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


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Beyond Caravaggio @ the National Gallery

Biography

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in Lombardy in northern Italy in 1571 where he trained before moving to Rome at the age of about twenty. By the mid-1590s he was working regularly as a painter, pioneering a new realistic style depicting street life and interior scenes with people doing mundane things, eating, playing cards, sitting round a table – painted with a lavish attention to detail and with a spectacular use of light and shade to create drama and movement.

His breakthrough came in 1599, when he received a commission to paint the Calling of Saint Matthew and Martyrdom of St Matthew in the Contarelli chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. The public unveiling of these works a year later caused a sensation and led to Caravaggio’s instant fame. He quickly found wealthy patrons including the Roman nobleman Ciriaco Mattei (1542–1614) who commissioned both The Supper at Emmaus and The Taking of Christ (1602), brought together again in the exhibition.

The Supper at Emmaus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1601) © The National Gallery, London

The Supper at Emmaus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1601) © The National Gallery, London

All the records indicate he was an extremely difficult man, he argued with colleagues and patrons, was involved in several brawls and then, in 1606, murdered a man after an argument over a game of tennis. Caravaggio fled to Naples, where he soon exerted an influence  over artists in that city with his light effects and dramatic compositions. He died from unknown causes in 1610, aged just 38.

Beyond Caravaggio

The key thing about this exhibition is that it is about Caravaggio’s influence on contemporaries and followers. Of the 50 paintings in the show, only six are by Caravaggio himself (and three of those belong to the National Gallery i.e you can see them free anytime). The six Caravaggios on display are:

  • Boy peeling fruit (1592)
  • Boy bitten by a Lizard (1595)
  • The Supper at Emmaus (1601)
  • The Taking of Christ (1602)
  • Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1604)
  • Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist (1609)

A handful of others are represented by tiny photographs on the wall labels (e.g. Victorious Love, The Seven Acts of Mercy, The Musicians). But the majority of the show consists of works by contemporaries and followers.

Boy bitten by a Lizard by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (About 1594-5) © The National Gallery, London

Boy bitten by a Lizard by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (About 1594-5) © The National Gallery, London

The immediate and lasting impression is that none of them are a patch on Caravaggio. None of the other paintings are in the same league. Caravaggio’s paintings have:

  • beauty of detail as in the finish on the fruits and flowers or the beads of water on the outside of the glass vase in Boy bitten by lizard
  • the dramatic intensity of composition of a work like The Taking of Christ, where the eye has so many interesting directions to follow – along the shiny black armour of the soldier’s outstretched left arm, down Christ’s arms to his strangely locked hands, across the trilogy of heads from right to left, of Judas kissing, Christ looking down and one of his disciples crying out – or following the curve of the red cloak above Christ’s head around and back to the cluster of three soldiers’ heads with the white-faced lamp-holder clustering in among them.
The Taking of Christ by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1602) On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson. Photo © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

The Taking of Christ by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1602) (On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson. Photo © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)

  • In The Supper at Emmaus a whole raft of tricks are deployed to heighten the drama: the lighting highlighting Jesus’ face and casting  his shadow on the wall; the outstretched arms of the disciple on the right indicating the depth of the picture plane and drawing us in; the spectacular figure of the disciple half-rising from his chair on the left – in front of this big picture in the flesh I was more and more impressed by this figure and the taut energy of his bent arms lifting his body from his chair. And the commentary made a neat point that even the basket of fruit on the right of the table is actually poised just over the edge of the table and, when you focus on it for a moment, makes you want to lean in and push it safely back onto the table.

Followers and inheritors

None of them are as powerful as Caravaggio; only a handful come close; some are very poor indeed. Particularly poor were:

Take Rutilio Manetti’s Victorious Earthly Love and compare it with Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia (not in the exhibition but represented by a small colour photo). Manetti’s painting is horrible. What an ugly specimen his cupid is! The commentary does what scholarly commentary does on such embarrassing occasions and dwells at length on the objects symbolising the arts of music and painting and architecture or whatnot – evading the elephant in the room which is how astonishingly ugly and repellent the central figure is.

Victorious Earthly Love by Rutilio Manetti (about 1625) © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Victorious Earthly Love by Rutilio Manetti (about 1625) © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Compare and contrast with Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia (1602), where the dramatic use of extreme light and shade, the stunning mastery of detail, for example the folds of flesh on the stomach, and the naughty impish face – every single element of the painting is by a master of his art, and barely thirty years old.

Amor Vincit Omnia by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1602)

Amor Vincit Omnia by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1602)

Catholicism

Obviously all these Italian painters are committed Roman Catholics, and living in the Italy of the Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition, when the Catholic church really established itself as a worldwide force for reaction, repression, torture and execution.

