Ribera: Art of Violence @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

The first painting in this exhibition of the Spanish Baroque painter, draughtsman and printmaker, Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), is the best, and epitomises Ribera’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

It is the loving and exquisite depiction of a scene of gruesome violence. St Bartholomew the Apostle is being tied down in preparation for being flayed alive. The figures at left and right stare out at us with leering, evil grins. The saint was condemned, back in Roman times, for refusing to worship a pagan statue, and knocking it down – the head of the smashed Greek statue is beneath his bottom.

On the plus side, this is an enormous and spectacularly dramatic painting, which totally dominates the dark room it hangs in. In this painting more than any of the others on show, you can see the influence of Caravaggio, in the dramatic use of deep jet black over large areas of the canvas, from which the saint’s chest and thighs and right arm emerge with stark clarity, and from which the leering faces of his torturers also loom grotesquely.

Not only that, but the anatomic realism of the saint’s body is stunning, his long left thigh, bony hips, wrinkled belly and detailed shoulder bone, muscle and ligature. Then there is the superbly realistic dark folds of the cloth at bottom right, and the astonishingly realistic Greek statue head. Taken together, all these elements make for a gripping and thrilling visual experience.

And it is an experience, a staging, an enactment. There is no doubting the way that the leering faces pull the viewer in, giving us a sort of central role in the scene, not as passive onlookers but as active participants – and that the whole thing amounts to an artfully staged scene from the great theatre of Christian suffering and redemption.

On the down side, of course, it is also the precise and loving portrayal of an act of unspeakable violence which, if you really focus on the excruciating agony of what is to come, revolts the mind. That is the catch-22 which any fan of Ribera is caught in.

The exhibition

This is the first UK exhibition of works by Ribera, routinely described as a master of the Spanish Baroque. In several places the promotional material and press release they say the aim of the show is to question and reassess the conventional view of Ribera as a portrayer of violent and gruesome scenes of torture.

In which case it pretty much fails, since almost all the material here shows scenes of violence and torture. If, like me, you knew nothing about Ribera before you visited, images of tormented, tortured, tied up and screaming men is definitely the impression you take away.

The exhibition consists of eight paintings and 30 or so drawings and sketches. The paintings show the flaying of St Bartholomew (twice), the flaying of Marsyas by Apollo, women treating St Narcissus after he’s been shot dead with arrows, big portrait of a  skin flayer standing holding a flensing knife and the skin of a man he has just detached from his body. Violence against men, in other words, depicted with astonishing realism and gripping drama.

Marsyas and Apollo by Jusepe de Ribera (1637) Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

Marsyas and Apollo by Jusepe de Ribera (1637) Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

This depiction of Apollo calmly starting to flay the satyr Marsyas is incredibly disturbing. As with Bartholomew, we note the amazing details – the musculature and anatomy of the old satyr is shown in staggering detail, while the pink cloak and seraphic expression of Apollo are as perfect as Titian. Over on the right Marsyas’s wailing fellow satyrs look like characters from Goya.

But then you notice the big red gash at the upper right of the painting, a red wound, into which the calm, expressionless Apollo is inserting his right hand. This appears to be the opening in Marsyas’s flesh which the god will now calmly extend over his whole body, slowly calmly unpeeling the man while he screams and screams.

Beyond flaying

The exhibition includes a section about the importance of skin – both as an organ to all of us, and as a symbolic theme for artists. It contains an anatomical textbook from Ribera’s day, showing a completely flayed man in order to illustrate and explain the complexity of human musculature. Next to this is what I thought was a parchment but turns out to be human skin with emblems tattooed on it, and next to this, some wall labels explaining the cultural significance of tattooing.

This is an example of the way the exhibition attempts to take us beyond the obvious subject of flaying, crucifixion and torture, in order to persuade us that Ribera described these subjects as part of a wider intellectual framework.

This is epitomised by the one painting of the eight, which isn’t about torture. This shows a shabby tramp holding an onion, with an orange blossom and garlic on the table in front of him. It was one of a series Ribera painted about the senses, showing the attributes of the five bodily senses in a manner derived from medieval science and philosophy.

