He wakes up kicking.
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A masterful restoration pulls visitors deep into Goya's haunted thoughts

Goya is better known for his portraiture and group paintings. But a restoration of the artist's private notebooks show a different side, where ghosts and witches abound in profoundly unnerving sketches.

Goya: the Witches and Old Women Album
Courtauld Gallery, London WC2

It was not a writer or a philosophe who came up with the pithiest encapsulation of Enlightenment thinking ever coined, but an artist. The aphorism “The sleep of reason produces monsters” was inscribed by Francisco Goya on a celebrated image that shows the artist asleep at his desk while a nightmarish murmuration of lynxes, owls and bats swirls up from the darkness around him. For Goya, the creatures of the night released from his imagination represented the ills that afflicted Spain during the late 18th and early 19th centuries: a corrupt and self-serving church, a flawed monarchy, a rapacious aristocracy and a populace in thrall to superstition. The print was part of Los Caprichos (the caprices), a satirical collection of etchings published in 1799. Ten days after the volume appeared, Goya withdrew it from sale for fear of the Inquisition: reason, as he saw it, was still in a sleep so deep as to be almost comatose.

This precaution, however, did not stop him from examining further the mysteries of the subconscious. For a man dedicated to the light of reason, he was fascinated to the point of obsession with human folly and the things that lurk in the dark. His focus was sharpened by personal tragedy. All but one of his six children died as infants. And in 1793, at the age of 47, he had suffered a catastrophic illness that left him totally deaf and locked him in his own world, distancing him from human society. Like his contemporaries – and fellow oddballs – William Blake and Henry Fuseli, Goya filtered the world through his “inner eye”, and he began to record what he saw in a series of eight albums, subsequently labelled by scholars A to H. These albums were not pattern-books of poses and scenes intended as preparatory works for paintings. The pictures they contained were works of the imagination, private images that catalogued the artist’s omnivorous interest in the human animal.

After Goya’s death in 1828 the albums passed first to his son, Javier, and then to the painter’s adored but feckless grandson Mariano (who squandered the family money while awarding himself the aristocratic title Marquis of Espinar). Between them, father and son broke up the volumes, combined most of the images into joint albums and later sold them. Many of the pictures were bought by the painter Federico de Mad­razo, who went on to become the director of the Prado. He pasted his sheets on to pink paper and rebound them in the 1860s into three albums factices – albums containing a mixed selection of images meant to divert the viewer. So, within 40 or so years of Goya’s death the coherence of the compilations, and the insight they offered into his mental processes, had been lost. Now the contents of one of them, Album D, the Witches and Old Women Album, made around 1819, have been brought together for the first time in 150 years and are on show at the Courtauld Gallery in London.

For adherents of Goya this is a thrilling reconstruction and a wonderful exercise in scholarship by Juliet Wilson-Bareau and Stephanie Buck. By reuniting 22 of the original 23 images (sheet number nine is lost), inveigled from 12 different public institutions and two private collectors, the curators give us a glimpse into Goya’s mind. The minutiae of stylistic and technical analysis, of posthumous history, numbering and dating (for committed students, the new consensus for the chronology of the albums runs ABCFEDGH) are mightily impressive. But ultimately the niceties of scholarship, however absorbing, are secondary. What makes this exhibition so exciting is that Goya was one of art’s very greatest exponents, a man who mixed a unique and often unfathomable personal vision with breathtaking technical facility. The Album D pictures – and a selection of related images from various albums – may be small in scale but they represent art at its very highest pitch.

Wicked Woman

The pictures are executed solely in brush and grey ink, and show not just witches and old women but also the occasional old man – all topics that crop up in the other albums, too. Some figures float in the air, the off-white of the paper representing the void; some are sinister; some are comic; some show the indignities of old age; some teeter on the edge of horror. Goya gave each one a title, written at the bottom in black chalk – Nightmare, Covetous Old Hag, Dream of a Good Witch – that describes what is going on but does not explain it. They are scenes that defy rational explanation and one doubts whether even Goya knew exactly what they represented.

But every single sheet is profoundly unnerving. In some it is obvious why: a witch carrying a bundle of babies tied to a stick as an offering to the Grand Witch Master, for example, or Wicked Woman, showing a skull-like creature about to eat a naked child (although witch trials had largely died out by Goya’s time, he was familiar with cases from the 17th century as published in later accounts). Others disquieten more insidiously: an old man wakes from sleep kicking and screaming (what nightmare is he fleeing?); another lies snoring, his toothy mouth agape as if ready to bite. Seemingly innocent old women praying or talking to a cat look on a second glance like procuresses or occult figures.

For Goya in these works, there is no distinction between the supernatural and the human worlds and evil is within as well as without. These are studies of the uncomfortable side of humanity – its vanities, illusions and desires – and, as such, are universal. That the artist rarely suggests a setting and that the figures are surrounded by an empty expanse of paper only enhances the essential isolation of the human condition.

The album starts with a series of flying figures; they are a subversion of the angels and putti of religious art and, in particular, those painted by the Tiepolos in Madrid in the 1760s. In Goya’s images divine order and the divine realm have been replaced by their opposites. Here old men and women float in space and are driven upwards or downwards by their emotions. A positive mood acts like hot air beneath a balloon (Mirth and They Ascend Joyfully) and the figures rise; malignity or discord makes them fall (They Descend Quarrelling). In another, Dream of Flogging, which shows a corpse-like man being borne aloft and spanked by three witches, the propulsion seems to come from sexual desire (this picture, appropriately, sits between groups of images showing scenes of flying and nightmares).

Even those sheets depicting the mundane follies of old age carry a frisson. An elderly woman telling her rosary as she dreams hopelessly of marriage and another praying devoutly are interspersed with sinister images – a pair scuffling (Old Women Fight Too), or hoarding bags of gold. As a result, similarly, they are open to darker readings. As the drawings play out, what they suggest is the neural flicker in Goya’s brain as one scene gave rise to the next, though the pathways linking them have disappeared.

What Folly Still to Be Thinking of Marriage

If the meanings of the pictures will for ever be equivocal, what is indisputable is their technical brilliance. Using brushes of varying fineness and a dark wash ranging in tone from black to pale grey, Goya invented figures (these are not drawn from models but rather recomposed from recollections of people he had seen in the street) in a huge variety of often complicated poses. A flick of the wrist is enough to conjure up a cloak; a flurry of lines brings out hands and feet; a dab of black an open mouth; two tiny dots eyes wide in horror. The facility of the brushwork is enough in itself to lift them away from caricature. But the spontaneity and rapidity are deceptive; the sheets also show evidence of figures being scraped out and limbs repositioned for better effect. As such, the pictures are not a visual equivalent of automatic writing – a record of the unmediated unconscious: these are proper compositions. Whatever it was that Goya was trying to say, he took great care in saying it.

These are also pictures that are literally and figuratively magical: there is the dark stuff of the witches’ world and the altogether more benign type (magic as miracle) in the skill that enabled Goya to give visual form to his haunted imaginings.

This exhilarating exhibition is part one of Goya’s double presence in London this year; in October a major display of his portraits will open at the National Gallery. It will make a perfect contrast: a chance to see the artist’s public face after this, his private one. One wonders if his sitters – from his rumoured lover the Duchess of Alba and the Duke of Wellington to Charles IV and the prime minister Manuel Godoy – had any inkling, as he eyed their features and translated them on to the canvas, of the strange and unsettling visions that were bubbling away in the painter’s mind.

Until 25 May. More details: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution