out (in some cases butchered, the original captions lost) and framed. At the entrance of the show, one of these albums emptied of its precious contents is preserved in a glass case, perhaps to remind us that the experience of looking at these images in a book would have been very different, more intimate. One can’t help wondering whether Goya would have been delighted or shocked to see dozens of people clutching catalogues and shoulder barging one another to get close to works he produced for his own personal enjoyment.

The drawings are tiny, executed with an astonishing immediacy and lightness of touch – but close scrutiny reveals the care that has gone into their realization. These are no mere doodles –  the paper is scraped in places to allow often miniscule edits to the linework. The sparkling brushwork belies real time and effort.

This show is also a celebration of Goya’s graphic work, as it brings together key prints from his Caprichos and Disparates sequences, as well as a selection of late lithographs. Goya learnt lithography during his eighties, after fleeing to France to escape the despotic rule of Ferdinand VII, and these late works are a delight. The process, which involves drawing directly onto the printing stone, seems uniquely suited to a skilled draughtsman such as Goya but also speaks volumes of the man himself – always willing to learn new techniques and find fresh formats for his work even in great age.

Age – and by association the vigour of youth – is a theme in Goya’s work. The average middle class Spaniard of the late 18th century would have been extremely lucky to make forty. Goya made old bones, but his longevity had come at a price. Struck down in his forties by a mystery illness which almost killed him, he was left profoundly deaf and prone to bouts of vertigo. He was also witness to the Civil War and the Spanish Inquisition, played out like some soundless horror show before him.


In the opening chapter of his biography of the artist, Robert Hughes contrasts two paintings in similar formats, thought to represent the same landscape. The first, ‘The Meadow of San Isidro’, is a sketch for a possible royal tapestry executed when Goya was young, healthy and in favour with the court of Charles III. The scene depicts the meadow in summer, filled with wealthy revellers basking in the sunshine.


Thirty-five years later, Goya painted a scene of pilgrims at San Isidro directly onto the plaster walls of his house. By now the artist was deaf and out of favour with the royal family. It is, like the drawings at the Courtauld, a completely personal work painted for his own amusement. Night has fallen. The young revellers are gone, replaced by a band of lunatics. They are lost in mind and body- both terrified and terrifying.

Across the yawning chasm that stretches between these two pictures lies disillusion and frustration, but also a growing awareness of the brutality and conflicted natures within us all, underneath the social niceties. The power of this insight is what marks Goya well apart from his contemporaries, and which rings like a bell from the drawings in this Courtauld show.

Singing and dancing (Cantar y Bailar)

A great deal of the drawings are ambiguous in their message. They offer no fixed view of humanity, no single ‘moral’ line in the mode of that book that so fascinated me as a child. Wandering the show, I gravitate to the multi-paragraph explanations that hang to the left of each sketch. Some of the images are so baffling, I want to know what I’m missing. I need the curator to fill me in. In some cases, their blurbs are insightful, but others make vague guesses, go round the houses and finally admit they only know as much as me.

One image, captioned ‘Singing and Dancing’, shows a witch levitating above another woman who appears to be looking up her skirt and holding her nose. Lofty explanations aside, I find this image really funny – and like to think it’s possible the artist had no point to make here. He was just having fun drawing a bizarre thing and making himself smile. Several images in the show may give us a similar impression. They can be seen, I think, as expressions of sheer joy in the act of sketching, rather than necessarily giving us a considered message on Spanish society or the nature of the age.


The artist is seemingly non-committal on the subject of the occult – self evidently a major leitmotif in the ‘Witches’ album. Witches are up to all sorts of nefarious practices in the drawings – preparing babies to sacrifice, running rampage on the backs of bulls and flying on broomsticks. In some of the images they seem genuinely malevolent, though in others they look like they’re having rather a fun time of it.

Goya clearly doesn’t glorify witchcraft, but he’s morbidly fascinated, at times to the point of joy, by the whole prospect of these illicit practices. The existence of actual covens of baby-killing witches in 18th century Spain seems from a historical point of view extremely unlikely, and Goya (a friend and colleague to some of the most liberally minded Enlightenment writers of his day) must have known this – so we are left to conclude that these images are about something else, namely the hearsay, paranoia and fears which surrounded the occult in a time when the Spanish Inqusition still existed. Spain was a superstitious society, and belief in the supernatural (both religious and occult) was prevalent in a way we modern viewers might fail to fully comprehend. Goya, by looking at these beliefs, is peering deep into the Spanish psyche. This is a world in which a sharp fascination with occult practices exists, coupled with the fear of being oneself accused of witchcraft or heresy. Can it be a coincidence that many of these drawings are labeled as ‘nightmares?’


Alongside all the nightmares, misfortunes and horrors in this show, there are signs of redemption and human tenderness in the drawings. An old man hobbles along on sticks. ‘Just can’t go on at the age of 98’, comes the caption. But the image is at odds with the epigram, for he clearly has not given up. His powerful drive to keep moving pushes him forward, despite age and aching bones. This could almost be a self portrait, for we can be sure the artist empathized with this man. Perhaps Goya felt that he couldn’t go on at times. We can all be grateful that he did.

Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album is at The Courtauld Gallery til May 25th 2015. Entry £8.50 (includes permanent collections)




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