A psychopath? No, Ribera was an unflinching realist

Apollo and Marsyas (Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples)

‘They look a bit like Caravaggio.” That’s what most people say about the paintings of Jusepe de Ribera. It’s impossible not to see the influence of the wild Italian in Ribera’s best known works, with dramatic chiaroscuro revealing violent religious scenes populated by gnarled characters, who all look desperately in need of a hot bath and a square meal.

The evidence isn’t there just in the aesthetic either, but in the chronology, too. As a young man, Ribera moved from Valencia to Rome around 1612, and probably absorbed the early masterpieces Caravaggio had painted in the city just a few years earlier. His subsequent move to Naples in 1616, another city where Caravaggio lived and worked, must have increased his indebtedness.

Ribera paintings appeared in the National Gallery’s Beyond Caravaggio blockbuster back in 2016, but now, and for the first time in Britain, he’s getting an exhibition all to himself. The blurb for Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Ribera: Art of Violence can’t help but mention that “Ribera is often regarded as the heir to Caravaggio” (Caravaggio is a useful marketing tool, after all). But the primary objective is to showcase Ribera as a dazzling, multifaceted artist in his own right. “Beyond Caravaggio” would, in fact, have been a decent alternative title for this show, if it hadn’t already been taken.

Ribera’s religious art, like Caravaggio’s, encapsulated the Counter-Reformation’s principles of devotion, sacrifice and martyrdom: a stark Christianity with the gaudy trappings stripped away. Take The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew, one of a number of Bartholomew pictures in the Dulwich show, as a case in point. The saint, with his taught skin stretched across the canvas, is a startling vision of stoic suffering. His defiant stare captures the viewer, dragging us into his ordeal.

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew (MNAC. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona)

Dr Edward Payne, co-curator of the exhibition, believes Ribera’s approach to these religious subjects takes Caravaggio style to another level. “I find Ribera’s realism even more raw,” he tells me.

As brutal as some of Caravaggio’s paintings are, Dr Payne could well be right. The title of one of Ribera’s drawings, A Winged Putto Flogging a Satyr Tied to a Tree, gives you an idea of what life is like in his bloody universe. Scenes of graphic brutality are plentiful: hangings and inquisitions, crucifixions and flayings. The bound figure is a recurring motif.

Dr Payne dismisses the popular theory that Ribera was a sado-masochist or psychopath. He also insists this survey is about far more than shock and gore. Payne says that Ribera was ahead of his time and “worked with a range of references” to develop complex arguments and ideas. “He was a hybrid artist and an intellectual, a man between two countries, born in Spain but living most his life in Italy. An artist deeply influenced by Caravaggio and his aesthetic, but someone who is also tempered by classicism and the academic tradition of drawing, particularly drawing the human figure from life.”

This eclecticism is demonstrated in Ribera’s obsession with sensory experience. In the show’s stunning finale, Apollo and Marsyas, he attacks the viewer with sound. The satyr Marsyas unleashes a blood-curdling scream as Apollo begins tearing the skin from his foot. It’s a howl so anguished that it causes one onlooker to scratch at his cheeks in fear.

Yet Ribera also explored the senses in a subtler way, painting scenes that represented the different senses. This showcased his originality and allowed him, says Dr Payne, to take on established artistic forms, “inverting the way senses were normally presented, in a high allegorical way”. Touch and smell are on display in Dulwich. In the latter a ragged beggar holds a bulb of garlic, while an onion sits on the table in front of him. It’s an image so thick with the stench of pungent food and body odour as to be almost repellent.

Treating art as thematic, rather than simply using it as a mode of expression, is another key element of Ribera’s approach that Art of Violence aims to explicate. In the aforementioned St Bartholomew painting, the pagan idol that the saint has smashed is a bust of Apollo, the God of art and poetry. In Apollo and Marsyas (the pagan version of the Bartholomew story) the two protagonists are locked in mortal battle over the outcome of a music competition. Perhaps what emerges from these companion pieces, and the violence in general in Ribera’s oeuvre, is a lament for art’s failure as a civilising force.

This exhibition will be the first time many people will fully engage with Ribera. What they will discover is an artist who is far more than a Caravaggio tribute act. This is unflinching, idiosyncratic stuff created by a man who deserves finally to step, like one of his subjects, out of the shadows.

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

This article first appeared in the September 28 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here