At a time when nicknames have all but disappeared as the pseudonyms of respectable professionals, it’s refreshing to come across an artist known as the Squinter. A consummate professional whose diligence was matched by his talents as a draftsman and skills as a businessman, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, “il Guercino” (the Squinter), was a cross-eyed painter with no time for self-pity.
On bad days, he thought of his condition as a minor inconvenience. On good ones, it distinguished him from the competition and became a trademark that, rumor had it, aided his concentration when drawing from life and translating his pen-and-ink studies into dramatic paintings and action-packed, ceiling-spanning frescoes.
At the J. Paul Getty Museum, an enchanting exhibition of 34 wonderfully intimate drawings by Guercino (1591-1666) opens with a 1623 engraving by Ottavio Leoni (1578-1630). The notecard-size portrait does not try to hide, disguise or downplay Guercino’s malady. Instead, his physical handicap is the most prominent feature of the sensitively rendered image, a three-quarter profile that shows one eye staring straight at viewers and the other looking far off to the sitter’s left -- straight down the wall on which the picture hangs.
The portrait is disorienting. At first, Guercino appears a bit crazed. But the intensity of his multidirectional gaze, coupled with the relaxed alertness of his expression and the casual confidence of his posture, makes him look perfectly natural. It seems as if he had trained himself to look in two directions simultaneously, cultivating a skill that allowed him to see his surroundings clearly and sensibly and more fully than usual.
His drawings cover a wide range of subjects and employ a commanding variety of media. Religious and mythological scenes predominate, with genre themes, historical portraits, nudes, imaginary landscapes and fanciful caricatures demonstrating the breadth of Guercino’s talents and the depth of his interest in everything around him. “Guercino: Mind to Paper” was organized by Julian Brooks, the Getty’s assistant curator of drawings, and is accompanied by a concise, useful catalog.
The religious scenes, such as “The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew” and “The Martyrdom of Saints John and Paul,” show Guercino at his most contemplative. With great facility, they capture the transcendent tranquillity of men facing the end of their earthly existence.
In contrast, “Jupiter Throwing a Thunderbolt” is almost comical in its whiplash rendering of the Roman god twisting his muscular torso to hurl a spindly thunderbolt, which has all the heft of a swizzle stick. “Cupid Restraining Mars” verges on slapstick. Its cartoon putto is no match for the armor-clad god of war, whose sword sweeps through space so swiftly that it forms the radial lines of a wheel’s spokes or windmill’s blades.
Guercino’s drawings of ordinary moments in the daily lives of anonymous folks are his most intimate and original pictures. “Two Seated Women Drying Their Hair in Front of a Fire” is an oddly composed yet lovely study of in-between moments. It anticipates Edgar Degas and still seems contemporary. “A Nude Woman, Seated, Embracing a Child” and “A Child Seen From Behind, Standing Between His Mother’s Knees” give enduring form to the seemingly incidental gestures that form the bedrock of human relationships.
Even more impressive than the range of Guercino’s subjects is the range of materials and techniques he used to depict them. A simple quill pen dipped in brown ink was all he needed to capture the texture of the visible -- and invisible -- worlds, giving palpable form to wet hair, razor stubble, tangled garments, pudgy thighs, blinding sunlight and angel wings.
Dark washes, applied with a paintbrush, often add dramatic shadows and the weight and sag of living flesh. Red and black chalk, sometimes smudged with his fingertips, create atmospheric sensuality, giving some pictures dreamy ethereality. Other images are as stark as etchings, with fine, decisive lines seemingly carved into the paper.
Guercino masterfully combined these techniques to create works filled with furious activity and quotidian intimacy. He is best known for focusing on pairs of figures, and for conveying the psychological complexity of their interactions. He is also known for his virtuoso depictions of swift, violent movements. Like a stop-action photograph, his “Saint Sebastian” depicts an arrow -- suspended in midair -- flying toward the martyr.
To look at the 1642 drawing is to feel as if you are a witness to an event taking place right before your eyes. Guercino’s eyesight may not have been 20 / 20, but his artistic vision, and capacity to deliver it, are nothing less than stunning.
‘Guercino: Mind to Paper’
Where: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Mondays.
Ends: Jan. 21
Contact: (310) 440-7300; www.getty.edu