Dr Mark Stocker, Curator Historical International Art, looks at a remarkable print of drunken excess in the collection by 17th century Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera.
In my previous Christmas blogs, I have focused on art works that emphasise the spiritual: Madonna and Child and Adoration themes in Te Papa’s collection, New Zealand’s early ‘Old Master’ Christmas stamps, and, last year, a historic copy of Raphael’s much-loved Madonna della Sedia, loaned to our exhibition European Splendour, 1500–1800.
Now, however, I focus instead on the spirituous, a slight change in spelling but worlds apart in meaning. ‘Containing much alcohol’, as in ‘spirituous beverages’, is the dictionary definition.
The Drunken Silenus
Our sole print by Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), The drunken Silenus, is surely the perfect art historical representation of this short-term delightful but longer-term delirious condition. For some, and I think of the toga-clad students at my former university in the deep-thinking south, the spirituous is an essential component of Yuletide, more so – truth be told – than Midnight Mass or the Queen’s Speech!
Master of Drawing
Enough frivolity, and back to art history. Although Ribera is not the household name that he deserves to be, this is changing: the catalogue of his drawings has just been published, accompanying an exhibition, Ribera: Master of Drawing, held at the Museo del Prado a year ago.
A so-called ‘Tenebrist’, who favoured dramatic light and shade, he was known as ‘Lo Spagnoletto’ (the Little Spaniard) to contemporaries and early writers. Ribera was a leading painter of the Spanish school, although his mature work was all made in Italy. Born near Valencia, he was living in Rome by 1612-13, and had settled permanently in Naples in 1616. Apparently this was to escape creditors, having lived above his means, perhaps in a way akin to the revellers in our print.
Within a decade, he was the foremost painter in this city, and ran a thriving studio, keeping famous Italian rivals like Guido Reni and Domenichino at bay. Political instability towards the end of his life together with ill-health forced him to sell his large house and seek the protection of the Viceroy of Naples.
A horror artist?
His earlier style is influenced by both Caravaggio and Correggio. Along with his signature massive and predominating shadows, he retained a great strength in local colouring. His forms, although ‘ordinary and sometimes coarse’ are nonetheless ‘correct’ to old-fashioned connoisseurs. His work can be gloomy and startling, and he clearly delighted in subjects of horror. From what we know about him, however, he himself did not live on the margins like the thuggish (and short-lived) Caravaggio.
The Tarantino of 400 years ago?
Next year he will be the star of an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, entitled Ribera: The Art of Violence. Its director, Jennifer Scott, shrewdly aims at contemporary relevance and hip filmic culture when she promises: ‘This extraordinary 17th century artist will be presented in a dramatic and exciting way, creating a visitor experience akin to witnessing a Quentin Tarantino film.’ Yeah!
An important etcher
As well as a painter, Ribera was the most significant Spanish printmaker before Goya, producing about 40 prints, nearly all in the 1620s. The Drunken Silenus is excellently described in the British Museum online catalogue as follows (with occasional asides from this curator)…
“The print is an adaptation of Ribera’s 1626 painting made for Giacomo de Castro, a painter from Naples (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples). Dating from 1628, it is widely regarded as Ribera’s finest print, demonstrating his extraordinary powers of invention and facility through employing the etching medium to achieve myriad effects.”
Silenus, satyrs and maenads
The print depicts in reverse the pot-bellied, drunken Silenus lying on the ground in front of a wine vat. In Greek mythology, he was the companion and tutor to the wine god Dionysus, and is normally far older than the frolicking hairy satyrs and female maenads (also known as bacchantes) that invariably accompany him. High living, and an indestructible liver, are the secret to his success.
Crowned by Pan
Here he is in typical guise, raising his cup to receive wine being poured by a satyr while being crowned with a wreath by Pan who is identified by his pipes and staff at lower left. At the right, drunken putti replace the laughing faun in the painting.
Improving on the painting
The figures of the satyr and a maenad with a tambourine occupy a prominent position in the upper left. In the print Ribera has eliminated the conch shell, the tortoise and the snake seen in the painting. The differences bring a new compositional cohesion, an increased spatial depth and ultimately, the print – as can sometimes happen – is more successful than the painting.
I drink, therefore I am
According to mythology, Silenus possessed a special knowledge and wisdom that is inspired by drinking wine and consequently he is most often depicted drunk. ‘I drink, therefore I think!’ would be his motto.
Pan and his pipes
Pan, an arcadian god, son of Hermes and patron of shepherds, is generally shown as having goats’ horns, ears and legs. The pipe and staff at the bottom of the print refer to his pastoral associations. The pipe relates specifically to the story of his love for the nymph Syrinx who escaped his amorous advances after being chased down from Mount Lycaneum to the river Ladon and turned to a reed from which she was indistinguishable from the rest. Pan then cut at random several reeds to make his pipe.
The pipes in Ribera’s print have two references, firstly to identify Pan and secondly, they allude to his sexual appetite. Pan boasted that he coupled with all Dionysus’s drunken maenads, one of whom appears in the upper left. Next to her is a satyr holding a staff as a phallic substitute directed to her in a suggestive manner.
Abounding with humour
Ribera expert Jonathan Brown writes that he has ‘magnificently captured the joyful, mindless sensuality of the bacchic orgy’.
The humorous elements in this print abound. Silenus’s obesity and slumped position indicate he is unable to move. His half open mouth and heavy eyes reflect his plastered state as he concentrates on holding his cup steady, anticipating his next drink and oblivious to the fact the Pan is crowning him.
A cover-up operation
The hilarity of the moment is compounded by the vine leaf that covers Silenus’s genitals. Through attempting modesty, the effect is all the funnier. To the right, the excess of alcohol has taken its toll. One poor putto has collapsed while the other persists, his left hand clawing at an oversize cup and he reels back from the intake.
A silly ass
The contrast between the child and Silenus is direct. In the case of Silenus, experience alone can assure such poise. Entering from the right the ass brays heartily. The central figures are surrounded by other comical motifs, including the ass entering from the right with his open mouth and protruding teeth. The large vat reminds us there is no shortage of wine, and that’s really all that matters, isn’t it?
A touch of class
Finally, at the bottom right, the prominent signature identifies Ribera’s name, country, province and town of his birth. To make it still more classy, this is rendered in Greek – Játiva (Valencia) and Partenope (Naples).
Don’t even go there!
Laugh at, or even with, Ribera’s The drunken Silenus, dear reader, but I beseech you not to imitate him even in the name of art historical empathy. A salutary warning comes in our Christmas song, from Eric Burdon, lead singer of the Animals and the very embodiment of 1960s hedonistic excess. However, a decade or two later, according to Associate Professor Rob Burns of the University of Otago who played with him then, Burdon was ‘actually a very sober chap who had seen not a few friends go due to excess’.
His hit ‘Good Times’ evokes the older and wiser Burdon, who had survived earlier bacchanalia, lubricated one suspects by Newcastle Brown ale rather than Silenus’s Retsina or ouzo. So, enjoy Christmas in moderation!
Further Christmas reading
- British Museum entry on Drunken Silenus
- Jonathan Brown, Jusepe de Ribera: prints and drawings (Princeton, NJ, 1973).