Skin and bone

'Jusepe de Ribera went beyond palpability — the way the paint becomes flesh — to the visceral. He sought to engage all our senses at once'

Jacob Willer

For an artist of such unique accomplishment, Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) had to wait a long time for his first dedicated exhibition in the UK, now at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (until January 27). Small but perfectly coherent, Art of Violence cuts straight to the point.

You enter through a curtain into blackened galleries, showing off the extreme chiaroscuro in the paintings. Ribera, having moved from Spain to Italy — he settled permanently in Naples — learnt this new tonality directly from Caravaggio’s example. But he wasn’t after the same flash of light, to fix us in the fleeting moment; instead, he used the spotlight, set on the thing in front us, to bring textures into focus for our sustained contemplation.

Ribera particularly excelled in painting the texture of skin — at this he is Rembrandt’s only rival — and the exhibition begins with various depictions of the martyred St Bartholomew, who was skinned alive. The saint’s body presses right up against the picture’s surface so that we may imaginatively enter his skin just as he is about to lose it. So that we may share in his pain. If the idea seems sadistic, it is also pious. There at the bottom, for contrast, are fragments of beautiful pagan statuary, the cold, hard, marble abstractions which Bartholomew had rejected and desecrated. Christianity is the religion of materiality, of the word made flesh. So Ribera’s art is confrontational, contrived to make seeing, believing.

Touching, too, is believing. But Ribera went beyond palpability — the way the paint, like Rembrandt’s, becomes flesh — to the visceral. He sought to engage all our senses at once: our ears to hear the screams, and even our nose. His painting of The Sense of Smell evokes a disgusting cocktail of aromas and odours, from sweet orange blossom to onion and garlic, to a beggar’s soiled clothes.

“Apollo and Marsyas”, 1637, by Jusepe de Ribera (Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples. Photo: Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte on kind concession from the “Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo”)

His art was not simply un-classical; he — again like Rembrandt — made his art anti-classical, subverting Italianate style. But Rembrandt never went to Italy; Ribera actually lived there, so his painting seems like a protest, as if this Spaniard were on a mission to make Italians notice the truth in grotesquery. Instead of fluttering, brocaded silks, he painted patchworks of rags; or even flayed skins, dead as drapery. He must have identified with Bartholomew, who risked his own skin to rail against idealising art as fraud by seduction.

Ribera is the blackest painter there ever was; in Goya’s Black Paintings we see only the pale descendants of the ugly conspirators who gather in Ribera’s backgrounds. There is a drawing here so stark — so direct, so un-Baroque — that it also foreshadows Goya. Probably sketched from memory, it shows a calmly seated inquisitor, a standing notary, and a suspect hanging by his arms until his shoulders dislocate. In its own modest way, it is the most startling exhibit of all, and it makes us grateful to have been born in less cruel times (or places).

The last room is given to Apollo and Marsyas, so we return to skin, and skinning. Perhaps we could already have guessed where Ribera might have stood in a debate about the Apollonian versus the Dionysian in art, but here is the confirmation. The wall text aptly describes the marble-skinned Apollo, now making his first incision, as “unnervingly serene”. But Marsyas, in agony, with every sinew straining, is almost falling out of the picture; his upside-down face — red with a rush of blood — is staring us down and he screams out, imploring us as always to feel with him, and for him.

You will remember every awful image here — and the sounds and the smells. In Ribera’s hands, for once, shock really became an artistic value.

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