“Between Heaven and Hell: The Drawings of Jusepe de Ribera,” on exhibition at the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University, presents what the museum calls “the most comprehensive presentation ever dedicated to” the drawings of the 17th century master Ribera (1591-1652).
The exhibition mounted in partnership with Madrid’s Prado Museum.
“I think it is difficult [to pin down] Ribera because he is really a man between two countries, and is claimed by both,” curator Edward Payne says.“So although the Spaniards say he was Spanish, he was one of the most Italianate of the Spanish artists.
“He was inspired by Italian draftsmanship and Italian painting. And he changed the face of Neapolitan painting.”
Born in Spain in 1591, Ribera left for Italy at a young age, first landing in Rome. He quickly became one of the “Caravaggisti,” meaning he was one of the many painters of this time and place heavily influenced by the work of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. In 1616, he moved to Naples, which was not as much of a cultural leap as it might seem. At that time, Naples was under the control of the Spanish and governed by Spanish viceroys.
He enjoyed a highly successful career there, although he apparently took a number of debts to his grave when he died there in 1652.
But even though Ribera never returned to his native Spain, his works sold well there, and he reportedly embraced his Neapolitan nickname: “Lo Spagnoletto,” or “the Little Spaniard.”
“I think that he really is one of the signature Spanish artists of the 17th century, of the Golden Age,’ Payne says. “And this exhibition presents a part of his artistic production that is not very well known. His drawings are as strong, and can have the same sort of effect, as his paintings. This exhibition highlights the strength of those drawings, how they can stand up [on their own].”
Although the 47 drawings on display are the heart of the display, 12 prints, 11 paintings and a sculpture are part of the exhibit.
“I think it is important to see these drawings in the context of other media,” Payne says.
That is because, while many of the drawings are independent works of art, others reveal Ribera’s process. There are sheets, for example, that have numerous renderings of ears, noses or mouths, and teeth. Later, one those body parts, drawn for study and practice, is likely to appear in another drawing or painting.
For mature eyes
In many cases, Ribera depicts the martyrdom of saints, which was a popular subject of his time. He also depicts grotesque images of various types (facial growths show up more than once) and his works can be shocking.
One example is a painting that is both one of the most impressive and most disturbing, “Apollo and Marsyas.” The large work depicts the god, displaying a serene, almost beatific expression, slicing away the skin of a screaming satyr (the victim’s gaping mouth is familiar to us because we have seen it earlier in one of the exhibition’s drawings) — the prize Apollo has earned by besting the unfortunate Marsyas in a musical contest.
Payne attributes Ribera’s frequent use of violence and pain in his works as being part of “the wider tradition of depicting these subjects,” and says that “he may have used them to comment on other aspects” of the world around him.
But while some frames contain tales of blood and gore, many of the drawings are surprisingly gentle, even when the subjects are not.
“Head of a Satyr,” for example, pleases more than it frightens, with its easy lines and the softness of its red chalk. Its seemingly happy subject shows no sign of his upcoming meeting with Apollo.
Payne says he has been pleasantly surprised at how patrons have responded to Ribera’s works.
“I think people find them to be modern, in certain respects, and foreshadowing artists like Goya,” says Payne. “[Ribera’s art] speaks to contemporary viewers. He is not an old master who is stuck in the 17th century. There is an appealing, modern edge to his works.
“And I think they are also quite struck with how skillful he was as a draftsman. The exhibition really does demonstrate the range of his abilities with various subjects, in various media.”
“Between Heaven and Hell: The Drawings of Jusepe de Ribera” is one of a continuing series of collaborations between the Meadows and the Prado in Madrid, one of Europe’s most prestigious art museums. This is the sixth time in seven years that the two museums have collaborated on an exhibition, and that continuing partnership has also included the exchange of scholarships and art works.
The museums further joined forces to create the recently published “Jusepe de Ribera: The Drawings (Meadows Museum, $85),” a catalogue raisonne (or complete listing) of those works. The 430-page hardcover tome includes hundreds of color plates of Ribera’s drawings and paintings, essays and annotations by noted experts (including Payne), along with detailed information about where his works can be seen.
Between Heaven and Hell: The Drawings of Jusepe de Ribera
- Through June 11
- Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University, 5900 Bishop Blvd., Dallas
- $4-$12 (12 and younger free; free after 5 p.m. Thursday)
- 214-768-2516; www.meadowsmuseumdallas.org