Guercino: A Passion for Drawing – The Collections of Sir Denis Mahon and the Ashmolean Museum

Ashmoleon Museum, Oxford, 11th February 2012 to 15th April 2012

Reviewed by David Packwood

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino (1591 - 1666) An old bearded man, probably St Jerome, seated on the ground at the foot of a tree, turning the leaves of a large volume, c.1622 - 1624. Image via Ashmolean Museum website.

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, better known as Guercino (1591-1666) because of his squint, was one of the most prolific draughtsmen of the seicento. Many of his drawings survive, attesting to his industry, commitment and unwavering belief in his art. Born in Cento—mid way between Bologna and Ferrara—the biographers say that he drew from the age of six. Beckoned by the flourishing Carracci academy in Bologna, Guercino went there to study their art, but had the confidence to set up shop on his own. With the election of a Bolognese pope from the Ludovisi family in 1621, Guercino found artists from that region favoured, and so he graduated to painting ceilings of palaces and the large altars of the Counter-Reformation in Rome. With the fall of the Ludovisi in 1623 and the rise of the Barberini, all that activity came to an abrupt end, and Guercino was obliged to return to Cento. This probably suited Guercino better as he was essentially a home-loving artist who kept meticulous economic accounts, and had an attention to detail reflected in his meticulous draughtsmanship.

The exhibition of Guercino’s drawings is laid out in two rooms, and while there are slight attempts to arrange the drawings in thematic groups, that’s not the purpose of the show. There is no catalogue or literature of any kind, no curatorial heavy hand; instead you find yourself surrounded by sheets in all graphic styles with all manner of subjects. You can look at Holy Families, mythological scenes, allegories, genre, capricci, studies in expression, and a few sheets of landscape, a genre that Guercino largely ignored. That light curatorial approach frees the viewer up to start or finish wherever they like. However, if you follow the layout of the rooms, you’ll encounter at the entrance an exquisite red chalk drawing of a woman painting (all links take you to the Ashmolean Museum website), probably an allegory of art; whilst across the way there is a lovely pen and wash study of a Mystic Marriage of St Catherine. In this corridor section of the exhibition there’s an emblem of the City of Bologna, represented by a woman pointing at an architectural model of the city borne aloft by two putti. That sheet is executed in brown ink, but in this case the wash has been used sparingly; it’s remarkable how versatile this artist can be with different media. He can soak the composition in wash so that it almost resembles a painting, or almost efface the artist’s presence from the work by economic use of the pen or brush.

Over the bridge in the Ashmolean’s sleek new galleries is the main room of the exhibition where four walls of Guercino sheets greet the eye. Out of this display I selected the following for comments. A pen and dense brown ink drawing entitled ‘The Enraged Housewife’ who seems to be extracting teeth with a spindle from some unfortunate young woman—I will never fear my dentist again! A Christ on the Road to Calvary: dark brown wash for the shadows on the figures; lower density of wash for the cross itself- overall, nice tonal balance.  A very pensive St Jerome drawn with the same media as the former. There’s a nice interplay here between the bright tone of the paper with the effect of white rippling down the saint’s arm. Again, there are the various shades of brown which show great invention by adding to the meditative mood of the isolated saint in his lonely corner of the world. In contrast to the scenes of saints and the saviour we have only a handful of mythological and poetic drawings, from the early 1620s, interlocking couples like Angelica and Medoro occupying white spaces like lightboxes, with the odd motif like a tree or shrub to suggest the natural realm.

Comparisons are often made with Rembrandt, and looking at a study for Cato saying goodbye to his son, I can see why. The technical restraint of the sheet contrasts with the emotion of the scene as the stoic philosopher clasps his son; a warm embrace which immediately put me in mind of similar emotional gestures in Rembrandt, such as the Prodigal Son, a subject that Guercino also painted. Perhaps Guercino’s passion is more visible in the drawings rather than the finished paintings. I haven’t seen the painted version of the Cato, but it’s supposed to lack the embrace. Interestingly, this alteration can’t be due to patron intervention as Guercino wasn’t constrained by the demands of patrons, nor did he provide modelli for their approval. Like many seicento artists, Guercino was not immune to the lure of the bizarre and fantastic. There’s some evidence of that here with a few studies of diablerie, or demonic themes. One has what looks like a nude academic study transformed into a man either possessed by a fiend, or a figure whose demon has just left him; the devil gloats in the sky as the man writhes in real or imagined agony. Satanism in the seicento isn’t really my thing, but I wouldn’t mind betting that there’s some deeper allegorical meaning buried here reflecting the man’s state of mind. Guercino was adept at imbuing his compositions with psychological nuances.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this exhibition is the range of styles on show. I’m relying on my memory here, and dodgy photographs taken on my mobile, but I don’t recall many, if any, sheets in Guercino’s energetic, sprezzatura style. His biographer Malvasia compared his pen stroke to a swift dart, like the movement of a fish in water. This style known as ‘guizzanti’, isn’t so prevalent here; the balance is more towards the studies in light and shadow, which doesn’t diminish the exhibition in my eyes as it’s my favourite kind of Guercino drawing.

The late Sir Denis Mahon (1910–2011), who championed Guercino when he was deeply unfashionable, may turn out to be the last of the great modern connoisseurs, with a difference. Though the word ‘connoisseur’ is increasingly reviled these days as the imprimatur of the elite, nothing could be further from the truth with Sir Denis. A staunch supporter of free admission to museums, and ceaseless warrior against politicians and philistines, Sir Denis believed in making his paintings and drawings available to the public. That is why he made arrangements to leave his paintings and drawings to public museums after his death, including the Ashmolean—and that is why this exhibition is free. A fitting tribute to a man whose legacy to the art world is measured, not only by his scholarship—formidable in itself—but by the huge numbers of works that he bequeathed to public museums.

All the Guercino drawings in the Ashmolean are available to view here.

© David Packwood 30 March 2012

David Packwood writes about art history on his blog Art History Today.