Quite a few of the paintings here bear out the English poet William Empson’s disgust for a religion which places the torture to death of a human being as its central icon. In The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera the saint has been tied up and the figure on the left is sharpening the knife which he is going to use to cut the skin off the old man’s body. Nice. The commentary tells us that Ribera specialised in the flesh of old men and also attended lots of hangings, floggings and so on, to observe the effect of torture and evisceration on the human body.

Obviously the use of light and the way the saint is looking up into it, as if up to the light of heaven, is dramatic and striking. According to the curators this is due to Caravaggio’s example, though the raddled face of the flayer and even more so the figures behind him have more the weathered blurriness of Rembrandt, with which this painting is contemporaneous.

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1634) Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1634) Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

More contemporary with Caravagio himself is The Ecstasy of Saint Francis by Giovanni Baglione from 1601. Look at the wooliness of the saint’s cloak – poor. Look at all three faces – bad. Any Catholic painting of saints or monks or nuns showing the whites of their eyes as they look up to their glorious Redeemer in heaven is revolting and it’s made ten times worse if there are angels hovering around.

The Ecstasy of Saint Francis by Giovanni Baglione (1601) © The Art Institute of Chicago

The Ecstasy of Saint Francis by Giovanni Baglione (1601) © The Art Institute of Chicago

Many of the paintings here rely on the viewer sharing the artist’s lachrymose Catholic sentimentality and/or taste for holy torture, as the original patrons and viewers, of course, would have. If you are a modern post-religious liberal and don’t share this sympathetic opinion of holy torture, then many of the works in the show seem clotted with brutality and/or weeping melodrama.

A striking and typically unpleasant example is Christ displaying his wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino (about 1625-35). Very possibly the striking chiaroscuro i.e dramatic use of light and dark, was influenced by Caravaggio. But it seems a gross, tasteless, blatant image, at odds with the tastefulness which characterises all the master’s works.

Christ displaying his wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino (about 1625-35) © Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council

Christ displaying his wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino (about 1625-35) © Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council

A perverse combination of medieval torture with French sensuality comes in Nicolas Régnier’s Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant (about 1626). The musculature and depiction of the saint’s body is splendid, but the female figures look contorted and unreal, and the combination of their opulent contemporary dress and the figure on the left’s plump bosom give it an inappropriately soft porn feel, a wilting languorousness which is completely at odds with the dramatic intensity and strangely ascetic sensuality of Caravaggio’s best work.

Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant by Nicolas Régnier (about 1626-30) © Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums

Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant by Nicolas Régnier (about 1626-30) © Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums

Some of the works seem difficult to justify. In his earlier works Caravaggio painted street scenes and settings inside inns – ordinary folk playing dice, cheating each other at cards and so on. This is used as an excuse to hang a series of paintings on the same subject by contemporary and later artists, some pretty removed in style and feel from the master. Probably the most extreme example is The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs by Georges de La Tour (about 1634). There’s light in it, for sure; and it is a game of cards alright. But the peculiar stylisation of the faces and postures seems a million miles away from the intense realism combined with high drama and intense light effects of Caravaggio.

The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs by Georges de La Tour (about 1630-34) © Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs by Georges de La Tour (about 1630-34) © Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

Compare and contrast with Caravaggio’s John the Baptist (1604), a masterpiece of simple striking composition, brilliant chiaroscuro, mastery of tone and palette (almost everything a variation on yellow, brown, orange) and the brooding intensity of the central figure – and a wonderful celebration of the beauty of the human body, specifically the young, male naked body. Seeing it in the flesh is breath-taking and worth the admission price on its own!

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (about 1603-4) Photo Jamison Miller © The Nelson - Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (about 1603-4) Photo Jamison Miller © The Nelson – Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

Conclusion

This is less an exhibition of Caravaggio than an opportunity to immerse yourself in the visual world of early 17th century painting in a show which highlights the strengths and weaknesses – mainly weaknesses – of his followers and copyists.

In every room where a Caravaggio original is hung it wipes the floor with the competition, many of which are interesting, some of which are pretty good – but none of them are masterpieces, none have the intensity, purity, drama and sheer skill with oil that Caravaggio was blessed with.

And after spending an hour and a half underground (the National’s main exhibition space is down a massive flight of stairs into a series of basements) in darkened rooms full of Roman Catholic images of humans being tortured, crucified, stabbed, speared, shot and hanged, it was quite a relief to emerge back into the open daylight of Protestant Trafalgar Square.

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