Ribera: Art of Violence at Dulwich Picture Gallery

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The Dulwich Picture Gallery stages Ribera: Art of Violence, an exhibition devoted to the rarely-shown in the UK Spanish Baroque artist who mainly spent his life in Naples, Italy. The exhibition runs until 27th January 2018 and remains one of the best shows of the season.

Art of Violence features canvases, drawings, prints, sketching, books and even a tattooed human skin relic demonstrating, or related to Ribera’s deep interest in religious depiction and mythological violence.

The brilliant exhibition intrinsically reflects the artist’s obsession with human pain, a taste for extremes and sadistic psychology. Ribera (also  known  as  lo  Spagnoletto  or  ‘the  little  Spaniard’)  has  long been  praised  for  his  images  of  human  suffering,  a  popular  subject  for  artists  during  the  Catholic  Counter-Reformation.

Dr  Edward  Payne,  guest  co-curator,  said: ‘Ribera:  Art  of  Violence  provokes  a  sense  of  surprise,  shock  and  awe  in   visitors.  Beyond  merely  introducing  audiences  to  the  work  of  this  major  artist,   the  exhibition  reveals  the  immediacy  and  complexity  of  Ribera’s  images  of   violence.  The  show  calls  upon  visitors  to  play  a  central  role  –  not  as  passive   onlookers  but  as  active  participants  –  in  the  theatre  of  Ribera’s  scenes  of  human   suffering.’

Highlights  include  three  versions  of  the  Martyrdom  of  Saint  Bartholomew  spanning  Ribera’s  career,  which  reveal  the  evolution  of  the  artist’s  style. In From saint to sinner, the bound man takes on a range of identities. In his drawings, the artist shows strong interest in diseased body parts, flayed skins, complex poses, distorted bodies,  and representation of male religious figures, revealing his mastery of modelling in the varied media of ink and chalk. Idealised male bodies were considered the pinnacle of artistic production in art academies, notably the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, of which Ribera became a member in 1613.

The  exhibition  culminates with  a  room  dedicated  to  one  major  painting,  Apollo  and  Marsyas (1637),  on  loan  from  the  Museo  e  Real  Bosco  di  Capodimonte, Naples.  Paralleling  the  martyrdom  of  Saint  Bartholomew,  this  painting  –  the  tour  de  force  of  Ribera’s  career  –  graphically portrays  Apollo  flaying Marsyas  alive  as  punishment  for  losing  a  musical  competition, inspired by Ovide’s Metamorphosis.  The   painting  encapsulates  the  argument  of  the  exhibition,  for  it  demonstrates  the violent  outcome  of  artistic  rivalry  and  the  visceral  convergence  of  the  senses,  as the  ripping  of  skin  is  experienced  through  the  intersections  of  sight,  touch  and sound.

Ribera:  Art  of  Violence  is  curated  by  Dr  Edward  Payne,  Head  Curator:  Spanish  Art, The  Auckland  Project,  County  Durham,  contributor  to  the  catalogue  raisonné  of Ribera’s  drawings  (2016)  and  author  of  a  PhD  thesis  on  the  theme  of  violence  in Ribera’s  art  (2012),  and  Dr  Xavier  Bray,  Director,  The  Wallace  Collection,  former Chief  Curator,   Dulwich Picture  Gallery  and  curator  of  the  2009  exhibition  The Sacred  Made  Real:  Spanish  Painting  and  Sculpture  1600–1700  (National  Gallery, London).

With impressive loans from Musee du Louvre, Palazzo Pitti, Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, and many other cities including Vienna and Rhode Island, the exhibition reveals the complex religious and cultural dissonances underpinning the artist’s violent visuals. The painter’s striking use of light and shadow, realism and darkness in both subject matter and form, position him as ‘a companion’ of El Greco and Caravaggio. A must-see.

Image: Apollo and Marsyas (1637), Jusepe de Ribera. Credit: Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte