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Goya at the Courtauld Gallery

13 March 2015 | Chris Mugan

London Calling investigates the Courtauld Gallery's latest offering, Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album. Drawn in the last decade of his life this is an intimate insight into Goya's boundless imagination.

Drawings have long been the dowdy sisters of the art world, with sketches usually given a support role in major exhibitions to show an artist's thought process or relegated to print rooms hidden away in more august institutions. This is something the Courtauld Gallery is seeking to address with occasional shows that steer us away from painted masterpieces and, earlier this year, the opening of a specialist drawing gallery.

Now the Somerset House resident is unveiling the pen and ink equivalent of a blockbuster – an exhibition of sketches by the Spanish master Francisco Goya. Goya: The Witches And Old Women Album is the first show to bring together one of the private books used by the artist that were broken up and scattered after his death in 1828, aged 82.

Of the eight Goya albums we know about, this is possibly the most fascinating because of the insights it gives into his interior life. For rather than use the book for preparatory sketches or getting the details of noses right, Goya seems to be delving into his subconsciousness and unearthing all many of nightmarish visions, some of the most striking being crones taking flight or preparing to feast on babies.

This is more than ghoulish fancy, though. Careful research has found witchcraft remained a matter of concern in the painter's home country, while Goya himself had suffered a mysterious, life-threatening disease in his 50th year that left him deaf. Pictures of infirm women struggling to totter to unknown destinations were central to his thoughts, suggesting he was concerned with his own mortality. These delicate pen portraits, whether of evil crones or less threatening females, are achingly intimate, especially as Goya mainly presents his figures starkly with little in the way of background or framing.

Drawing on loans from the Louvre and New York's Met, the exhibition is given a quiet intensity by placing the drawings in the order experts believe they appeared on the album's pages, alongside examples from Goya's other books that show his continuing interest in sleep and dreams, old age and magic, plus more intricate works from his celebrated satirical series, the Caprichos.

The Courtauld's skill in showing these small-scale works to best effect is reflected downstairs in its brand new space, the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery, which allows the institution to display parts of its 7000-strong drawings collection during regular opening hours. To highlight the opportunity, its first exhibition is Unseen, a diverse selection of works that have not been on display in the past 20 years.

The starriest name represented is Rubens with a typically sensuous female nude, though the show ranges widely from the Renaissance to Pop Art. Highlights include Fuseli's curvaceous, yet uncanny, Back view of a full-length female figure , Jacopo Ligozzi’s sumptuous Annunciation and Francesco Squarcione's elegant Two men in conversation. Above all, it is this subtly lit, well proportioned space that allows these graceful works to shine.

Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album is on at The Courtauld Gallery 26 Feb to 25 May. For more information go here.

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