Curating “Goya: Mad Reason”

Working on Goya: Mad Reason, the artist’s prints and paintings—art I have long known—worked upon me. The depth of understanding and feeling for Goya’s art grew deeper in that process. These objects reshaped me a little bit with each encounter, like river’s current reworking a landscape. I hope audiences shared a bit of that experience with these objects. As the show enters its last week, I am stepping back to share a bit about the process of shaping this exhibition.

Managing Curator, Douglas Cushing, gives a tour of Goya: Mad Reason
Managing Curator, Douglas Cushing, gives a tour of Goya: Mad Reason

When I was an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Blanton during 2014-15, Yale University Art Gallery hosted me for a week of slow examination of three of Goya’s mature series from their Arthur Ross Collection: La tauromaquia [The Art of Bullfighting], Los desastres de la guerra [The Disasters of War], and Los disparates [Follies], and provided an opportunity to begin to formulate initial questions about the works. Yale made these prints available to the Blanton Museum by way of its collection-sharing initiative, a program aimed at helping educational institutions such as ours to stage exhibitions with substantial loans from their collection. Arranging for the painting loans the next year meant researching those objects and explaining to each of our generous lenders (The Kimbell Art Museum, Meadows Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) the important role their object would play in our exhibition.

A view of Goya: Mad Reason in SketchUp
The digital model view of Goya: Mad Reason

I performed bulk of the research for Goya: Mad Reason concurrently with the design of the space itself, during the year leading up to the exhibit. For the design component, I created a digital 3D model to visualize the space. This tool allowed experimentation with wall placement and configuration, hanging, color, and even lighting—results that the curatorial and installation teams could readily judge and reconfigure. From the beginning, I wanted to establish three unique spaces, each corresponding to one of the three major series on display. Each gallery, I felt, needed a unique color, hanging, and sensory experience, reinforcing Goya’s content on an unconscious level and breaking up the proliferation of prints.

For the entrance to the exhibit, we chose Goya’s figures perched on a dead branch from his Disparate Ridiculo. These curious beings loom above, watching in silence and affecting bodies below them on both physical and emotional levels, sentinels of a sort for Goya’s dynamic landscape of reason and unreason.

On the wall spanning the first gallery’s entrance from the atrium, the graceful bullfighter Pedro Romero greets visitors from Goya’s psychologically rich portrait. His presence prefigures the Tauromaquia gallery beyond. Once inside, two angled walls round out the space, hinting at an encompassing quality of the bullring. The prints are hung ringing like crowds ringing the stands. In the room’s center, a large vinyl graphic of Juanito Apiñani pole-vaulting a bull acts as the hub around which the room wheels. The gallery’s yellow walls suggest the sun and sand, so essential to the bullfight. The color was integral to numerous Spanish verses on bullfighting that I encountered in my research (along with blood red and bull black).

Image of Goya: Mad Reason installation Goya’s Tauromaquia is placed achronologically ahead of the Disasters of War in the sequence of galleries; this reshuffling highlights Goya’s artistic choices. Goya never published his Disasters or Disparates in his lifetime. Instead, the Royal Academy in Madrid first published the series decades after the artist’s death. Though produced from the master’s plates, those prints inevitably include some aesthetic choices—paper, ink color, tonal range, etc.—belonging to the printers. The Tauromaquia, by comparison, reveals Goya’s absolute intention.

Pedro Romero’s entrance wall also blocks the sunlight entering from the atrium. This is important for the objects we are displaying, because light tends to damage works on paper more rapidly than it does paintings. While the light in the galleries appears varied, all the prints are illuminated with the same carefully controlled range of four to five foot-candles of light—the maximum allowed by the lender. Wall colors and lighting arrangement create a sense of variety despite the necessarily low lighting throughout the exhibition.

