Sensual Realism Marks  Baroque Drawings
(Originally Published in The Santa Barbara News and Review, 02/25/1977)

Presaged in this study of horses by Bolognaís Guercino in the 17th century.


By Dan Gheno

According to the Bible, humans are shaped in the image of God. But, judging from the glorified images of humanity represented in the "Regional Styles of Drawing in Italy 1600-1700" at the University Art Gallery, I canít help wondering whether or not the Bible has its facts reversed ówhether, in fact, God is created in the image of the human being.

It seems as though nothing could appear more perfect than these majestic  Baroque drawings of the human figure. Could God even challenge the beauty of design that these artists have implanted in their figures?

Ironically, these "sacrilegious" thoughts emanate from a show dominated by Christian imagery. Much of the work produced by Italyís seven major artistic centers was either directly or indirectly funded by the church. At the time, these seven centers (Rome, Florence, Venice, Bologna, Genoa, Naples, Tuscany) were in a hubbub of confusion. With the discovery of America, new trade and new riches, Western people became possessed by the notion that they were at the center of all activity. As they made gains and conquests over nature, they began to measure beauty only in comparison to their own accomplishments and their own bodies. Beauty was deprived of its infinity, and thoughts of grandeur could only find expression through the objective use of the figure.

Buildings, boats and roads were all designed with the same proportion of parts found on the human body. But most importantly, these Baroque  artists portrayed the human body as an artistic creation unto itself.

Never before had artists scrutinized the body for so much detail of form. Their drawings show that they savored every curve and angle. They played god, manipulating every element and nuance of each figure so that all the parts fell artfully into place. Their penstrokes were like a flawless ballet of interdependent linework.

Some of the drawings investigate human design so extensively that occasional works presage ideas from the future expressionistic and impressionistic schools. There are even some glimmers of art nouveau and cubism in their work.

A slightly impressionistic sketch by  Grechetto is among the many line drawings presented from the Genoa region. His sketch goes against the grain of the other heavily outlined figures. Only occasionally do pieces of line describe form; he tells the rest of his story with a vaporous wash, which seems to sit on the page like dark, seemingly uncoordinated rain drops. It caresses the paper, rambling in and out of human and architectural forms.  Grechetto has a light touch that describes the texture of his subject matter with a sense of subtle, foggy truthfulness.

To my eyes, the high point in the show is not a drawing of humans, but a spirited drawing of rambunctious horses. The pen and ink sketch, by Guercino of Bologna, captures the horses at the height of their gallop, each horse suspended in mid-leap, their legs free of the ground and blurred in the dust raised by their massive hooves.

In an unorthodox stroke of expressionistic genius,  Guercino gives ultimate description to their headlong rush by allowing one of the stallions to break through the left hand border of the picture.  Guercino demonstrates that the untethered fury of the horses could even split through the restraints of the rectangular picture surface.

Guido Reni, also from Bologna, presents another sketch oriented toward expressionism. His offering is similar to a Toulouse-Lautrec portrait. His penline roams freely throughout the page like a vagabond, stopping only to describe the most significant characteristics of the model. The remaining lines donít delineate the sitter per se, but rather express the vigor of the drawing process. The lines visibly record the artist caught in excitement of his own work, using every muscle and all of his senses to give life and actuality to his drawing.

With only a few exceptions, all the drawings show that the artists expressed with quick visceral linework the rhythmic proportions of the human body. This is the obvious focus of the show. Like a modern Sherlock Holmes, Professor Alfred Moir, with the aid of his graduate students, spent months of painstaking detective work, trying to portray truthfully this image of the Baroque artist. They compiled this show from the many obscure inventories of California museums and private collections, seeking to crush the popular image that all Baroque art is an opulent, self-aggrandizing disease.

Few people can afford to spend the kind of time needed to investigate adequately the European collection of large easel paintings and gargantuan murals. The average person is forced to base his or her opinions on dinky, postage-stamp-like reproductions of the real thing. When reduced, yards of luscious paint and thick, vibrant brushstrokes are transformed into inches of dull, inaccurate printerís ink.

If the dead artists knew that their handiwork was being so callously mutilated, they would break through their tombs and picket art book publishers. We canít all live in Europe to personally witness the murals, nor can the large canvasses be shipped across the oceans for regular American consumption. Therefore, Moir has done the next best thing. He has coordinated a collection of easily transportable drawings under one roof.

The real drawings capture the visceral spirits of the artists. With sensuously evocative lines, the Baroque artist draws as though his hand were lightly skimming around the surface of the modelís flesh. The viewers can share the artistís appreciation for flesh, can almost sense its warmth and texture, can almost feel the embrace or hug of the bodies.

Many modern-day artists are currently searching for this kind of sensate realism. Unfortunately, most of these artists lose sight of understatement, and often turn valid expressions of sensual flesh and healthy expression of the bodyís sexual experience into sexist pornography.

Many contemporary artists circumvent sexism by either using their own naked bodies as subject matter (like Rebecca Hornís "Bodyart") or by treating their nude subjects clinically (as in most photo-realism), as though they were painting plastic, unreal flesh. Only a few artists attempt to describe visually the massiveness and sensuality of flesh by using contours and tones that visually exaggerate the contours and tones of the real thing.

The real thing. Remember that phrase when viewing this show. But remember, it isnít important that the drawings look like the real thing. Itís important that the work feel like the real thing. Thatís what concerned the artists of the Baroque.