Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Leonardo: A Painter at the Court of Milan, for the Twenty-First Century

Study of Arms and Hands, c. 1474
Study of a Woman, c. 1490

Earlier this month, one of those once-in-a-lifetime exhibitions opened in London: Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. It runs at the National Gallery until early February.

This isn't a review, since I haven't seen the show. But it amazes me that an exhibition like this exists, so consider this another 'live stream' post—a placeholder for reflections and mullings on and around Leonardo's unbelievable images, with some suggestions about why we are seeing more of this work; and subject to being updated with new links, reviews and so on.

To state the obvious, it isn't easy to put together an exhibition like this. In fact there has never been, and will never be, a 'complete' Leonardo retrospective in the manner of a Picasso, a Judd, or a Richter survey—those big, bulky exhibitions that cover the full range of a capacious individual's oeuvre, and of which one can say, with a certain admiration, "I am large, I contain multitudes." These kinds of shows are necessarily overwhelming because they cover a multifaceted life. But in this case the reasons are practical: some of these fifteenth- and sixteenth-century frescoes are site-specific (painted directly on a wall), and they are universally under bureaucratic lock and key: all Leonardo's work, from the most magnificent painting to the quickest, most fleeting of drawings are owed by institutions and individuals (and the Royal Family). So the problems of red tape for any curator contemplating this kind of mountainous show is unimaginable.

Studies of Water passing Obstacles and falling, c. 1508-9

Here's an excerpt from the press release: the show attempts to examine "Leonardo’s extraordinary observation, imagination and technique" by concentrating "on his career as a court painter in Milan, working for the city’s ruler Ludovico Maria Sforza, il Moro (‘the Moor’) in the 1480s and 1490s." And it is an extraordinarily inclusive survey of the period:
Nearly every surviving picture that he painted in Milan during this period will be exhibited. These include the 'Portrait of a Musician' (Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan), the 'Saint Jerome' (Vatican, Rome), 'The Lady with an Ermine' (Czartoryski Foundation, Cracow), the 'Belle Ferronnière' (Musée du Louvre, Paris) and the National Gallery’s own recently restored Virgin of the Rocks. These pictures show how Leonardo, benefiting from his salaried position, used his artistic freedom to find new ways of perceiving and recording the natural world - focusing especially on the human anatomy, soul and emotions. These investigations could take on their own life, but they also fed into the meanings and evolution of his paintings.
Studies of the Arm showing the Movements made by the Biceps, c. 1510
The history of art is long, and even people who study it can't pay attention to all things at all times. So the reality is that different parts of history come in and out of focus at different times. For instance, I was lucky enough to see a big Edvard Munch show this summer. It was magnificent. The idea was to frame Munch's paintings and drawings around the concept of a 'modern' eye by making connections between the way he 'looked' at things through his art and the kind of 'looking' that film, photography, and newspapers were training people to do in the first decades of the twentieth century. Right now, we live in a world in which the media format is changing. So it makes sense that we have a new and even unique ability to suddenly 'see' Munch again: differently, freshly, and in a sense, with an attenuated sensitivity that can 'get' what he was doing all over again or for the first time.

Study of Cats and Other Animals c. 1513

I wonder if this is also true of Leonardo: the most insane polymath ever, and for whom the term "Renaissance Man" was probably invented. In one of the earlier posts on this blog, about Collaboration, Leonardo came up in the comments as a kind of figure or point of inspiration for thinking about art, science, poetry, technology, politics, life together. Because for Leonardo those divisions would not make any sense—he lived at a time, and with the kind of curiosity, that was no respector of neatly segmented domains of knowledge. In fact, looking at his drawings and scribbled notes (which reproduce well digitally) reminds me of Henri Bergson, whose view of art is something like this: "Is not the world a work of art incomparably richer than that of the greatest artist?" I can imagine them shaking hands over four centuries, and over the breathtaking sense of curiosity that still vibrates in these drawings.

Design for a Flying Machine, c. 1488

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan was curated by Luke Syson, Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500 and Head of Research at the National Gallery; the exhibition was organised by the National Gallery.

