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.