Mad dreamer or feminist of the 18th century? What Goya’s Witches Really Mean
When students come to visit the collections of prints and drawings held by the National Gallery of Victoria, says curator Petra Kayser, Goya is usually at the top of the list of requests. More than two centuries have perhaps passed since he pictured himself slumped, exhausted, on his drawing board, besieged in his dreams by marauding bats, owls and an alert perch cat (The sleep of reason produces monsters, part of the Caprichos series of 1799), but this man beaten by the flapping wings of a nightmarish hell could still be any of us.
Not that we know exactly what the master is saying. Not sure, anyway. Are these predators lurking in its own subconscious, and do they come up once its guard is down? It may sound too much like psychoanalysis; Sigmund Freud was only born in 1856. Is it an allegory, where the artist represents the Enlightenment constantly attacked by superstition and tyranny? Or are they real monsters? Like a puzzle as much as a brilliantly executed picture, The sleep of reason is as powerfully enticing now as ever. âBecause the images are not literal, there is not a single interpretation that exhausts their meaning,â Kayser explains. âSo you can keep coming back to them. “
What she thinks that makes Goya’s work so fascinating, especially for young people, is his fearlessness in the face of big subjects. âFear, imagination and the unknown: I think it’s the darkness and the complexity of the images. And, of course, there is the satire that prompts us to recognize the things we do on our own. Â»An unfriendly man who approaches a young woman in the street (Young man looking through a magnifying glass at a Maja) was shady in 1795 and still looks shady today. And there is no doubt that Goya’s most hated targets. A parrot in the pulpit (What a golden beak! 1799) might as well shout from the rooftops the artist’s furious anticlericalism.
Goya: Drawings from the Prado Museum at the NGV brings together 160 works on paper by the master, including 44 drawings from the Prado in Madrid and 120 etchings from the Caprichos (âCapricesâ); the disasters of war (1810-15); the taurine series Tauromaquia (1815-16); and the late grotesque and apocalyptic works of Les Disparates (âFoliesâ) of 1815-19. Francisco de Goya made his living as a court painter – remarkably, he managed to retain the favor of four monarchs, even the one installed by the French Emperor Napoleon – while obtaining commissions for worldly portraits and church frescoes .
The drawings and etchings, on the other hand, were mostly private, although he sold them in bound editions. âThe main idea is that we show the un-commissioned works,â Kayser explains. âIt is therefore a work not funded by patrons, where it could be free – well not too free, but relatively free – to present difficult subjects.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about these works is that Goya didn’t start composing drawings until he was almost 50 years old. Until then, the only drawings he made were preparatory sketches. The turning point came in 1792 when, at the age of 47, he was bedridden with a mysterious disease (since tentatively diagnosed as an autoimmune disease called Susac syndrome, which affects the brain, eyes and ears). It took him two years to recover and, catastrophically, made him deaf. Goya had been gregarious; he loved hunting (much more than painting, he said); he played the guitar; he loved the theater. As a worldly painter under the patronage of a liberal king, he could boast, and did, that wherever he went, people knew who he was.
âI can only imagine this is an extraordinary turning point for Goya,â says Cathy Leahy, Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings at NGV. “It is mentioned that one of his colleagues learned sign language to speak with him, but he had to give up his post as director of the Academy of Painting.” He left Madrid. âI imagine there was a withdrawal there. But it is also that the political climate was very difficult [under a liberal but weak king, Charles IV], with many of his close friends who go into exile. Goya had many reasons to be angry.