The history of painting is often told as a procession of beautiful achievements, running roughly from the fifteenth century to the mid-nineteenth, at which point it crashes onto the rocks of ugliness. Painting then becomes conscious of itself. It rejects the past, settles into a pattern of shocks and disturbances, does less to communicate history than change it. Somewhere on the margins of society, sitting alone in a garret, the artist starts accelerating his brushwork to the sound of traffic, the decades going by—the twentieth century is outside now—and paint is at war with itself on the canvas; it begins to flatten and blur and leak, like machines and blood.
A messenger arrives with bad news. (The messenger is wearing a double-breasted suit jacket and wields a thin cigar.) “Painting,” he says, “is dead.” The artist panics, throws his hog-hair brushes into the fire and starts fiddling with devices, heavy metals, ideas. He’s heard rumors before but now painting is really dead, it’s terminal, the situation is so dire that someone is saying they’ve painted the “last paintings” anyone can paint. The artist looks out over the vast and blighted landscape of culture and sees painting everywhere surrounded by the carnage of itself, squirming and dying on screens, more confused and ugly than ever, the word “beauty” a distant memory.
I was thinking about this version of art history, or some sketch of it, last December when I went to see an exhibition of Lucian Freud’s work at the National Gallery in London. Just the odds of someone devoting their life to painting in this kind of climate. Painting portraits of human beings not for ten or twenty years but for over sixty years, and doing it with so much novelty and critical acclaim that last year, for the centenary of his birth, there were seven different exhibitions of Freud’s work in London—despite the publication of Celia Paul’s memoir Self-Portrait, which details their bruising relationship, and the two-volume biography by William Feaver, documenting more than enough predatoriness to send lesser artists into the crypt of art history.
Freud painted humans like animals, stripping them down in the cold light of his studio, submitting them to months or years of sittings, and assembling their skin with thick, meaty strokes of paint. One gets the impression that he wanted to humiliate people, to exert his power and dominance by immortalizing their flaws on the canvas, even though the paintings are often less cruel than clinical. He deprived his models of the ornaments of personality, clothing and jewelry, and turned his portraits—of famous sitters like David Hockney and Kate Moss, of his own children, of friends and wealthy patrons—into anonymous still lifes of flesh. You are not looking at Sir Thomas More, cloaked in velvet and fur and neatly pegged into the social order; rather, you are seeing a human being who has been artificially lifted out of the world and cast into some cold and airless vitrine for dissection and study.
I remember once going to the Met and seeing Freud’s Naked Man, Back View in the contemporary galleries. A bald man is sitting on a cushioned stool, the large plane of his back facing out. As you move around the canvas, the back starts to glow with whorls of strange light, until eventually you have an impression of tipping into the picture—an experience that can be attributed to what art historians call a Rückenfigur, or “back figure,” which offers itself to be inhabited by the viewer, so that your perception flickers between his monumental back, with its pockets of loose flesh, raised and flecked with rashes, and the illusion of being absorbed by the canvas. You can stand there for ten, twenty minutes just cycling from surface to depth, repulsion to pleasure, locked into a feeling of suspended judgment.
Something about Freud’s work sits uncomfortably in the grand narratives of art history: the arc from beauty to avant-garde ugliness, or the Whiggish climb to self-consciousness, autonomy and purity, or the story of changing seasons, of one regime of painterly economy jostling with one of excess (i.e. Renaissance versus Baroque, Neoclassicism versus Romanticism, and so on). Freud belongs to a transhistorical assembly of painters who have tried to extract some essential ugliness from human beings and make it beautiful. They have done it with different methods and materials, under different climates and constraints, but they have used paint to depict human beings rawly, intensely and with a degree of naturalism, and to push their paintings to a state anterior to the division between beauty and ugliness. It is a tradition that spans from the scarred and liquid portraits of Jenny Saville and Marlene Dumas, back through Freud, past Otto Dix and Egon Schiele, with their offerings of sallow or veiny flesh, past Cezanne and the patchwork faces and gouged-out eyes, past Gericault with his piles of limbs, past Goya and his amphibious-looking royals and old men eating soup. It is a tradition so old that one wonders if it resides in the essence of the medium. The way it mixes solidity with a tendency to ooze when combined with thinning agents, to pass between semiliquid and solid states as it dries on the canvas. “Flesh is the reason,” Willem de Kooning said, “why oil painting was invented.”
