I have managed to resist a trip to London to view the latest batch of blockbuster exhibitions but not the buying of the catalogue for the exhibition The Witches and Old Women Album by Goya at The Courtauld Gallery. It will join on my shelves books of Goya’s drawings and all his etching series, drawings and etchings by Rembrandt, and drawings by Watteau. Graphic work in reproduction is much more satisfactory than paintings reproduced in book form, and these three artists are favourites of mine. The twenty-two works from the Courtauld exhibition in the catalogue are presented in the exact size of the originals.

Witches and Old Women was not Goya’s title for the album, and it has to be said that the witch theme does not show Goya at his best. In his study of Goya, the critic Robert Hughes explained how the artist was commissioned to produced a series of witchcraft paintings for the Duke and Duchess of Osumas, who were titillated by the subject ‘rather as one might display a faux-naïve or campy taste for horror movies’. I would use an adjective to describe some of these works, which would generally be thought spectacularly inappropriate for Goya’s work. Witches in the Air seems to me a silly piece, and The Witches’ Sabbath, with its comical billy goat, is little better:

The etchings in Los Caprichos featuring witches and goblins are surely the weakest in the collection. And there is even a horror-entertainment aspect to some of the late Black Paintings. The Witches’ Sabbath from that group, despite the expressionist power of the witches’ faces, still has a silhouetted goat that wouldn’t be out of place in a children’s book:

Goya didn’t need fairy-tale horror or even legends like Saturn devouring his sons to inspire him.  He lived through the Peninsular War. His genius for unusual compositions is evident from the first in the Rococo tapestry cartoons, but it reaches its greatest heights in the etching series The Disasters of War. It was achieved without the licence for air-born figures, much evident in the so-called Witches and Old Women Album, that the supernatural world of witches gave him. Where it did pay off magnificently was in the mysterious Sabbath-Asmodeus from the Black Paintings series:

But the catalogue I bought was not a disappointment. The exhibition has given critics a problem. It is almost impossible to describe some of the drawings without reverting to words like ‘hag’ and ‘crone,’ which have no real equivalent for males. The Sunday Times art critic, Vlademar Januszczak, has even accused Goya of 'spectacularly unrestrained' misogyny. Yet, the albums title does not accurately describe all the contents. The drawing chosen for the catalogue cover, Mirth, shows a jolly couple of advanced years embracing in mid-air. There are several works best described as genre pieces: an old women on her knees saying her prayers; two old women fighting; a ninety-eight year old man with two sticks; another who wakes up kicking; an old women who talks to her cat, with nothing to suggest that she is a witch with her familiar. All the works are drawn with brush using black and grey ink. Two of them, Covetous Old Hag and Mother Celestina, the archetype Spanish bawd, are remarkable for their use of the medium to show poverty and ragged clothing.

One ambiguous work, entitled Dream of a Good Witch, I vote Goya’s best-ever witch image. It shows a bent old woman carrying on her back a load of trussed-up babies. It is interesting to compare this drawing with another from the album, showing a woman holding a child. Her definitely witchified features, sharp teeth and all, leave us in no doubt that she is about to eat the child, but it is the stuff of grim or Grimm’s fairy tales. We may shudder, but we are not meant to really believe. The realness of the women in the Good Witch drawing, on the other hand, takes us out of the area of horror titillation. We may think of famine cannibalism or some edict from above – the killing of the first born or something like that – where the poor are brought in to do the evil work.