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Thick as Skin

Marek Sullivan

Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652)
Ribera: Art of Violence
Dulwich Picture Gallery
26 September – 27 January 2019

Jusepe de Ribera, A Bat and Two Ears, early 1620s, Red chalk, brush and red wash, 15.9 x 27.9 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1972. Photo: © 2018. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/ Scala, Florence

At what point does violence become visible? I don’t ask this to isolate the Fanonian point of visibilisation for embedded, structural violence, but to draw out something in the nature of visible violence itself: what is it about obviously visible violence that makes it obviously violent?

This question hounded me around Ribera: Art of Violence at Dulwich Picture Gallery, the UK’s first exhibition devoted to the notoriously violent work of Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652). As I moved through the exhibition, taking in each element of the life-sized pictures and weaving the intended narratives together, people’s expressions stood out. Sometimes the actual wound was visible, sometimes not. I knew these pictures were violent and was shocked, often. But where exactly did the violence take place? In the exposed flesh? The visible tools and weapons? The enactment of a known procedure, like the strappado, where victims of the Inquisition had their hands tied behind their backs and were strung up by their wrists, leading to slow dislocation of the shoulders before a baying crowd? Or a combination of all of these?

Interviewed about Funny Games (1997), Michael Haneke explained the film’s shock value as, in part, stemming from its incongruous juxtaposition of two genres, horror and comedy. Both are entertaining on their own terms but brought together create unbearable dissonances, so that it becomes obscene to think of the result as entertainment. In Haneke’s case, the bad guys are not even sadistic (as they are to some extent in, say, A Clockwork Orange), as this would bridge genres and allow us to process what is going on in familiar terms. The torturers in Funny Games torture for no reason, gain, or pleasure, leaving dissonances perversely unresolved. Haneke has a reputation for hating his audiences.

Like Funny Games, Art of Violence is a masterclass in the juxtaposition of genres. Ribera marries Classical subjects and Greek or Renaissance portrayals of the male body with a pre-Goya fascination for violent narrative, especially involving flaying. Grotesque, buffoonish figures stare out from torture scenes with malevolent glee. Others hang around in the background with quiet impassivity. A Classical Greek head pops up occasionally, as a prop in the middle of yet another flaying scene. According to the press briefing for the show, the head signals Ribera’s “rejection of Classical ideals in favour of naturalistic painting”. But the weirdness of the juxtaposition evokes something less ordinary, like de Chirico’s The Song of Love (1914), with living skin instead of rubber gloves.

Jusepe de Ribera, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1644, Oil on canvas, 202 x 153 cm, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. ©Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, 2018. Photo: Calveras/Mérida/Sagristà.

Each image disturbs in unique ways. In the first picture of the exhibition St Bartholomew’s skin crumples around his stomach like cellophane wrapping, as though it is already exceeding or sliding off his person. Towards the middle of the show is a portrait of a professional flayer, bald and haloed, holding a curved flaying knife and what looks like an old rug slung over his left arm. Only the stretched human face hanging from one side tells us this is a human hide, freshly reaped. (This is not a flight of fancy: it was customary, and a sign of skill, to flay people “in one”.) The same room contains one of the most cryptic and fascinating pictures of the exhibition: a sepia drawing of a bat viewed face-on, and flanked by a single human ear beneath each of its outstretched wings. Though initially recalling da Vinci’s eclectic anatomic studies, this work suggests something more deliberate. It can hardly be a coincidence that bats orient themselves by hearing. Perhaps Ribera is pointing to a recurrent theme in his pictures—the disturbance of the senses, primarily touch, and how we are differently affected according to our subject positions.

Shifting positions help explain why some pictures are more shocking than others. Though I found every picture difficult, the hardest was the last, in a room devoted to it alone. Apollo and Marsyas (1637) depicts the final stage in the doomed musical battle between the god Apollo and the satyr Marsyas, as Apollo is claiming his prize: the pleasure of flaying Marsyas alive.

Unlike the first pictures of the show, which depict various stages in the martyrdom of St Bartholomew, the victim here lacks the dignity of death for a higher cause. While St Bartholomew’s eyes gaze upwards towards an invisible but radiant light, or straight out of the canvas towards the viewer’s conscience (as Arno Frisch does in Funny Games), Marsyas’s eyes are screwed up and glazed over with lachrymal fluid. His tanned face is sweating. Part of what makes this picture so disturbing is the absence, at least to our eyes, of a compensatory narrative. Whereas the Bartholomew paintings effectively evoke two narratives at once (every stroke of the flaying knife is a step towards god), the dual narrative has been collapsed in Apollo and Marsyas, making it a shockingly secular piece. There is nowhere for our disturbance to go, no serene alter-expression to motivate our faith in purpose and destiny.

Jusepe de Ribera, Apollo and Marsyas, 1637, Oil on canvas, 182 x 232 cm, 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”

Other elements fructify the mix. Marsyas’s furry legs retreat and dissolve into the darkness of the tree to which he is presumably bound. I say presumably because it is actually impossible to see what is going on in this section of the canvas, where a black tree-trunk slants into the picture and censors the action almost completely. The penumbra here is so thick that all we see of Marsyas’s lower legs is the pink, gaping wound opened up by Apollo’s hand, which shines out from the darkness like a bloody promise. “This is what beginnings looks like. This is how you were born. This is what it means to fuck with a god.” When gods and mortals touch, appearances (/skins) dissolve. Pain follows. Apollo and Marsyas can be seen as a kind of binary, deconstructed Jesus: the exterior sign or word made flesh at the meeting of heaven and earth. Apollo’s hand rests gently, elegantly even, inside the bottom flap of skin that he is working away from the muscle beneath. The shape and colour of the wound are yonic, giving the violence a horrible sexual undertone. Indeed, the position of the wound, at the extreme end of Marsyas’s body, where his left hoof should be, creates the impression he has poured out from the tree, screaming like a baby. Apollo’s expression of concerted benevolence is precisely how one imagines a midwife to look.

These kinds of juxtaposition—birth/pain, torture/sex, Classical/grotesque—go some way towards explaining why Ribera’s work is so violent and shocking—more shocking, even, than Goya’s. The deeper the incongruence, the harder the experience. But this wasn’t the whole story for me. Although I went into Ribera thinking of shock as a pre-cognitive experience, and narrativisation as a means of overcoming pre-rational trauma (hence Haneke’s rejection of narrative), I found myself more shocked the more I made sense of the final picture. My guts followed my thoughts, as I realised Apollo would not stop until Marsyas was, in Ovid’s words, “all one wound”. Viewers will need a thick skin.

Ribera: Art of Violence is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 27 January 2019.

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Marek Sullivan is Editor-in-Chief of The Oxonian Review.