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Skin and bone
November 2018


The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (1644) by Jusepe de Ribera ©Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, 2018. Photo: Calveras/Mérida/Sagristà.

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.
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