Also non-flaying is the series of drawings Ribera made for students to study from, academic studies of faces, noses, mouths, ears and eyes. These are all done with great skill if, admittedly, a noticeable taste for the grotesque which remind the viewer of similar studies by earlier Old Masters, such as Leonardo.

Studies of the nose and mouth by Jusepe de Ribera (1622) © the trustees of the British Museum

Studies of the nose and mouth by Jusepe de Ribera (1622) © The trustees of the British Museum

But the effort to dilute the horror of the main images by persuading us that they are part of

  1. Ribera’s broader artistic activity
  2. 17th century Italy’s wider cultural concerns about the power of the senses and the importance of the skin

is undermined when we move on to the next room, which is devoted to images of men – generally old helpless men, like Bartholomew – tied to trees.

The lucky ones are just tied in painful positions. The less lucky ones have been bound to trees and are being whipped. The really unlucky ones have been tied to trees and are being… flayed alive. The audio commentary astonished me by saying that no less than a quarter of Ribera’s entire surviving output consists of images of men tied to trees.

Mostly these are drawings and sketches, often done in red chalk and, as a fan of draughtsmanship, there is much to admire about the often hurried sketchlike appearance of the drawings which, nonetheless, vividly convey the sense of tied and suffering humanity.

An exception which proves the rule is this rare engraving, showing much more detail than the drawings do.  It depicts, of course, Ribera’s favourite subject, an old man tied to a tree and being tortured. I think the man on the right is using scissors or a knife and has already flayed the skin off Bartholomew’s entire forearm. The man on the left is holding two sticks linked by a fine chain, no doubt some implement of further torture, and is leering knowingly out at us, the same device Ribera uses in the paintings, to implicate the worldly viewer in this appalling scene.

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1624) etching © The New York Public Library

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1624) etching © The New York Public Library

Note the hand emerging from the clouds and holding a martyr’s crown for the old man. All the consolation a believer needs, though scant consolation for those of us without faith.

Imagine the fuss if an artist of this era had devoted his life’s work to depicting the binding, tying, flaying and torturing of women. Imagine the controversy if a gallery devoted an entire exhibition to the depiction of women being bound, flayed and tortured!

But an artist who devoted his time to the loving depiction of torturing old men, to obsessive reiteration of images of the male body being bound and flayed and hanged and speared? Meh. No problem. Taken for granted.

Dark and gloomy layout

I’ve been visiting Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions for over ten years. The exhibition space consists of a straight line of three smallish rooms, interrupted by a kind of small corridor into the museum’s mausoleum, then three more rooms. And the rooms are generally well lit so you can enjoy the works of E.H. Shepherd or Tove Jansson or Ravilious or David Hockney in a light and airy space.

For this show they have made what I think is the most drastic alteration to the layout I’ve seen. First of all they’ve created partitions with entrances on alternating sides, so that walking through feels like more of a slalom or zigzag between than a stately progress through individual rooms.

Second, all the walls have been painted a very dark grey bordering on black. Third, the lighting has been turned way, way down. It is dark and gloomy throughout. Entering the first room is more like entering a church than a gallery, a Baroque Catholic church in Italy packed with images of torture and suffering.

This layout and design give the big pictures, with their eerie combination of artistically exquisite detail and stomach-turning subject matter, a tremendous impact.

Eye witness to torture

Ribera was born in Spain but moved to Naples (which was under the control of the Spanish crown in the 17th century) where he picked up commissions from church and secular authorities. The Catholic Counter-Reformation (from the 1620s onwards) as a cultural movement, placed great emphasis on the depiction of physical suffering. It coincided with the rise of opera as an art form in Italy. These all tended to a great theatricality of presentation. Caravaggio from the generation before him (1571-1610) was a startling innovator in the art of the dramatic use of light and dark dark black shadow, and it is easy to detect his influence on the best of Ribera’s work.

Given the complex political, religious and cultural background of the times, it is striking that the commentary and wall labels spend less time on his biography than I’m used to, and a lot more time trying to situate his obsession with torture in the wider context of the culture of the day – not only the Counter-Reformation interest in the depiction of suffering and martyrdom, but – as mentioned – an intellectual interest in the workings of the body, of anatomy, the senses and so on. Hence the tramp epitomising the sense of smell, the training sketches of eyes and ears.

