Leonardo at the National Gallery

10, January 2012 § 4 Comments

The National Gallery in London is hosting a show entitled  “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan”  which opened last month and focuses on his time as court painter to Ludovico Maria Sforza.
The  exhibition sold out in the first week but we were fortunate enough to get tickets in advance. On view are 7 paintings,  60  drawings, 33 of which are from the Royal Collection. This makes the show a unique opportunity to  see an artist at work, thinking through ideas and culling through various postures and positions for compositions.  The paintings are surrounded by preparatory drawings, some of which relate directly to the work on display.  The most sensitive drawings are those done on prepared paper with silverpoint and white highlights.  This means that the paper was covered with a layer of  animal hide glue mixed with pigments, in this case usually blue.  The drawings were done on this ground with a fine piece of silver wire, carefully and gently touched to the paper and built up in intensity by continued stroking.  The white highlighting is  probably pigment mixed with egg tempera  applied with a brush.  Looking closely at these drawings I could barely see the strokes of the brush in many cases leading me to believe that he may have just tapped the pigment on, dotting it onto the paper with a tiny brush.  These drawings were more delicate and refined than I had imagined before I saw them in person.  They are small in scale, perhaps extracted from sketchbooks. Other drawings were done with pen and ink, the diagonal shading lines revealing the left-handedness of the artist. Leonardo believed that he could reveal scientific truths about the world thorough deep and clear observation.  These intense and precise drawings give us insight into the physical world as well as into the mind of the artist himself.  Leonardo’s sketches of human anatomy are still among the most admired drawings of their kind.
The crowds were rather overwhelming but we managed to spend time with each piece. A companion of mine remarked that she found the paintings rather cold. Indeed, Leonardo is not appealing to our heart but to our head.  His intellectual  approach demands a quiet and intense engagement with the work which was rather difficult at times with the press of people. Still I found time to inspect each piece. It is interesting to note how much of each composition was left unfinished, revealing the underdrawing in many cases.  Leonardo was known for leaving his paintings incomplete, but it is hard to determine how much of this is out of neglect or if he purposely chose to leave areas as they were first drawn.  His exquisite angel in The Virgin of the Rocks  (from  London) has perfectly realized  features but his hand is a smear of lines on the back of the baby Jesus.  The paintings are full of these inconsistencies. He was among the first Renaissance artists to use light rather than color to direct the eye.  His sfumato, or smokey, technique reveals and disguises edges leading the viewer through his rocky landscapes and over the curvature of the human visage.
John and I were able to see the show two days in a row, thanks to his foresight in purchasing tickets.  It is an education for modern artists to see such an sumptuous body of work, to understand better the process of a great genius. I also plan to apply some of the things I learned to my own methods this winter.  There is no greater joy than having new inspiration and the National Gallery show has provided ample opportunity to imbue some Leonardo.

-Jane Morris Pack

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