If your predilections are flaying, flagellation, torture, hanging, upside-down crucifixions and human suffering generally, then head on down to Dulwich, where there is an array of the art of violence or the violence of art in all its shocking forms. Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) was a Spanish-born painter from Valencia, who spent most of his artistic career in Spanish-occupied Naples, influencing Neopolitan artists like the romantic and allegorical painter Salvator Rosa and training Luca Giordano, who went on to paint large-scale mythological and religious scenes. What is it about the Spanish preoccupation with violence and cruelty? Two hundred years after Ribera, Goya produced his Disasters of War,which, although were thought to be a protest against the violence of the French occupiers in the Peninsula War, they were still graphic depictions of beheadings, garrotings and rape. All Ribera’s victims are men suffering at the hands of other men painted in the midst of the Inquisition during the Counter-Catholic Reformation. Ribera would have been witness, along with other citizens wandering about the city, to beheadings, hangings and people being burnt alive at the stake. Flaying alive, that is, stripping off a person’s skin as one would skin a rabbit, seems to have been the cruelest of a cruel way of torturing and ultimately killing a victim. Ribera paints and sketches the process in the most gory detail, which is both deeply shocking, and fascinating at the same time. A painting of St Bartholomew shows the poor denuded man actually holding his own skin over his arm like an overcoat, complete with face and hair. St Bartholomew is the subject of another gruesome painting on loan from the Museu Nationale d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona, showing the martyr staring helplessly at the viewer while he is being tied down and flayed alive.
Even worse than that grisly picture is the one of at the end of this dark voyage through human pain, namely Apollo and Marsyas, on loan from Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte in Naples. Marsyas was a satyr who foolishly challenged Apollo, the god of music, amongst other attributes, to a musical contest. Marsyas’s double pan-pipes were no match for the god’s usual lyre, substituted in the painting for a Baroque stringed instrument called a viola da braccio. The howl of sheer agony screams out at the viewer, as Apollo, in a blue robe borrowed from El Greco, calmly starts cutting the satyr’s hairy leg, revealing a great vulvic gash of open flesh. Apart from the brutality, it is the nonchalance of the great god Apollo, as he butchers his vanquished foe, that is so shocking. It is a stonker of a painting, with more than a whiff of Caravaggio in terms of light and shade, as well as his limited palette. Titian painted the same scene 70-odd years before, which caused a sensation when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1983, with many critics perplexed as to ‘how it is possible that a horribly painful subject should be the occasion of beauty or greatness in art.’ The same cannot be said for Ribera’s masterpiece, as it is certainly not in any way beautiful. It is, however, great art. This really is not a show for the squeamish, and it is well outside the comfort zone of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, who have previously held exhibitions by the likes of Edward Bawden, John Singer Sargent and Eric Ravilious. The visitor will, however, be rewarded with a masterful display of painterly skills and dramatic chiaroscuro compositions, as well as some fine prints and drawings. Apart from that, the overall atmosphere in the darkened galleries was one of doom and gloom, and it was a relief to emerge into the late afternoon summer sunshine in leafy Dulwich.