One of the great painters of human ugliness, and the one who explored the possibilities of flesh more than any preceding artist in the history of the medium, was Jusepe de Ribera. Other painters of ugliness before Ribera were either inclined toward satire, like Quentin Matsys, with his Ugly Duchess and Ill-Matched Lovers, or attracted to otherworldly suffering, like Bosch, with his wiry little humans being roasted on spits or devoured by lizard-dogs or ridden by masked squirrels playing the bongos. Ribera’s ugliness was much closer to the human body. It was not a satirizing or skewering so much as an infatuation with the way that bodies go to waste.
Known as Lo Spagnoletto, or “the Little Spaniard,” Ribera was a painter of drunks, street urchins, crones, satyrs and ruined men. One of his principal enthusiasms was painting the human body as it was being disemboweled or flayed. Antonio Palomino, in his 1724 history Lives of Eminent Spanish Painters and Sculptors, wrote that Ribera “did not enjoy painting sweet and devout subjects as much as he liked expressing horrifying and harsh things.” In his etchings, one finds disembodied mouths, wrenched open and shrieking with pain, studies of hairy ears, and faces riddled with warts, tumors and deformities. Ribera produced a fair share of benign religious scenes, with apostles and saints, but he was just as likely to paint a very dirty-looking man peeling an onion. Or a hirsute woman. (In what is likely his most recognizable painting, Magdalena Ventura with Her Husband and Son, a person with an ample black beard nurses a baby with a plump, gourd-like breast that hangs from the middle of her sternum.) No matter how placid or conventionally appealing certain pieces of Ribera’s might seem—such as those of the Holy Family or Jacob at rest, in the middle of a dream—one cannot forget the torrent of cruelty, violence and ugliness that flows through his work.
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Read more essays like this in our
“What is beauty for?” symposium,
such as “Negative Space” by Rachel Wiseman
and “Routine Appearances” by Jess Swoboda.
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Ribera was born in a small town near Valencia, Spain but spent most of his life in Naples—from 1616 until his death in 1652—and found a steady flow of commissions through Spanish viceroys and local eminences. He is not a second-rate or “unknown” artist by any stretch, but there has been no major exhibition of his work in the U.S. for over thirty years, and he is certainly not a household name on the order of other seventeenth-century painters like Caravaggio, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Rubens or Vermeer. The last time Ribera achieved any popularity was with the Romantics: he makes a brief cameo in Lord Byron’s Don Juan—“Of martyrs awed, as Spagnoletto tainted / His brush with all the blood of all the sainted”—and Théophile Gautier dedicated a sonnet to his painting of Tityus, in which a vulture pulls out bits of the giant’s liver like string cheese.
If much of avant-garde art and poetics has aspired to flaunt its ugliness, to insist on the inherent virtue of ugliness in opposition to beauty, it is clear why Ribera never appealed to modernists. There was nothing revolutionary about his approach, he was not trying to overthrow the painterly fashions of his moment (i.e. the naturalism of Caravaggio) or jolting his patrons into a critical awareness of the relations of production. He was an artist who aestheticized ugliness, who tried to make it sensuous and appealing, even beautiful.
The puzzle of why ugliness appeals to us, of why centuries of artists from Ribera to Freud have profited from making a mess of the human body, has posed a problem for the philosophy of art. Kant’s solution was to say that ugly things could in fact be elevated into the realm of beauty through their representation in art, but that there was one variety of ugliness, the “disgusting,” that could not. For Kant, there’s no such thing as a beautiful picture of a disgusting person or object; “it is impossible,” he says, “that it can be regarded as beautiful.”
