A freewheeling approach

This drawing is a delightful, teasing fabrication. The work of the 17 th-century Italian painter known as Il Guercino, it contains the undoubted ingredient of laughter. Presented from the preposterously spiky and histrionic dragon's point of view, it is a hilarious pantomime. Apparently this cowering chimera is about to get it in the neck from a gang of heavily armed humans--though their courage, in the event, seems to have let them down: all they can manage is a timid peep over a wall at their adversary. The fantastic creature (which Guercino wittily suggests he has drawn from life)--this splendid and fearsome composite of lizard, porcupine, toad and whatever else takes your fancy--is doing its level best to live up to its dangerous reputation. But we (who are nearer to it than the dragonocides, and can feel superior anyway because we know we are quite safe) can see that for all its bristle and hackle, scaliness and snarling, it is nothing more than an inexperienced baby dragon, a stray pup in need of affection and a good home. The curl at the tip of its fat tail indicates a potentially good nature, and could be converted to a shy wag at the slightest sign of kindness.

Guercino was a prolific and marvellously adventurous draughtsman. Working usually in pen and ink, supplemented with gentle washes, he could summarize a dramatic moment in a biblical narrative, or a chance event observed firsthand in a street, with a flourish and excitement of pen strokes which displayed simultaneously both a sensitivity to feeling and relationships between people and an almost irrelevant enjoyment of drawing for its own sake--for its motions, fluidity and expressiveness. He could be utterly spare and understating, and then, with little sense of inconsistency, dance around on the paper with energetic loops and swirls, dashes, hatchings and long, strongly felt lines, produced apparently at great speed. Sometimes he indulged such playfulness of line in the graceful, curving draperies of his figures. In ''A dragon observed by spectators behind a wall'' he suits the lines to the subject, and everything--including the rock and the tree--seems to have taken on the same quill-like spinosity as the cornered monster and the approaching forest of spears and staves and lances.

Guercino, in a characteristic fantasy of this sort, which is apparently not connected with a painting and so probably done for the amusement of himself and friends, seems to us very modern. But he worked at a period in Italy when humor was being seen as an expressive possibility of drawing. He had early come under the influence of the Carracci, three Bolognese painters whose studio was a popular and effective centre for instruction in painting, drawing and art theory at the close of the 16th century. There are accounts of a frequently relaxed and lighthearted atmosphere in this workshop. Caricature--the satirical exaggeration or distortion of facial features for comic effect--is sometimes credited with having been more or less invented there (though, of course, this sort of pictorial mischief was, in a sporadic way, much older). The Carracci and their followers certainly did inject wit and humor freshly into Italian art, and even in serious work they could appreciate gaiety. Writing to his cousin Lodovico, Annibale Carracci commended the ''putti'' (those chubby little infants featured in Baroque decorations and paintings) of another great artist, Correggio. He said with obvious pleasure that they ''live and laugh with such grace and truth that one must laugh and be cheerful with them.'' Laughter was certainly not far from Guercino's intent at times. He also drew caricatures, carefree in style. And this dragon with its reluctant assailants is in the same spirit of happy absurdity.

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