But this aim was, for me, once again trumped in the penultimate room by a section about Ribera’s work as an eyewitness to the numerous public hangings and tortures of his day. A huge painting, Tribunale della Vicaria, by an unknown contemporary artist shows the square in front of the law courts of Naples. Initially all you notice is the busy throng of 17th century folk going about their everyday business, from  lords and ladies to beggars via various street sellers and performers. It takes a while before you notice, at the centre of the busy scene, a man dangling from a rope in front of the hall.

Public hangings, executions, burnings and torture were commonplace, and the exhibition devotes this room to a) explaining this fact and b) displaying a series of pen and ink sketches which Ribera obviously made, sometimes in a rush, of these scenes.

He seems to have been particularly attracted to the use of the strappado, whereby a man’s hands were bound behind his back and then strung up from a scaffold. This had the effect of slowly wrenching the arms out of their sockets, causing immense pain. Here is just such a man being interrogated by officials from the Inquisition, apparently drawn from life. Imagine being there. Imagine watching this take place. Imagine hearing the screams.

Inquisition scene by Jusepe de Ribera (1635) pen and brown ink. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by Erik Gould

Inquisition scene by Jusepe de Ribera (1635) pen and brown ink. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by Erik Gould

Apparently, earlier critics have accused Ribera of himself being a sadist, with an unhealthy interest in these scenes and an unrelenting focus on sadism. This is the slur which the curators are keen to refute.

I’m happy to go along with their ‘reassessment’, and I read and understood their attempt to put Ribera’s paintings and drawings in a broader artistic, cultural and social context, where scenes of torture were everyday occurrences and scenes of Biblical martyrdom were part of the state and church-approved culture. In other words, it wasn’t just him.

Indeed, the curators include half a dozen prints by Ribera’s almost exact contemporary, the Frenchman, Jacques Callot (1592-1635), from his series, Les Grandes Misères de la guerre, which display comparable scenes of public hangings and torture.

In many ways I preferred the Callot prints because they are more journalistic, detached and show a larger public context. They look, if it’s an appropriate word, sane. Comparison with all the Riberas you’ve seen immediately makes you realise the intensely close-up nature of Ribera’s images. He focuses right in on the guts of a scene, as if you are on stage during a gruesome play, or on the set of a violent movie.

The Hanging from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1633)

The Hanging from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1633)

So I think I understood the layout and intention of the exhibition, a contextualisation and reassessment of Ribera’s art. And I found the technique of the best two oil paintings, the Bartholomew and the Flaying of Marsyas, absolutely breath-taking.

But, as a normal, liberal human being from the year 2018, I also found much of the exhibition completely disgusting.

Darkness and light

At the very end of the exhibition you emerge through heavy curtains, from the dark rooms full of tortured men, into the sunlit openness of the main Dulwich Picture Gallery and the first thing you see is Thomas Gainsborough’s full length portrait of Elizabeth and Mary Linley. It is quite literally walking out of darkness into light and it feels like walking out of madness into sanity, out of hell and into heaven, from barbarism into civilisation.

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. C A Clarke

     /  January 4, 2019

    After reading this, I am disinclined to see the Ribera exhibition. I am not convinced that situating an artist in his age, which emphasised suffering (and indeed did its best to expand suffering to every possible inch of space, so it sometimes seems), removes from him the charge of sadism. The all-too-loving detail of, say, a flayed arm, removes him into his own sphere. You mention that an exhibition of women depicted being tortured would provoke outcry. I have walked through room after room in museums of women being raped, or abducted to be taken away to be raped, etc, and there was not much outcry. Titian’s Rape of Lucretia should strike us as the beginning of a violent crime, and then we can consider its artistic values. It really is time that we look at what is being depicted (flaying, rape, hangings, whatever), then put these in their historical setting, and then finally make our modern judgement, that is, not suspend judgement, but come to it. I finally don’t care if a flayed arm is well drawn and is not untypical of its time. This really doesn’t have to be seen any more. Enough.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: