Visitors to genteel Dulwich are in for a shock at the moment, as they are confronted with torture, blood, pain, and human skin — in the local gallery’s latest exhibition.
The Spanish Baroque artist, Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652) is often compared to far more famous artists such as Caravaggio or Goya, and while much of his work is quite safe to look at, he also had quite the eye for gore.
Now, in the first such exhibition of his work, the Dulwich Picture Gallery devotes a large space to his sketches and massive paintings showing off an aspect of Ribera’s art for which he was renowned: violent depictions of saints and figures being flayed and flogged.
As an artist he had an exceptional eye for the real ugliness of the human body, with its warts and sagging skin, so far removed from the purity of religious paintings of the time which focused on holy idealism.
Showcasing 45 works, the exhibition is arranged thematically, examining his arresting depictions of saintly martyrdom and mythological violence, skin and the five senses, crime and punishment, and the bound male figure.
While there are a number of set piece paintings, the most gruesome images are the chalk sketches used as preparatory works.
From men defecating next to a tree to a man having his arms pulled out of its sockets as he is hung up by his wrists, the sketches show details of a cruel life that was quite commonplace during Ribera’s life.
Unlike later times when such judicial torture was hidden away, here it was on display, in public, as a warning. A large painting of a town square rewards closer inspection as you realise there’s a man hanging from a rope while the people do their weekly shopping below.
Some of the works are by other artists, and seek to put the violence in Ribera’s work into the context of the time, where painful punishments were the norm.
A law book has sketchings of the fate of two lovers – one lower class man being burned alive, while his nobleman boyfriend is flogged and then expelled from the city.
Many of the images are of the famous scene of St Bartholomew having his skin cut off while still alive, in a Christian rendition of the legend of Marsyas being subjected to the same fate by the god Apollo.
Bartholomew, now the patron saint of tanners, is usually depicted with a large knife and holding his own skin.
And the exhibition has human skin on display. Just a small piece, but showing off the use of skin art a parchment for art — as tattoos.