You Looking at Me? The Passive Observer and the Active Contributor

Ribera, The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (1644)

Ribera, The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (1644)

‘If you want me to cry, mourn first yourself.’
Horace, ‘Art of Poetry’

I recently visited an excellent exhibition of paintings by Jusepe de Ribera at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (‘Ribera: Art of Violence’, until 27 January).

Ribera was born near Valencia in 1591 and spent most of his career in Spanish-controlled Naples. From Caravaggio he learned to give biblical and mythical events immediacy by employing real models, gritty settings and dramatic lighting. He gained a reputation for painting vivid works of pain, brutality and suffering: Saint Sebastian bound to a stake and shot through with arrows, Saint Philip about to be crucified upside-down, the centaur Ixion chained to a wheel, the satyr Marsyas being skinned alive.

In many ways Ribera’s work reflected the dark times he was living through. The Counter Reformation was in full swing. The Church was commissioning devotional images of intense emotion to reinforce faith. The Inquisition was hard at work exposing blasphemy and heresy. Daily life was dangerous and cruel. And Ribera could draw directly from the torture and execution he witnessed on the streets of Naples. He sketched prisoners bound and blindfolded, twisted torsos and terrified screams. In grim detail he captured the torment known as ‘strappado’, whereby victims were hung by their arms until they dislocated.

In ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew’ (1644) two thugs set about flaying their victim with vigour; and Bartholomew stares out at us in the grip of unimaginable agony. He seems to be challenging us to meet his gaze, demanding our attention.

‘I did this for you.’

‘You did this to me.’

‘Feel my pain.’

Bartholomew’s anguished look makes us feel uncomfortable, voyeuristic. It is as if we are responsible, involved, complicit in the crime.

It’s a powerfully engaging device - the viewer viewed - and one which Ribera uses again and again in his work. In the midst of some dramatic incident, a lone figure looks out at us from the picture - a grieving holy woman, a terrified victim, a leering executioner - curious, questioning, sceptical.

Ribera, Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women

Ribera, Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women

What, we seem to be asked, is our point of view on all this? Where do we stand? What are we doing to prevent it?

We’re all at times prone to play the disinterested onlooker, the neutral bystander, the unseen witness. It’s easy to be cool, passive, non-committal and aloof; to be on the sidelines and the fence.

But I’ve found in business that one gravitates towards people with strong personal perspectives; people with passion and conviction. As a leader you’re not asking for everyone to agree with you, but you do want everyone to care.

So if you’re looking to progress your career, take an interest in the future of your industry; a perspective on the outlook for your discipline; a point of view on the prospects for your company. Be an active contributor not a passive observer, a radiator not a drain. Believe in something.

You may not be in a position of power, but you can sign up, pitch in, participate, get involved. You can always do something.

I guess one could say the same about life in general.

‘If not you, who? If not here, where? If not now, when?'

(Quotation attributed to numerous sources, but ultimately derived from Jewish leader, Hillel the Elder)

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