|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|
|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.