From ‘Ribera: The Art of Violence’, where we were exposed to a gruesome exploration of human pain- certainly not suitable for the faint-hearted- to Harald Sohlberg’s enchanting and captivating scenes of the Norwegian landscape in ‘Painting Norway’, the Dulwich Picture Gallery has produced two most excellent exhibitions, and hold high expectations for their upcoming, ‘Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking’.

 As JAGS students, we are incredibly privileged to have access to both the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s general collection and special exhibitions free of charge. At the start of the academic year was the highly acclaimed showing of Spanish Baroque artist, Ribera, making the Guardian critic, Jonathan Jones’ list of top ten exhibitions of the year. This varied collection showed us not only paintings from the artist, but historical artefacts allowing us to gain a deeper contextual understanding behind the works; manuscripts listing detailed accounts of public punishments, an observation of a hanging whereupon men are dangling in such large numbers that they appear as though fruit on a particularly flourishing tree, and a stretched piece of tattooed skin being among the most memorable.

Human skin

Ribera’s depictions of tortured victims and ruthless perpetrators is chilling. The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew is particularly striking as we see the apostle, Bartholomew, naked and frail, his gaunt body spreadeagled and twisted, half-heavy with surrender as he is held in the grasp of two men, one evidently drunken with relish at the opportunity to flay the saint. His eyes are the most poignant feature: the blood-shot, gibbous orbs penetrating the surface to desperately seize the viewer’s attention and question our conscience as bystanders.

‘The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew’ 1644
Detail from ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew’

Ribera demonstrates a particular fascination with skin, beit actual skin stripped from bodies, the skin of peeled onions and a split garlic bulb in The Sense of Smell, and the holes in clothing to reveal several more hidden layers.

‘The Sense of Smell’, 1615

To conclude the exhibition was, Apollo and Marsyas. At 182 x 232cm, the scale alone is staggering. Yet it is the volume that this painting exerts, beyond its size, which makes it so remarkable. The bellowing of the swarming, flame-like clouds above, the gasps of Marsyas’ companions hidden to the right, and loudest of all, the excruciating howl of utter agony escaping Marsyas’ flushed and tortured head. Whilst this goes on, Apollo maintains his composure; his porcelain-like body gleaming amidst the shadow, his plush mauve robe suspended gloriously, his archaic smile not showing signs of drooping despite brutally tearing the skin of Marsyas’ leg. It encapsulates pure cruelty and suffering, resonating waves of misery and terror.

‘Apollo and Marsyas’, 1637

Much to the contrary of Ribera’s sinister artworks are Sohlberg’s bucolic and cosy scenes of crepuscular evenings spent in snow-topped cottages tucked away in the woods, meadows cloaked in morning dew, and of secluded footpaths, sunlit and dappled by towering trees with curling branches.

Fisherman’s Cottage, 1906
Sun Gleam, 1894

Also at the exhibition was a special installation, And Then the World Changed Colour: Breathing Yellow by Mariele Neudecker, based off of Sohlberg’s Fisherman’s Cottage. Site specific to the mausoleum, the tank accommodates the yellow hue created by the stained glass windows and enables us to engage with Sohlberg’s landscape three-dimensionally.

One of the many great advantages of taking art history is that we are constantly given the opportunity to meet experts- artists and art historians alike. Some highlights include Marc Quinn, Andrew Graham-Dixon and Mariele Neudecker, on this occasion. Whilst discussing the role of an artist in contemporary society in our student-led Q&A, Neudecker shared with us previous works, particularly influenced by the German Romantic artist, C. D. Friedrich, and how she acknowledges the connections we may have made to her piece with climate change, but that her intentions of creating art detaches itself from current affairs, very much like Sohlberg, who has been described as ‘an artist of escapism’, his work an ‘antidote to the horrors of daily life’(Jennifer Scott, director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery).

Breathing Yellow, 2019

Unfortunately, the highlight of the show, I found to be uncomfortably vast and eerie in its depiction. The clustered mountains appear like a colony of limpets emerging from the sea alongside straggly elongated bonsai trees. It was certainly the ‘escapism’ aspect I found so unsettling, here. Painted at the start of WWI, Sohlberg certainly adds a touch of fantasy, such as the glowing star placed very conveniently at the centre, supposedly to offer a sense of upliftment for those stuck in the murky shores of conflict beneath. Frankly, it offers only slight anxiety on my part, but it is probable that I am in the minority in holding this opinion as it has been reported as Norway’s favourite painting…

Written by Harin Turrell

Winter Night in the Mountains, 1914

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