Cherubs and Angels Praise Guercino's Art

The Italian Baroque master is featured in two shows at the National Gallery

TWIN shows are now starring at the National Gallery, and they are both the work of Guercino (Italian for "the squinter"), who triumphed over that nickname to become the master painter of the Italian baroque.

"Guercino: Drawings from Windsor Castle" and "Guercino: Master Painter of the Baroque" have been brought together for the 400th birthday of the artist (whose real name was Giovanni Francesco Barbieri). This is the first American exhibition of 60 of his paintings from European sources, along with 60 of his drawings from the world's finest collection at Windsor Castle. Most of the works in the double exhibition have never been seen before in the United States.

Sir Denis Mahon, an internationally known expert on Guercino, answered a reporter's question on how he compared and contrasted the paintings and drawings:

"Well, that's an impossible question. Guercino is essentially a spontaneous artist," he says. "Of course, you get his personality in drawings, because these were not public documents, they were private documents. He throws himself into [them]. Of course, a painting is a more public thing. It has to be exhibited to the public and so on. They're different things, but they're part of the same personality.

"But the spontaneity exists in the drawings, and of course in the earlier paintings, you see the same sort of spontaneity there as in the drawings. Later on a very delicate discipline suddenly comes over him."

The Hon. Jane Roberts, curator of the Print Room at Windsor Castle, points out that the drawings were seldom made independently of the paintings. Because the drawings are preparatory for the paintings, she says, "the drawings are a very good way into the paintings."

We enter the first three galleries of drawings, before the eight galleries of paintings.

The drawings range from the sublime "Angel of the Annunciation" (1638-1639) to the grotesque: a three-faced man beset by devils in "Symbolic or Magical Subject."

In "David With the Head of Goliath" one can see the contrast between the original drawing with the monumental head bloodied on the ground at David's left knee; and the painting, in which David kneels on the body, his foot on Goliath's chin.

The drawing of "Atlas Standing, Slightly Turned to the Left" and other variations, when compared to his painting "Atlas," shows that the drawing was reversed like a mirror image in the painting, and that the huge navy-blue world, red scarf, and struggling bearded man in the painting grew out of the drawing.

As Andrew Robison, Andrew Mellon senior curator who coordinated the drawings show, points out, "The main thrust of drawings was to prepare paintings. And then we have several strange categories which stand out from those: the caricature drawings, the allegorical drawings, the landscape drawings, and drawings which he didn't use in his paintings.

"So then we have to ask, what's the purpose of these drawings, why did he make them?... He made them to keep himself. He had great facility as a draftsman - he could draw so easily. We have to think that it's more his reaction to actual scenes and also his development of scenes for his own pleasure. That's a theory, of course."

In the huge paintings that fill the tall rooms at the National Gallery with yards of vividly colored robes, acres of lifelike flesh, and enormous, flashing eyes, there is a sense of Guercino's race of giants, some of them religious figures.

Among the masterpieces in the exhibition are "Susanna and the Elders" from the Prado in Madrid, "The Intervention of the Sabine Women " from the Louvre in Paris, and "Saint William Receives the Monastic Habit" from the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna. Several of them have been cleaned and restored, providing a special vividness.

Guercino was born in Cento, a small hemp-producing town in Emilia in 1591. He began his career with lessons from a house painter, and with his natural talent, he taught himself. Called to Rome by a Bolognese pope, he became famous for his ceiling fresco of Aurora and went on to do other important commissions and paintings before returning to Cento to paint.

The drawings exhibition was organized by the Royal Library, Windsor Castle, in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art, the Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, Texas), and the Drawing Center in New York. The painting show was organized by the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna, with the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, and the National Gallery of Art.

Both exhibitions continue through May 17.

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