Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Goya's visions from a troubled mind

Reading about art over the last couple of years, one thing that I’ve come to realise is that defining anything in the art world is rarely as easy as might first appear – and not least when you take into account tension between the academic world and the non-academic one.

That’s particularly the case in terms of ‘modern art’.

The question has long been asked as to what modern art is – or more to the point, when it started – and there are probably as many different answers as people who’ve asked it.

And since relativism is not the aim here, its important to note that some are simply based on unthinking and uneducated stupidity.

Only a week or so ago, I came across a response to a national newspaper art review where someone had dammed all ‘modern art’.

I admit to having posted a sarcastic riposte that, since many regard Manet as the father of modern art, the poster making the comment presumably considered Impressionism as a whole to be a load of old cobblers.

Just can't go on at the age of 98
Of course, what many people mean by ‘modern art’ is actually contemporary art – and even more specifically than that, non-figurative art and conceptual art.

But going back to the more academic approach – that the father of the modern was Manet (1832-1883) – that doesn’t mean that what he did came out of a vacuum.

We can see the roots of modern art in the likes of Turner (1775-1851); in the works of the much earlier El Greco (1541-1614) and in those of Goya.

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) was a Spanish romantic painter and printmaker, regarded as being both the last of the Old Masters and the first modern one.

While paintings such as The Third of May 1808 (1814) have become iconic, he’s not an artist that has made any great impression on me personally – to be frank, I cannot really recall seeing any of his works in life, although it’s probable that I have, since I’ve visited the National Gallery more than once.

Mother Celestina
But the Courtauld Gallery in London has recently been hosting an exhibition of some of his late work, which I’d noted in the autumn and fully intended to see.

It’s been the nature of the last few months that I had all but forgotten what was on in any of London’s galleries this spring. In the case of this Goya exhibition, it was only by chance – walking past Somerset House a couple of weeks ago – that I remembered and dashed in to ensure I caught it.

This is the first time that all the surviving drawings from the Witches and Old Women Album together since they were broken up after the artists death.

In 1799, Goya had published a series of 80 prints, titled Caprichios, illustrating what he described as the “innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilised society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual”.

One of a number of albums drawn in the last decade of his life, the pieces in Witches and Old Women Album – produced around 1819-23 – were, unlike the Caprichios, never meant for public consumption.

Working essentially for himself, Goya gave free rein to his creativity, inventing images that range from the humorous to the downright macabre.

I can hear snoring
These remarkable drawings act as a commentary on human hopes, fears and delusions – not least, the fear of aging and mortality.

There’s a dark bite to some of his visions. One drawing satirises an elderly woman deluding herself that shes still likely to meet and marry a dapper young man, while others portray witches carrying off or even preparing to eat babies.

Whatever the exhibition title suggests, though, the targets of these pieces were not limited to members of the fairer sex: there are plenty of men represented here too – including a number of clerical figures, and religion is certainly one of the themes that can be seen here.

The pictures are merciless and manic – yet among the darkness there are also scenes of joyfulness.

But whatever the subject matter, the drawings are deceptively simple, possessing great sophistication. And his use of washes is an education to behold.

Dream of a good witch

The exhibition as a whole includes other works by Goya that help to provide further context, but the core exhibit includes, as an example, the following: Just can’t go on at the age of 98 features an elderly man with two sticks.

It’s a sublime piece of work: just look at how few marks there are to convey so completely the subject.

Mother Celestina – a name that recurs – adds complexity, since Celestina is a Spanish name associated with a procuress/bawd, thus being one of the ways that Goya brought sex into the equation. In the picture I’ve used here, the character sits, waiting, grasping something – a pouch of money, perhaps?

The ironically-titled Dream of a good witch shows a hag bearing a bundle of babies.

I can hear snoring has an elderly man waking at the sound of his own snoring. Who hasn’t experienced that?

Mirth, on the other hand, portrays an elderly couple appearing to dance in a space. It’s a joyous image.

While She won’t get up till she’s finished her prayers presents us with an old woman praying with her rosary – and just look at the use of light and shade here.

She won't get up till she's finished her prayers
Goya was ill during the final years of his life. Some have suggested the cause was cumulative and severe lead poisoning, given the amount of lead white paint he used in his work, while other analyses since his death have pointed toward paranoid dementia.

Against such a background, it hardly seems farfetched to suggest that these works are not simply satires in the conventional sense, but also shine some light into the dark and troubled corners of the artist’s own mind.

In looking at pictures like these; in exploring darker aspects of human experience; in seeing the violence and the brutishness that some of them show, there is something that we can perhaps see as a harbinger of the modern world and art’s response to it.

That, though, plays to a view that the past was rosier than it was in reality.

But however you interpret the pictures, this is a fascinating exhibition that’s well worth catching if you have the chance in the next couple of weeks – and one where buying the catalogue genuinely pays dividends, because you really will want to look back at the pictures.

And the Courtauld should be applauded for bringing together the long-scattered pages of this album.

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