Goya: Mad Reason | An Interview with Curator Douglas Cushing

On June 19, the Blanton opened Goya: Mad Reason, an exhibition featuring nearly 150 prints and paintings by renowned Spanish court painter Francisco de Goya. These works illustrate the artist’s mastery of forms and concepts as he grappled with the changing political and intellectual landscape of his native Spain in the early nineteenth century. To learn more about the show, we recently sat down with Curator Douglas Cushing to get an inside scoop on all things Goya.

Douglas Cushing giving a tour of Goya: Mad Reason
Douglas Cushing giving a tour of Goya: Mad Reason

How did you become interested in researching Goya and his print series?

When I was an art student undergrad at RISD, I developed a love for Goya in tandem with my love of the Surrealists and Dadaists. With his humor, humanity, and strangeness, as well as his very distinct style, Goya seemed very modern and very much a predecessor to those later movements. While my art history masters and PhD research has remained with the modernists, for me, avant-garde movements of the twentieth century like Surrealism owe much to the art and ideas of the Romantic artists. Goya is, in many ways, a Spanish proto-Romantic. That is one of the many ways in which Goya has remained so perennially relevant—in a sense he is still there in the work of the twentieth century. Finally, my partner is an artist and printmaker, and since I came to Austin for grad school, I’ve spent many hours at Slugfest Printmaking Workshop in Austin, printing and socializing. Being around so many artists has only redoubled the respect I have long had for Goya’s technique, artistic production, and ideas. In many ways, he is an artist’s artist, but that assertion leads to other pastures.

Can you explain the significance of the exhibition’s subtitle, Mad Reason?

The title, for me, began with an observation made by philosopher Michel Foucault. He wrote,

The Goya of the Disparates and the Quinta del sordo (the house where he painted his famous black paintings, now at the Prado) addresses another madness altogether: not that of the mad who were thrown into prison, but that of man cast into his own night. He renews a connection, beyond memory, with the old worlds of enchantment, of fantastic rides, of witches perched on the branches of dead trees.

from History of Madness

Foucault’s point is that the madness that Goya shows to us is not pathological madness, not mental illness (though he did paint those imprisoned in asylums), but rather the madness that is a necessary condition of modern thought.

Goya lived through Spain’s limited entry into the Enlightenment, a movement that valued principles of individual liberty, progress, religious tolerance, and above all, the power of rational thought. Because the movement prioritized reason over irrational thought, a division emerged between the Enlightenment’s “light” and the darkness of irrational thought that preceded it. In a sense, the Enlightenment aimed to contain the irrational by naming and categorizing it. This thought process that emerged in Goya’s day became the framework that we continue to navigate in contemporary life today.

Especially in his prints, Goya allows us to see that this division is deceptive. The irrational night we work so hard to separate from ourselves still rises to the surface of reason precisely because it is a part of it, because it is always part of us. This “unreason” emerges in creativity and imagination, in war, and the thrall of certain spectacles, and even in our cultural rituals and values. Goya’s “mad reason” is ours as well.

A visitor looks at prints hanging on a wall in goya mad reason

Goya was severely ill and suffered from deafness throughout the later part of his life and career. How do you believe these conditions affected his work?

This is a difficult question. As an art historian I try to separate facts from speculation, without completely discounting the latter. We can say that Goya’s health problems both isolated him and made some of his friendships more intense. The enlightened statesman Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, for instance, learned signing to communicate with Goya. On the other side of things, Goya had to step down from teaching duties at the royal academy, a position he worked hard to attain, because he couldn’t hear his students. This wounded him. It is tempting to say that Goya’s isolation made him more introspective and empathetic. He was never broken by these hardships, however; he continued to be enthralled by learning and experimentation in processes, techniques, and ways of conceiving of visual representation.