Edit #1, 2011-11-29:  One of the things I'm discovering quite forcefully through this experience of being a blogger is how multifaceted our conversations really are. Social media, email, a public website, a dissertation—these are all forms of talking that intersect and sometimes converge. Here's an example of that in real time: an extract from an email conversation with one of our exalted readers who also happens to be a da Vinci aficionado. Images and text below from Dan Morgan:

I absolutely adore those drawings -- there's one of some folds of clothing, sketched off a woman seated in a chair, that up there among my favorite images ever. He has a beautiful way of picturing the structure of clothing that's not being supported by anything, a sense not of the contours [but] of a (now absent) form of phenomenological presence -- as Fried will say about Menzel's studies of beds. And there is a sense, in the repetitions and sense of speed involved in their production, of something like the experience of creative possibilities.

Vis-a-vis film, perhaps the antithesis to the mode you describe is Peter Watkins' extraordinary film about Edvard Munch from the 1970s.  One of the best films about an artist that I've ever seen, Watkins not only mikes the canvas for the actual painting -- giving an experience of aural tactility that's quite remarkable -- but focuses as well on Munch's work in lithography and other "mechanical" arts. So not seeing his work from the perspective of the concerns of the present, but trying to understand the material and physical horizon he inhabited.


  1. Some more back and forth..

    Me: I do think it is the speed that is so mesmerizing about the drawing, the sense of the line.. and with the fabric images you are talking about, you get it also with the white highlights. There is a sort of (cinematic?) transience there that drawing embodies and painting, in that it is oil, a fat, just cannot.

    Dan: It's not just the speed, though -- there are tons of sketches done by other artists, many done with great assurance, that don't have the same effect of Leonardo's. I wonder if it has to do with the ability to suggest solidity, the way that (in the images I sent you) the material seems to set, almost as if it were cast in plaster or concrete and left to stand on its own. A dialectic between transience and calcification?

  2. When I think about da Vinci it makes me sad that nobody alive today or ever in the future (unless future human minds get engineered in some way to be better than today's human minds are) could know as large a proportion of what all of humanity knows as he did then. He was able to be a leader in so many different realms of human knowledge.

    And it isn't that the minds of today are in any way mediocre compared to him, we just know too much as a species for any individual human to master it.

    On the other side though I always feel kind of sad for guys like that because I imagine how amazing they would find the wealth of knowledge we do have now (then again we are in the same position - 100 years from now some incredible new stuff will inevitably be known).

    I wonder which of his disciplines he would have chosen today to work on.

  3. Dan: And there is a sense, in the repetitions and sense of speed involved in their production, of something like the experience of creative possibilities.

    Shaun: I wonder which of his disciplines he would have chosen today to work on.

    I find Leonardo quite endless -- poetry in action, as a method of practical approach -- but these two comments are illuminating. Perhaps what Leonardo represents fundamentally is the principal of creativity -- the experience of creative possibilities as a way of life.

  4. I'm feeling dense again. I don't understand.

    In Leonardo's time he could be creative and do things with everything. Today, he would have to specialise or be mediocre at a bunch of things. You can't even know all of high-energy physics today, let alone all of physics, all of science, or all of human knowledge. Just being creative isn't going to get you far today, you have to be creative in something.

    I also have to admit that, in my mind, statements with "... what Leonardo represents *fundamentally* is..." in them are inevitably going to glorify what was just a human being to a level that doesn't make sense. This guy still ate and used a toilet, he wasn't sent by God. To say he represents something, *fundamentally* makes no sense to me. A human being isn't really fundamental to anything.

    I'm still curious about what he would have chosen to devote his life to. Even if it was "the experience of creative possibilities as a way of life"... what creative possibilities would he have chosen to realise?

    I'm also curious, because I can't understand from your comment alone, how was my comment illuminating? What did it illuminate? It doesn't seem to have any relation at all to your comment or Dan's.

    I think the use of language in the world I come from is quite different to the use of language in yours. Words like fundamental and impossible have a clear meaning. Surely it is misleading to use these words in a way that doesn't reflect this meaning? I still feel like a pedant for pointing this out. But I am genuinely confused and I'm trying to understand why.

    [Edit: I removed my horribly condescending comment about not wanting to sound condescending. Second Edit, changed the wording a bit, here and there.]