Upon first entering the exhibit, visitors will quickly notice that our labels are not in their expected place. This was done with purpose. Goya carefully sequenced his Tauromaquia and Disasters series, intending audiences to view these works in order and without the interruption of long explanations between images. Respecting this fact, we set out to simultaneously allow for two kinds of viewing: one where visitors can view unbroken sequences of images and another where they have an immediate, easy way to further explanation if desired. Based on an installation she has seen elsewhere, Cassandra Smith, Manager of Exhibitions, suggested the shelf solution. James Swann, Coordinator of Technical Staff, and his team then built a test wall, and the exhibition committee experimented with different shelf heights and angles, as well label color variations. Through trial and error, we arrived at the best placement for the greatest number of viewers. In the Disasters gallery, James used different shades for wall and shelf in order to compensate for the extra light striking the shelves at their angle.

Image of installation view of Goya Mad ReasonAdjoining the Tauromaquia gallery is Goya’s Disasters of War. There, an earthy red paints yields unsettling intensity, reflecting the searing violence and suffering the artist depicts. After the roundness of the Tauromaquia space, this room stretches out, hall-like. Traversing the room’s length is, bodily and conceptually, a metaphor for pacing out the history of the war. The prints are hung in odd-numbered clusters, an arrangement suggested by the repeated clusters of figures and bodies that Goya employed in his Disasters compositions. This hanging also denotes a discontinuity with Tauromaquia, signaling a new space and prompting viewers to refresh their mode of viewing. The two-tiered hang also allows for our display of the entire Disasters series. Presenting the series in full is a challenge with over eighty prints, and it causes many museums to show only selections.

The sight lines associated with the paintings in this gallery help to guide visitors through the spaces in a prescribed manner. The painting of the Students from the Pestalozzian Academy is hung on a direct line of sight from the spot where one views the final Tauromaquia print. The painting’s color contrasts with Goya’s monochrome prints, making it call out at a distance. Set among the war’s “atrocities,” this painted fragment also stands as a reminder of the social breakdown that accompanied the conflict. Stepping into the Disasters galley, Goya’s Still Life with Golden Bream draws attention to the gallery’s far end, a distant landmark as the viewer follows course of the war in Goya’s manifest visions.

The final gallery, dedicated to Goya’s mysterious Disparates, attempts to echo that series’ drama and visual as well as conceptual adriftness. By using spotlights whose light falls off between paired prints, and employing a dark grey-brown paint, viewers might feel a solitary connection with the paired works. Pragmatically, the room’s darkness also disguises a column, one of four that had to be incorporated into the exhibit’s plan.

Installation view of Goya Mad ReasonIn place of the traditional audio guide, we opted for audio stations within each of the three spaces. Each audio track (recorded at KUT by their Production Director, David Alvarez, and edited by Mary Myers) sets contemporary speakers alongside historical voices, moving back and forth in time and heightening the sense in which Goya’s work continues to address us across centuries. I hope that visitors carry echoes of these voices with them as they move through the galleries, enriching their multisensory experience.

Curating Goya: Mad Reason has been a joy, allowing me to collaborate with the community of talented professionals at Blanton and to work with some of the most powerful, masterful art I know. If Goya still manages to arrest our interest, as I believe he does, it is because we keep returning to his work in order to discover ourselves, past and present. We uncover in these works mirrors reflecting our darkest depths set alongside indications of the soaring humanity to which we aspire.

Douglas Cushing is the managing curator of Goya: Mad Reason, and earned his BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design and his MA in art history at the University of Texas at Austin. Douglas is currently a PhD student in art history at the University of Texas at Austin working on exchanges between art and literature in the avant-garde. 

Goya: Mad Reason is on view through September 25, 2016.

1 thought on “Curating “Goya: Mad Reason””

  1. Really enjoyed reading the post! I saw the exhibition and was definitely impressed. I had seen his works before, but he’s one of those artists that one can study for a while. I look forward to more similar exhibitions at the museum – it’s always such a treat!


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