Beyond Goya’s emotional responses to his illness and deafness, his long convalescence might have had a profound effect on his mature work. During this time, Goya remained in Cádiz in southern Spain with his friend Sebastián Martínez. Martínez had a collection of over seven hundred paintings including old masters such as Titian, Rubens, Velázquez, and Ribera, artist’s whose work greatly affected Goya’s artistic outlook. Moreover, Martínez had a collection of thousands of prints, including works by William Hogarth and William Blake. Both artists’ work took ethical positions and Hogarth’s humor as well as Blake’s imagination must have offered remarkable insights for Goya. Given that historical footnote, Goya’s extensive painterly use of tonal etching, as well as his affinity for social commentary and fantastic invention, might have found some grounding in the worst period of the artist’s illness.

Works in the print series Los Disparates [Follies] are known for lacking clear symbolic meaning, making them difficult to decipher. What do you hope visitors will take away from this series in particular?

I hope that audiences take time to reflect on how Goya’s Disparates affect our way of thinking and knowing today. If we confront the idea that the irrational is something that cannot, or should not, be entirely overcome, maybe we can find a new way of engaging with our world. We might explore the irrational where it produces great cultural works or promotes inventiveness, and we might recognize and restrain our irrational tendencies where they lead to unbelievable destruction.

The act of spending time with Goya’s Disparates is challenging. We assume that even the most difficult puzzles have correct solutions. Goya gives us puzzles without such guarantee. We are so used to trying to quickly find truth and meaning in art and media that these works are in a way uncomfortable to deal with. Living with that discomfort is an opportunity to grow, I think. It helps us to recognize that some portion of our experience of being human always eludes language and rational thought. No matter how hard we try, no description of a feeling will ever wholly capture the experience.

Moreover, the Disparates represent a high point in Goya’s mastery of printmaking. Even though a printmaker published the series after Goya’s death, it’s apparent just how far the artist pushed intaglio printmaking to produce subtleties of painterly tone and expressiveness of line. There’s just one black ink color used to make all of these prints, and yet there are a rainbows of colors and tones that we might discover in Goya’s blacks and greys, visually and emotionally.

Si resucitará? (Will She Rise Again?), Plate 80, from Los desastres de la guerra (The Disasters of War), circa 1814-15, pub. 1863, Etching and burnisher, The Arthur Ross Collection
Si resucitará? (Will She Rise Again?), Plate 80, from Los desastres de la guerra (The Disasters of War), circa 1814-15, pub. 1863, Etching and burnisher, The Arthur Ross Collection

How do the themes in Goya: Mad Reason remain relevant to viewers today?

I think that many visitors will be surprised to learn how contested the place of bullfighting was in Spain even in Goya’s day. Looking at Goya’s growing ambivalence towards the pastime in his Tauromaquia [a series depicting bullfights], we might reflect upon our own violent sports and rituals—claimed by many to be essential to our culture. Similarly, many among us, myself included, recoil at the abuse of animals and yet we still eat meat. We constantly make choices that appear rational on the surface, but the ethical ground these decisions rest on is less secure, and often come down to a series of arbitrary choices or our ability to simultaneously hold contradictory ideas. Through Goya, we might also ask: where can the line can be drawn between essential culture and empty spectacle? I think that was a question Goya wrestled with after the Peninsular War as he thought about the bullfighting he loved so through much of his life.

Goya’s treatment of conflict in his Disasters of War is, unfortunately, all too relevant today. Goya unflinchingly depicts war’s savage brutality, sexual violence against women as weapon, the horrors of military occupation and martial governance, the mindless violence of mob justice, famine, and the mass migration of refugees escaping war. In the series, Goya denies us the easy comfort of a hero and villain. Everyone is complicit in the violence, and Goya refuses to clarify explicit boundaries between good and evil.

Despite all of these abuses, Goya ends his series on the war with two images of Truth personified. In the first, Truth is dead, but in the second he asks if she will rise again. Even in the midst of a country transitioning from war to repression, Goya retained a sense of hope for the future. Knowing ourselves better by knowing the limits of our reason, as explored in the Disparates, is one path towards progress and the better world that Goya sought for humanity. Rather than taking away only Goya’s despair and outrage, I hope that visitors will recognize his optimism, even in the face of some of Spain’s darkest hours.

Goya: Mad Reason is on view at the Blanton through September 25. On Saturday, July 16, the Blanton will hold a printmaking workshop in conjunction with the exhibition. For more information and to register, please click here.

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