Ribera has more than a few paintings that could be called disgusting. There are the flaying scenes, with the exposure of raw tendon and muscle, but there are also pictures like Sense of Taste, in which a very un-allegorical-looking man—portly, dirty and drunk—is eating a pile of baby eels or sardines, covered in some white substance that could be flake salt but looks like fungus. As with many of Ribera’s paintings, the scene almost carries an odor: the stained shirt, the air of sweat and rotting seafood, of flatulence and eructation. But then something changes, as it always does with Ribera. Suddenly you are disappearing into details, alighting on passages of brushwork, noting the strokes of light between the knuckles, the fabric puckering on the sleeve, the extraordinary randomness and balance of wrinkles on the collar, the daub of white over the glass, the delicate folds of skin under the eyes. And now your eyes are swerving around the image until your mind is clear, the memory of unsavory things gone, and what you’re left with is an impression of beauty.
This makes Baudelaire a better guide to Ribera’s paintings than Kant. It was possible, he said, that the ugliest thing could be a source of aesthetic pleasure; even a supposedly hideous person could be made beautiful through a work of art:
A well-drawn figure fills you with a pleasure that is quite alien to the theme. Voluptuous or terrible, this figure owes its charm solely to the arabesque it describes in space. The limbs of a flayed martyr, the body of a swooning nymph, if they are skillfully drawn, connote a type of pleasure in which the theme plays no part, and if you believe otherwise, I shall be forced to think that you are an executioner or a rake.
Baudelaire doesn’t leave much room for compromise. Either you understand that pleasure can sprout off at an angle from the subject of a painting, or you’re a sadist who enjoys looking at pictures of people suffering. It’s not exactly an air-tight case for Ribera’s work, but it’s a revealing little dagger of rhetoric. As Baudelaire tries to convert us into hardcore formalists, Ribera’s paintings are there, striking you over the head with the ugliness of their content. They’re not great in spite of their ugliness but because of it. Had Ribera lavished all of his painterly skill on a piece of tree bark, instead of the pain-twisted face of Tityus, his work would likely be in museum storage.
There’s something about the whole Kant-Baudelaire rift that feels antique by today’s standards. You don’t see a lot of artists and critics going around making declamations about what can, and cannot, be considered beautiful. People are more skeptical of their capacity for judgment, critical of their own beliefs, taught to map the coordinates of power that have locked them into certain subjectivities. Words like beauty and ugliness are not used to describe a certainty or fact but rather a changeable preference. As the critic Peter Schjeldahl writes:
Sometimes the object of beauty is not just unexpected, but bizarre, with an aspect I initially consider odd or even ugly. Such experiences are revolutions of taste, insights into new or alien aesthetic categories. When I first “got” an Indian temple sculpture, it was as if my molecules were violently rearranged. Something similar happened when I first “got” a painting by Jackson Pollock, say, or Andy Warhol—any strongly innovative artist. As a rule, what had seemed most odd or ugly became the exact trigger of my exaltation.
For most of the twentieth century, the avant-garde scandalized the museum-going public. It used to require years for culture to assimilate the shock of ugliness; now we can do it in a matter of seconds. All it requires is a flex of the optic nerve, a shift of perspective. Part of the trick is finding a way to make the ugly thing seem beautiful. For Schjeldahl, ugliness is a challenge. Why do I see this painting as ugly? What about my biases have made it so that I can stand here, in front of this canvas, and be repelled by it? Would it not be more interesting, more critically alert or generative, to find something redeemable about this thing that repels me? Would it not suggest that I am, in some way, capable of exceeding myself?
The secret of Ribera’s ugliness was the wrinkle. Few other painters have proven so interested in the deformations and converted possibilities of skin. The way it folds, crinkles and rips; its surprising elasticity in places and brittleness in others; its tendency to go the way of leather in sun or to peel quickly under the blade. All of Michelangelo’s skins, by comparison, look like sheets pulled tightly over metal fixtures. They have no texture, no awareness of decay. Look at the forehead in Ribera’s painting of Tityus. It’s more engrossing than the bits of liver meat spilling out of his side. The wrinkles are so craggy and inflamed with paint that they become a landscape of their own, a volcanic field slashed with canals, gouged with black pits, striped with ridges—a lavishly tortured and overworked piece of flesh.
