Unbridled passions are laid bare in Dane Hurst’s Animalis, a theatrical response to the paintings in Dulwich Picture Gallery’s current exhibition, Ribera: Art of Violence.
Like most martyrs, Saint Bartholomew died a horrific death. Three versions, all equally grisly and grim, survive in Christian tradition: death by drowning, death by crucifixion (upside down like another ill-fated apostle, Peter) and death by flaying. It was the last of these methods that caught the imagination of seventeenth-century Spanish artist, Jusepe de Ribera. Returning to this nightmarish scene and the events which led up to it, Ribera sketched, etched and painted Bartholomew in all manner of contortionist poses. In one print our saint is tied to a tree, his eyes searching the heavens, a flap of skin hanging loosely under his left arm to expose brittle bone and muscle. The tanner-cum-torturer attends to the gruesome task as if it were any old hide; knife between his mouth, fingers buried in Bartholomew’s flesh, his spare hand profanely peels back each epidermal layer. In a later painting, Bartholomew hangs precariously across the foreground, his left leg pulled across the centre of the canvas by a torturer’s rope, his right foot desperately trying to keep him upright. This portrayal is all distended limbs, dislocated arms, flexed hands and clenched fists. Unlike the earlier etching, Ribera has made the slicing of the forearm, the draping of cloth and skin, the tautness and tightness of the ordeal palpable through paint. Caught on a diagonal (composition-wise but also existentially), this Bartholomew looks not to god nor to his garish torturers, but to us, the viewer or the would-be penitent. ‘Are you seeing this?’ his eyes quietly question. ‘Where are you in the picture’, his gaze suggests. ‘What will you make of my unmaking?’
Ribera’s work was and is still known for its unflinching realism, for implicating the spectator in the painted action. Fascinated by the violence enacted on these martyrs, by the stone-throwing blows that brought the Bartholomews, Sebastians and Stephens into Sainthood, Ribera painted scene upon sadistically violent scene throughout his short life. Centred around the brutalised bodies of white male martyrs and a surrounding tableaux of brutish executioners, his paintings were supposed to arouse pity, pietistic remorse, spiritual stirrings of belief at the sight of Christ-like wounds. In the painting described above, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (1644), identification with saint or sinner, the persecuted or persecutor led to cathartic, beatific emotions for the seventeenth-century spectator. Accused by historians and critics of sadomasochism, of a morbid interest in violence for violence’s sake, Ribera and his Caravaggio-inspired works instead foregrounded the flailing and withered humanity of holy figures. He put on show, spotlighted and dramatized human suffering into accessible, though no less grandly baroque, re-enactments. Moving away from icon-like representations of saints – the medieval hagiography of sainted figures post-torture and trauma – Ribera gives us cinematic, emotionally-charged compositions instead. In Bartholomew’s straining torso and wrinkled brow, we see our own suffering grotesquely displayed; our own aging faces, our own angst-ridden forms exposed, and we are macabrely reassured of our place in heaven – that is, if we’re willing to pay the price.
Of the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s current exhibition, Ribera: Art of Violence, its director Jennifer Scott compares the visitor experience to that of viewing a Tarantino film. Her comparison may sound far-fetched, but like his modern counterpart Ribera’s violence is stylised, a continuous vocabulary with which to articulate – or rather, gesticulate – our worse fears, private foibles and deep-seated woes. Like Tarantino’s audience, those who witness Ribera-esque violence are offered catharsis and the option for open-ended interrogation – of ourselves, our world and the powers that rule both. But the Dulwich Picture Gallery has gone beyond wall cards in underscoring the impassioned performativity of Ribera’s works. By commissioning dancer and choreographer Dane Hurst to create a response to the exhibition, the performative and performance-based narrative of Ribera’s paintings are taken, literally, one step further. Removing dance from the stage and into different, though no less culturally rich settings, Hurst demonstrates, through his piece, that Ribera’s canvases are a stage of their own; a space that contains both the sacred and profane, divine and mortal, light and dark; a set where brutal acts meet holy favour. Hurst’s piece, Animalis, dramatizes the feelings, gestures, postures and conflicting forms found in Ribera’s paintings to startling and visceral effect. And it does so in a place befitting of Ribera’s work: in the gallery’s mausoleum.
Situated in the middle of the exhibition space, the mausoleum holds the remains of Dulwich Picture Gallery founders, Bourgeois and the Desenfanses. Decorated with sarcophagi and sacrificial altars, it is the perfect setting for Hurst’s Ribera-inspired dance. Featuring three dancers, the piece is a psychomachia brought to life and externalised. In exercising those inner conflicts of the soul and accentuating Ribera’s language of violence, Hurst looks to Jungian psychoanalysis, specifically his theory of archetypes. In his programme notes, Hurst explains his title as a nod to masculine and feminine archetypes, to the anima, animus and animal within us all. Of course, the Latin etymology of ‘anima’ and ‘animus’ points back to the one essential thing; that which supposedly survives the flaying of life: the soul – or mind, as we often call it. Enclosed in this small, austere space, masculine and feminine, spirit and (animal) body battle it out, only to be fused as one.
Performing as a duo, dancers Isabel Alvarez and Tania Dimbelolo turn the circular floor into a gladiatorial ring by wrestling, manipulating and contorting each other’s bodies. Power moves between the couple; at one moment Dimbelolo is enthralled to Alvarez, at another its Alvrez quivering and collapsing to the ground whilst Dimbelolo stands exhausted in her victory. All that differentiates them are diversely coloured drapes, which are Grecian and akin to material used by Ribera in his paintings – the last scrap of dignity for saints who suffered the worse indignities imaginable. Both have a similar palette of movement; both have similar gestures, similar pained and ecstatic expressions, Ribera-esque motifs of brutally stretched limbs when in the thrall of their opponent. This is Hurst suggesting that anima and animus, male and female are one, or essential to being one; that animalistic impulses and drives render us at once victor and fallen, persecutor and persecuted. Hurst’s piece does exactly what the exhibition’s curators state in their title: he makes an ‘art’, a synthesised creative expression of violence, one which moves, educates and fosters a critical awareness of opposing forces within and without us.
Ribera’s Apollo and Marsyas (1637), the last painting shown and one to influence Hurst more than that of Bartholomew’s martyrdom, exaggerates this opposition to classical extremes. Hubristically confident in his musical abilities, the centaur Marsyas challenged Apollo, god of music and poetry, to a music contest. Inevitably losing, Marsyas is punished by Apollo who skins him alive. We’re returned to the opening of the exhibition, with the tortured Bartholomew’s implicating, but stoical gaze directed at the viewer. Here, however, Marsyas is turned upside-down, his face ablaze with pain, his eyes raging at the unjust punishment. Does anima dominate the animal here? Does spirit and art triumph over the body and all its fallibility? After seeing Hurst’s piece, one sees how easily the position could be reversed; how the one wielding the knife could be he who is now subject to it – well, if it wasn’t for his divinity. Hurst’s piece has the capacity to get under one’s skin, to make one flinch and sway, much like Ribera’s paintings do. Natural in its contemporary movements and baroque in its musicality and execution, Hurst’s choreographed violence, much like Ribera’s, is artfully realised and achieved.
Ribera: Art of Violence is on at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 27th January. Dane Hurst’s Animalis will be shown every Sunday throughout the run of the exhibition and is performed at alternate times during that day. The performance is included in the exhibition ticket price.
To read our review of the exhibition, click here.