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"Guercino: Mind to Paper"
2007-02-22 until 2007-05-13
Courtauld Institute of Art
London, , UK United Kingdom

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666), nicknamed Guercino (“squinter”) after a childhood incident left him cross-eyed, is regarded as one of the most significant Italian artists of the Baroque period.  A prolific and fluent draughtsman who was known as ‘the Rembrandt of the South’, he was hailed for his inventive approach to subject matter, his deftness of touch and ability to capture drama and movement.  The exhibition reflects the artist’s extraordinary technical and stylistic versatility, and is the second joint exhibition to be organised as part of the Courtauld Institute of Art’s ongoing collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. It is focused around an important group of twenty-six drawings from the collection of Sir Robert Witt, bequeathed to the Courtauld in 1952.  A number still retain the distinctive patterned ‘Casa Gennari’ mounts that originate from the studio of Guercino’s nephews and studio assistants, Benedetto and Cesare Gennari, to whom he left his entire stock of drawings.   Guercino: Mind to Paper will be on view at the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2, from 22 February to 13 May 2007.

Guercino spent almost his whole life close to his birthplace of Cento near Ferrara, and in Bologna, but his reputation was cemented in Rome while he was working for the court of Pope Gregory XV between 1621 and 1623.  After returning to northern Italy, he ran a busy and successful workshop where he made hundreds of paintings over the course of his career.  His works were sought after internationally but he turned down invitations to become a court artist in both London and Paris, probably to stay close to his family.

The driving force behind Guercino’s artistic success was his skill as a draughtsman.  The Witt drawings are all figural scenes, largely mythological, religious and informal studies. Additional loans from the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and two American private collections include a rare large nude male study, an imaginary landscape and a caricature.  The works in the exhibition have been specifically chosen to demonstrate the artist’s wide-ranging choice of subject matter and his remarkable technical and compositional skills.

Much of Guercino’s early experience came from life drawing.  He drew incessantly, sensitively recording the world around him and examining scenes from every conceivable angle, as can be seen in the tender Child seen from behind, standing between his mother’s knees.  As with this drawing, he would often zoom in on a part of the whole composition, leaving large areas comparatively unworked.  Frequently he used ‘close-up’ studies to examine the relationships between significant characters, and to study their facial expressions.

Some of Guercino’s models recur elsewhere in his drawings.  The naked figure in the Getty Study of a seated young man, is most probably the same model as for the dramatically foreshortened youth lying on his back in a drawn study for the painting Apollo flaying Marsyas (Palazzo Pitti, Florence), although his position is reversed.  Guercino’s drawings played an important intermediary role in developing the composition of his paintings, allowing us an insight into his creative process.  He kept modifying his designs right up until the final painted work.  A beautiful red chalk study depicting the goddess Aurora (Dawn) in her chariot was made during his stay in Rome for his famous ceiling decoration in the Casino Ludovisi.

A prominent feature of Guercino’s drawing technique is his varied use of media.  Goose feather pen dipped in ink was his favourite medium, and this direct technique enabled him to record his fleeting ideas on paper quickly and easily, most notably evident in Cupid restraining Mars (fig. 4).  Numerous pentimenti (minor changes), such as the five exploratory ideas for the sword, are evidence of the speed and energy with which this drawing was executed.  Often he brought the flurry of scratchy pen lines together with shadows comprising touches of wash applied with the brush, spectacularly displayed in the spontaneity of the study for The Assassination of Amnon at the feast of Absalom (fig 5).  Yet equally he used other media when he felt them more suitable, such as in the large-scale drawings of youths made early in his career, where he employed black chalk to excavate the form using only shadow, or in A child seen from behind (fig. 1), in which rubbed red chalk subtly conveys the feel of a baby’s dimpled skin

Texture plays a significant role in Guercino’s expressive draughtsmanship, most obviously in Two women drying their hair (fig. 6), in which loosely applied brown wash is used to describe cascading wet tresses, while the dryer ends of hair consist of strokes of the brush ‘starved’ of wash.  His sensitivity to light and shade is apparent in all the works on display, in many of which powerful dark brown ink and wash passages predominate - a method he often used to draw attention to intricate hairstyles and headdresses and to accentuate parts of the body, fleshy contours in particular, as seen in Bathsheba attended by her maid.  

Guercino’s early biographer Carlo Cesare Malvasia (1616-93) recorded that the artist was ‘affectionate of the poor, who flocked around him whenever he left his house, as if he were their father; he enjoyed conversing with them’.  His sympathy for a variety of human situations is particularly apparent in such everyday domestic scenes as Interior of a baker’s shop and Interior of a kitchen, both humorously observed from life.  Guercino’s passion for storytelling is evident throughout the exhibition, whether through intimate subjects such as these works probably done for his own pleasure, or in dramatic preliminary studies for narrative paintings.

This magnificent display of drawings celebrates the freedom and spontaneity of Guercino’s draughtsmanship.  The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue by Dr Julian Brooks, Assistant Curator of Drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum.  A specialist in Italian 16th and 17th century drawings, he has curated the exhibition which is on view at the Getty from 17 October 2006 to 21 January 2007.  As well as catalogue entries, the text includes a biography of the artist, notes on the provenance of Sir Robert Witt’s collection of Guercino drawings and a chapter characterising the artist’s unique style and process of drawing.

Cupid Restraining Mars, c.1640,
pen and ink on paper
Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London.

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