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Resurrecting a Fallen Baroque Idol : A retrospective revives the works of Guido Reni, an Italian ahead of his time

For two centuries after his death in 1642 they continued to call him “The Divine Guido,” a nickname previously reserved for such exalted geniuses as Raphael and Michelangelo. Then, in the mid-19th Century, the critic John Ruskin pronounced Guido Reni sentimental and insincere. Reni’s reputation came crashing down like a pergola tapped with a wreckers ball.

Important paintings remained on view in the Louvre, the Prado and London’s National Gallery, but the tour guides passed them by. They fell into that genre of art noticed only by art students already saturated with recognized masters. Hmmph, kind of interesting.

Today the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opens a retrospective of the fallen 17th-Century Italian Baroque idol--the first in 30 years, the first ever in the United States. It is a full-dress event organized by LACMA and the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna, Italy, in association with Ft. Worth’s Kimbell Museum. The local version (through Feb. 12) includes 50 paintings and comes with a catalogue written by a brace of scholars whose essays have titles like “The Life, Symbolism and Fame of Guido Reni.” In short, it has all the hallmarks of a capital event.

But before we look at even a single picture, questions nag. Why was it so easy for Ruskin to topple this Renaissance Ozymandius? Influential as Ruskin was, no critic has the power to fry a beloved artist barricaded behind a phalanx of protective historians. The only sensible answer is that Ruskin’s opinion echoed an epochal sea change in artistic taste. He leveled his poison darts at a vulnerable target in timely fashion. In the mid-19th Century, the wave of Romanticism was cresting--passion and individuality ruled. Cool traditionalism of the type nominally practiced by Reni was being set up for annihilation by the Modernist aesthetic.

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OK, if that makes sense, the next question is, why did the county museum move to revive Reni today? They do own a couple of very nice pictures by the artist but that’s not a motive. A 15-year trend to revising the art-historical Valhalla certainly provided some impetus.

But one glimpse of the first picture on view and we go, Ah-HA !

It is a huge “Samson Victorious” entombed in a gold frame so glitzy it makes Liberace look like a Puritan. The painting is dominated by a near-nude Samson of such virile elegance it must have been inspired by some such classical work as the Apollo Belvedere. The hero stands amid his vanquished foes brandishing his famous weapon, the jawbone of an ass. Water flows from the mandible--a favor from God--and Samson drinks. The painting was designed to go over an aristocratic hearth. The fireplace must have been big enough to roast a hippo--albeit a small one.

The experience of the painting is a pure Post-Modernist ‘80s notion of an Italian Old Master painting--glitzy, sumptuous and narcissistic with its smooth “licked” surface. The biblical subject in pagan garb looks like divine permission to inside-trade and have it all. There is even an edge of camp to satisfy present perverse taste for irony. It is a painting whose mindless professionalism must have delighted the more pompous academics of the 19th Century and is again as up-to-date as Paris’ Musee D’Orsay or the Trump Tower.

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So, it looks like Ruskin was right and we are in for one of those complex entertainments that must be enjoyed--if at all--through layers of amused sophistication. The only nagging caveat that comes almost as an afterthought is that “Samson Victorious” is a superb painting drawn with suave inevitability, colored with a throbbing cobalt sky and flesh tones that seem mixed with polished alabaster.

We continue to feel we’ve got this one whipped at the git-go until we encounter a small “Portrait of Simone Cantanari” in the first gallery. It depicts a ruddy, gaunt old guy in his gray-goatee’ed 50s with the familiar aura of weary wisdom that comes as middle age slides towards oldness. As real and empathic as a north European portrait, it stands in almost shocking contrast to the artificial urbanity of the Samson. Guido Reni, it seems, is not going to be predictable.

Since the art is the man, it’s not surprising to discover that Reni was indeed as curious and contradictory a figure as many a modern artist. Born in Bologna in 1575 under the sign of Scorpio, he grew to be the city’s leading artist with a reputation that spread to Rome and beyond, casting him under the rubric of the man whose pictures were, “painted by angels.”

He came to admire Raphael, Correggio and Veronese above all others, but he emulated Caravaggio--or anybody else--when it suited his purposes. Significantly, however, his earliest formation was as a Mannerist--that style whose ambiguities and idiosyncrasies came to stand for the dawn of the neurotic sensibility for decades of modern viewers. What sets Guido--and his present revival--apart is that he is the first Mannerist whose work is admixed with the academic sumptuousness of the Classical Baroque of the Brothers Carracci. For us, that makes him the model Post-Modern Mannerist.

