It is rare that an exhibition of drawings has such a powerful physical effect on me that I have to take time out to sit down and recover. Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album on at the Courtauld Gallery until the 25th May had just that effect and is a wonderful example of how art can transmit its effects directly into the body of the beholder.
Goya was ill, deaf and in his late seventies when he made a series of albums for his own delight and that of his close friends. The eight albums were broken up and the drawings spread around the world. The Courtauld has painstakingly brought together all the drawings from the so-called album D, which they have named The Witches and Old Women Album. The twenty-two drawings are displayed in the order in which they believe they were drawn and are full of humor, horror, the sinister and the macabre.
In Mirth two elderly women float above the ground and dancing with abandon. The normal rules of gravity no longer apply; the women have broken away from the earth and are kicking up their heels in a weightless space. Until Death is a drawing of a very old woman with a gnarled face preening herself in front of a mirror. A maid stifles her laughter whilst two young men raise their eyes and giggle in the background at the ludicrous sight of self-deception in the elderly. Dream of a Good Witch shows an elderly woman leaning on a long stick with another stick across her back from which four babies hang tied by their feet and arms. How are we meant to take this, as a dream image or the desire of the old for young flesh? Showing Off? Remember your age is a drawing of a woman falling down stairs. She is tumbling backwards with her legs in the air and her skirt around her waist. Here there is no decorum and no boundaries to what can be imagined.
I went around the exhibition with a friend a similar age to me. The drawings are about old age and loss of faculties and about how embarrassing elderly people can be to the young. But they are also about the loss of inhibition that comes with old age and the delights that that can bring. I found myself snorting with pain and delight and not knowing which was uppermost. The ambiguity of meaning of some of the drawings had the effect of making me disorientated. Where was I standing in relation to these works and what kind of a world is it where the spaces left around figures makes them float off untethered to the ground? They induced in me that terrifying suspended moment on a roller-coaster at the tip of a rise, a second before the car plunges back to the ground. A thesis could be written about Goya’s empty spaces, (maybe there are some) and how he uses white paper to dislodge his figures and make them inhabit an alternative universe. Only when we had gone round the room and sat down to take these extraordinary drawings in did my friend mention he was feeling nauseous and I realized that I too was experiencing the nausea of vertigo.
After a while I realized that this was not just a nausea generated by all the ungrounded figures, but also that these grimacing, smiling, ugly faces were similar to those hypnagogic images that can appear just before one goes to sleep; the images that can be thrown up by the brain as it transfers from an awake to a sleeping state, in a mind untethered by the physical world. Goya was drawing a bodily state where we lose our markers of the physical world. This can certainly happen in a dreaming or hypnagogic state but also, he is suggesting, at the end of life when we are beginning to detach from the world we have known.
My body reacted first, way before I could begin to understand what was going on. When we connect powerfully with art this is exactly what happens, although maybe not always in such an extreme way; we feel in our bodies before we think about what we are looking at. We respond to art not simply as an object outside ourselves but as if it was another person reflecting and understanding who we are and making us react and feel. Go and see these extraordinary drawings, it’s worth the vertigo!