There’s no need to squint at the work of Guercino

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

History has not been kind to Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, the Italian Baroque painter who is better known by his artistic nickname, Guercino — “the Squinter.”

Despite being one of the acknowledged greats of European painting during one of its finest periods, in recent times he has languished in relative obscurity as far as the general public is concerned.

This is partly because modern-day artistic appreciation has moved away from the grand, religious subject matter that Guercino specialized in and toward the landscapes and genre paintings of his period. It is also because the main dramas of Western art happened before him or afterward, so his life story seems less eventful or significant than that of other artists. But it is now the role of Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art (NMWA) to revive the reputation of this neglected genius with an excellent show that brings around 40 of his large canvases to Tokyo.

The NMWA has been lucky to get such a fine selection of the artist’s work. One of the reasons for this is a misfortune in Italy. The home of most of the paintings, the Civic Gallery in the Palazzo del Monte di Pieta in the central Italian town of Cento, was damaged by an earthquake in May 2012. With the venue now closed and awaiting repairs, the paintings are forced to “wander the Earth.”

In order to elicit the sympathy of the Japanese audience, the exhibition highlights this fact, inviting comparisons with the nation’s own major earthquake one year before the Italian one. But such an obvious ploy to evoke sympathy and charitable feeling is unnecessary for a painter of Guercino’s excellence.

When the German writer and thinker Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited Italy in the 1780s, he was particularly impressed by Guercino.

“Guercino is a healthy and masculine painter without being crude,” he commented in his diary. “His work has an inner moral grace, a splendid freedom and dignity. In addition his work has an individual quality, which renders it unmistakable when one has grown used to it.”

This “masculine” quality is revealed in a number of ways: the large canvases, many of which have an upward-soaring vertical axis; the strong, confident brush strokes; and the expansive compositional sense. Like Goethe, one gets the impression from these that Guercino was no wimp.

A fine example of his artistic virility is “The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist” (1650). This features a physically impressive, life-sized John the Baptist, poised pointing to the heavens to predict the coming of Christ. But what makes this painting work is the generous use of space around the figure, and the way the sky is integrated into the composition.

We can follow the Baptist’s upturned digit for several feet before reaching the painting’s golden frame. This gesture is given added emphasis by being silhouetted against the sky, which itself is emphasized by being framed in a circle of rock, as if we are looking outward from a cave or through a natural rock arch in the wilderness.

While revealing the craft of the Baroque artist, this work also reminds us that the purpose of much of the art of this period was closely tied to the needs of religion. By the time of Guercino, the Catholic Church’s hold on society had been shaken by the Reformation. In an attempt to fight back and reinvigorate the institution, there was a counter move to make church architecture, furnishings, ritual and art all the more attractive. This is the context within which these works are to be viewed.

While Protestantism focused on the word and the abstracted spirit of Christianity, Catholicism emphasized the imagery and flesh of the faith, presenting its message in ways that sometimes seem to stretch for effect..

In “Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene” (1619), the strong contrasts used to show Saint Irene tending to Saint Sebastian’s wounds, have a stage-lit quality. In “The Assumption” (ca. 1622), showing the assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven, Guercino opts for a dramatic perspective from below, with Mary’s head haloed by a ring of stars evocative of the present-day EU flag.

But while Guercino’s art can be viewed as part of this important grand historical narrative — the “weaponization” of art in the service of resurgent faith — the artist was also capable of a more intimate mood, closer to the everyday scenes of genre painting. This is most effectively displayed in “The Madonna of the Sparrow” (ca. 1615-16), where the Madonna and Christ Child play quietly with a sparrow held captive on a barely perceptible thread. In this painting the Christ Child is divested of his divine glow and reduced to a normal human child.

While tastes in art may vary, a taste for sheer artistry is consistent among most people. For this reason, I highly recommend this excellent show for everybody.

“Guercino” at The National Museum of Western Art runs still May 31; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Mon.