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By age 30, Guido was demanding and receiving huge sums in commissions. He generally held material things in contempt, but dressed like a prince and was fatally addicted to gambling. He lost money even faster than he earned it, and soon his life centered around feeding his addiction instead of painting his best. He fell in with shady characters and hare-brained schemes, cranking out weak works and copies of his own stuff.

Contemporaries found him arrogant, depressive and paranoid. He was plagued by morbid fears of violence and especially of witchcraft. Since witches are mainly women, he was afraid of them too, and as far as can be ascertained, he died a virgin--a very tough trick for an admired artist in fun-loving Italy.

Not to be caught being consistent about anything, Reni was also noted for frequent acts of generosity and kindness. While generally aloof and brusque with fellow artists, he worked tirelessly to improve the status of the profession, refusing to paint for royalty because he thought the necessary bowing and scraping beneath artistic dignity.

This complexity shows in the work. The exhibition is riddled with conventional pot-boiler religious scenes of vapid saints throwing their eyes heavenward like marbles tossed at the sun. Though Reni was incapable of painting a really bad picture, when the subject didn’t interest him, the results have a tinny, brain-dead aura.

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Not surprisingly, his women tend to hollow idealism, as if painted by somebody who didn’t understand them. Poses of their heads are so consistent they look like they were painted from a stencil--three-quarter view up the nostrils and an expression of helpless wonder as if a lemon souffle had just collapsed in the firmament.

When something got to him the work throbs with strangeness. “David With the Head of Goliath” gives us a dandified David with a plume in his hat standing jauntily next to a severed head so huge it at least deserves to be in the Guinness Book of Records as the most convincing evidence that Goliath really was a bloody big giant. The early Mannerist works prove that his fear of violence was the fear of forbidden fascination.

To be fair, however, it must be added that a taste for veiled sado-masochism was common to paintings of the period.

Reni seems to have been driven by two main impulses, the first was to satisfy the client or the current fashion with something like cynical accommodation. One of the most striking things about checking the labels for this exhibition is noting that the painting from the Louvre looks so French, the one from the Prado so Spanish, the one from the National Gallery so British.

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“Nessus and Dejanira” from the Louvre centers on a centaur with such grinning Gallic panache that his expression could have served as inspiration for the famous sculptural group of bacchanalian dancers that prance on the facade of the Paris opera. Any number of Guido’s pictures would feel at home in the Prado--they have that dark Caravagesque envelope of shrouding black shadows beloved of Spanish painters and probably reflective of the artists’ own depressed moods.

The National Gallery’s “St. Sebastian” is certainly the greatest Reni on view here and probably his most balanced masterpiece. It characterizes him at his best in many ways, the classical calm he was able to achieve at moments, his love of the animal physicality of the young male nude and his ability to render in paint with seeming effortlessness.

But what strikes one first is that the picture looks so English that it could have inspired both the pastoral Gainsborough and the classical Reynolds.

Of course, Reni did not paint these pictures for these museums, but they reflect the amazing Picasso-like stylistic virtuosity that was his gift and his curse.

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There are things seriously wrong with Guido Reni’s art, but almost all of them have to do with the cheesy and unconvincing way he treated his subject matter. He seemed to have been--Ruskin notwithstanding--a species of Modernist manque, imprisoned by the conventions of his time, driven by the subjective and aesthetic search that fuels contemporary artists.

One thing that never comes into question is Reni’s desire to make good paintings and his impatience with the aspects of it that did not interest him. What did interest him was the painterly-realistic. The most consistently convincing line of work here is male portraits that range from northern grittiness to the gentle bravura elegance of a Fragonard.

In later works his paint thins, his drawing loosens so that the means of making calls attention to itself. A St. Sebastian of 1640 combines an emotional silliness with thin silvery grays and pearly flesh. It might have been painted by Goya in the transition between his Rococo and his expressionist manner.

Among the last works on view is a “Virgin With Jesus, St. John and a Dove.” It is as loose, translucent and rationalized as an oil sketch by Jacques Louis David.

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Maybe the greatest compliment we can pay Guido Reni’s art is to contemplate how frequently we are inclined to compare it with works by artists who were not yet born. In his way, Guido Reni was painting the future.


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