It is a strange feature of wrinkled skin that when placed under a microscope, the wrinkle exhibits no sign of itself. Even after the depletion of natural fats and oils, of collagen and elastin—of a lifetime of vaguely grinning, submitting yourself to sunlight and tobacco smoke—the wrinkle remains invisible through the lens and expresses itself only to the naked eye. It belongs to the human scale of things. It is a mark of excess—of excess time, shadow and life—that results from the thinning away, wearing down and deprivation of flesh.
Ribera, having chosen his subjects from the streets of Naples, amply benefited from the breakdown of sun-leathered skin. His entire lot of saints, philosophers and satyrs are covered in wrinkles. Even God has wrinkles. The whole composition of God the Father is focused on His exquisitely furrowed dome. Imagine spending days working on a painting of God, or a painting of St. Bartholomew getting martyred, or Apollo peeling the skin off Marsyas, and returning to the canvas every morning after breakfast, or in the evening by candlelight, and you’re still painting a picture of some terrific or gruesome scene, and all of the energy you’ve built up to paint this thing, you’re going to spend it on the skin—the skin of the stomach, the skin of the neck, of the hands and knuckles. You’re adding folds on top of folds, folds that don’t even exist on human bodies, until the wrinkles become so elaborate that they become the picture itself. You can barely see God or St. Bartholomew anymore; they have become undistinguished bodies thinning out and dissipating, losing their boundary with the world.
Why Ribera spent years transforming wrinkles not only into a feature of his paintings but a mark of artistic virtuosity is a mystery. We know relatively little about his life; we know that he acquired some mules from his sister-in-law, that he had new locks installed on his house, that he was paid—on one occasion—in Vesuvian wine, that his father was a thrice-married shoemaker. We can imagine the workshop, the pile of newly tanned hides and skins on the bench, the soaking tubs, the leather cut and tacked around the wooden lasts, the bowls of wax and tallow, the shavings on the floor. As the picture widens out to the tools at hand—sharp knives, pincers, stitching awl—the entire workshop becomes a theater for the careful manipulation and cutting of skin. It recalls the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, the leather-like texture of the stomach and neck, and Apollo and Marsyas, Apollo with a perfectly impassive facial expression as he strips the skin from the satyr’s leg. One could be forgiven for thinking he was breaking down a shoe.
Some art historians have described Ribera as a painter who dignified his lowly subjects, “clearly and forcefully express[ing] his participation in and solidarity with a world of wretched and ragged creatures.” But this feels like a stretch. Ribera, like Freud, was in thrall to an obsession. He looked more closely at human bodies than most of us ever will and found, in flesh, the source of his art.
One measure of an artist’s skill is their ability to make the ordinary or mundane seem beautiful. That Velázquez’s View of the Garden of the Villa Medici, which is barely the size of a throw pillow, hangs in the vicinity of Las Meninas and Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross at the Prado, and yet still manages to bowl people over, gives some indication of the measure of the artist. The New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman once dedicated an entire piece to that little painting, which sends him into a reverie about the “lost, first flush of youth and endless possibility, which now includes the memory of waking into the heavy, sweet morning air that smelled of rosemary and honeysuckle.” It is a remarkable painting. But it’s basically a picture of two guys standing in front of a construction site.
What’s worth appreciating in artists like Ribera and Freud is their ability to go even further—past the mundane, past the ordinary—toward something ugly, and then to slowly, as if they’re solving a puzzle, work their way back, stroke by stroke, to a painting that, if not conventionally beautiful, produces an experience of aesthetic pleasure with a resemblance to beauty. Their ugliness is not the kind that’s susceptible to changes of fashion and taste, like brutalist architecture or Birkenstocks, but the kind that comes for all of us with age, assuming we live long enough to see it.
Art Credit: Jusepe de Ribera,Tityus, 1632, Oil on canvas, Collection of the Museo del Prado.