Curator of the month: Dr. Xavier Bray, Dulwich Picture Gallery
- Dulwich Picture Gallery
- 2 December 2015
December’s curator of the month is responsible for the National Gallery’s acclaimed current Goya exhibition. Here, he talks about taking risks.
Name and job title:
Xavier Bray, Arturo and Holly Melosi chief curator at Dulwich Picture Gallery.
What inspired you to become a curator?
I studied art history and quickly realised that I wanted to specialise in Spanish art. After university, however, I decided to work at Sotheby’s for a year. Although I learnt a lot about handling pictures and making attributions – I was always upset, having investigated a painting, to see it sold on the block!
What drew me to curating was the opportunity to be surrounded by objects of the highest quality which one could spend time with and research. I consider the role of a curator to be that of an intermediary between the public, the artist and the work of art. I am there to help people realise why it is important to look and how discovering a work of art can unleash ideas and emotions. Nowadays I particularly enjoy the challenge of communicating to the public. I would love to do more with television as I think there is great potential to communicate the joy of looking.
How did you become interested in Spanish art?
It was a reaction to a trend. So many people study the Italian Renaissance and this focus on Italian art meant that Spanish art has been overlooked. By specialising in Spanish art there was so much to discover, understand and explain. Also, I have a huge admiration for the country and the Spanish people and that was key as well. Yes, it was going against the mainstream, but Spanish art is now enjoying a revival.
What was your first job in the art world – and how did you get to where you are now?
After Sotheby’s, I did a Ph.D on Goya as a religious painter. A job came up at the National Gallery as an assistant curator and I went for it. I was very lucky to get it. It was a brilliant opportunity, because it was a training job. I was taught the basic skills as to how to bring pictures to life through research, exhibitions and talking about them in public. It was a pivotal moment for me. I worked for Gabriele Finaldi (the National Gallery’s new director) and learnt an enormous amount from him and (the then-director) Neil McGregor.
What has been the highlight of your career – and the biggest challenge?
I still have wonderful memories of the Sacred Made Real [an exhibition that explored the relationship between 17th century Spanish religious sculpture and painting] at the National Gallery. It was a real challenge to convince people that it was going to be an interesting show. The exhibition was very religious and some people feared that this would put people off.
“The chance to take these informed risks is one of the best things about being a curator. ”
In the end, it was the opposite. People came because they were fascinated by the connection between sculpture and painting, and how one informed the other. There was a visual conversation, but there was also a rediscovery of painted sculpture. Painted sculpture was sometimes regarded as a second-rate art form. So, in effect, the exhibition felt like putting an art form back on the map. It is difficult to do because you are going against the tide of public opinion. But it is fantastic when it works. The chance to take these informed risks is one of the best things about being a curator.
The first biggest challenge for a curator is an intellectual one. You have to present new art historical ideas but without sounding like you are lecturing the public. The second challenge is borrowing works from places that don’t usually lend. You may need those works to make certain visual points without which the story will be lost. Persuading such places can be really difficult. You just have to persevere.
One of the things that I have learnt is that it is vital to have a team that really believes in what you are trying to do and who can help you achieve your goal.
If you had one piece of advice for aspiring curators, what would it be?
Start with establishing a specialism for yourself – something that you care deeply about and something that you can be an authority on. Once you have that then you can do pretty much anything, because acquiring that specialism would have involved training and having the right mind-set. You can go and apply those skills to many different art forms.
What’s special about working at your museum?
A museum is like a temple – you come to learn and refine the mind and find inspiration. They are also places to which anyone can come. It doesn’t matter who you are, you can go in. I love that democratic side to museums. What is special about Dulwich is that, unlike the galleries in the centre of London, people need to make an effort to travel to it. It’s like a pilgrimage. That’s why I like to think of museums as temples – they are not only magnificent architectural spaces, but also spaces where art can come alive and take you away from our daily lives.
What is your favourite object in your collection/exhibition and why?
At the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a painting that I am always drawn to is Poussin’s Rinaldo and Armida. It shows Armida, a beautiful female warrior, about to kill the young and handsome Rinaldo, a Christian knight. As soon as she sees him, she just falls in love. Cupid appears and pulls back the knife, while her hand touches his, softly and suggestively. It is a very simple composition, but the way the light falls onto their figures casting soft shadows is simply magical. You relive the moment in the painting.
Away from work, how do you spend your free time?
I love singing and have recently joined a choir. I actually wanted to be an opera singer and used to sing with opera choruses and the London Symphony Chorus. Frustratingly, I never trained or learnt to read music properly.
What is the best exhibition that you have been to recently?
I absolutely loved Soundscapes, which was the exhibition at the National Gallery before Goya. It was an incredibly different exhibition for the National Gallery to undertake. Six sound artists and musicians were invited to compose new work in response to a painting they chose from the collection. I love music and found the experience of looking at a painting in a dimly lit room while hearing sound or music deeply moving. It was a truly transcendental experience and an exciting new direction for exhibitions at the National Gallery. It defied what we are so used to – music in the concert hall and paintings in a gallery. The two together are inextricably linked. I think the press gave it a very unfair bashing but as Edmund de Waal said somewhere, ‘controversy is just the start of the conversation’.