Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery grants deeply intimate insight into the practice of the quintessential celebrity artist
Visitors to the National Gallery hoping to find the Leonardo of Dan Brown novels and printed tea towels will leave this exhibition disappointed. With only 9 of Leonardo’s oil paintings on display, ‘The Painter at the Court of Milan’ provides a radically different encounter with the quintessential celebrity artist, in a much more intimate and engaging exploration of one of the most fruitful periods of his career.
As in past times, the queues for this exhibition stretch well around the corner of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing, with visitors eager to encounter so many of Leonardo’s masterpieces in one place. Upon entering the show we are told that Leonardo’s time in Milan was ‘the most productive period of his career . . . it transformed his ideas on the status and purpose of art.’ Indeed in Leonardo’s introductory letter to his great patron, ‘il Moro’ – Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, he advertised himself first as a military strategist and last as a painter. Certainly, by the end of this exhibition, we are left in no doubt about his transformed priorities.
The exhibition is dimly lit, existing on a plane somewhere between a church atmosphere and a private study – a reverential space that seems appropriate for one of art’s most venerated masters. We are struck repeatedly by the level of close engagement with Leonardo’s work that this exhibition offers, beginning not with a large canvas but with a diminutive notebook leaf showing only ‘Studies of the Head.’ Almost proleptic of the entirety of Leonardo’s period in Milan, the head studies combine anatomy with imagination, framed with direct observation but coloured with fanciful creativity and restless exaggeration.
One of this exhibition’s greatest successes must be seen in the intimacy created with Leonardo’s work. We are not standing in La Louvre, craning our necks to see a painting masked by 3 inches of glass and several security guards, and accordingly one is able to enjoy these works on a personal level. The first major work to be shown, after an early portrait titled ‘The Musician’, is Leonardo’s ‘Belle Ferroniere.’ In a departure from the harsher contrasts of ‘The Musician’, this portrait captures the impossible likeness, gaze, character and poise of its subject. In Leonardo’s combination of mathematical precision and audacious painterly ability we find his vision of ‘perfect beauty’ and a model so lifelike that the parapet against which she leans becomes an almost Brechtian reminder that this is oil on walnut, not living flesh.
Competing only with the Mona Lisa as Leonardo’s most accomplished work, the ‘Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani’ hangs on the adjacent wall and demonstrates succinctly the painter’s extraordinary ability in its harmony with the ‘Belle Ferroniere’. In this work Leonardo captures perfectly the distracted glance of Ludovico Sforza’s mistress as she cradles an ermine in her arms. The portrait is well supported by a series of studies of hands, detailing Leonardo’s growing fascination with the correlation between anatomy and perfect beauty.
This theme is developed by Leonardo’s ‘Saint Jerome’, the first religious subject presented in this exhibition. We are told that this work was ‘profoundly informed’ by anatomical research and the struggle between the depiction of beauty and the anguished subject is plain to see. The elderly face of ‘Saint Jerome’ is discordant with the muscular youth of his body, presenting a conflict of interests between imagination and reality, observation and fantasy, a conflict that remains unresolved in this, an unfinished work.
In further recognition of the diversity of works brought together for this exhibition, the combination, for the first time, of both versions of ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ must be praised. Seen individually we would consider both works to be infallible masterpieces, but together we are allowed the luxury of a more subjective comparison. Between the two works we see the development of ideas and forms, with the more successful ventures of the first composition continued in to the second and the less pleasing aspects simply dropped. In the later of the two works, Leonardo turns the head of his supporting angel away from the viewer, closing the scene and making us privy to its sacrality. An atmosphere of intimacy again pervades the composition and obscures the busyness of the gallery in which it is situated.
It is in the religious works of Leonardo that the artist seems most comfortable with the development of the style for which he was to become most celebrated. The hazy and smoky sfumato of the Mona Lisa is noticeable in several of his Milanese versions of the Virgin and Child. In these works Leonardo seems more mature, allowing allegory and narrative to inform his compositions, punning the yarnwinder in Christ’s chubby, infant hand with the crucifix of his destined Passion in ‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder.’ In the exhibition’s penultimate room we find the most infamous Leonardo in the National Gallery’s permanent collection, ‘The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and John the Baptist’, or the ‘Burlington House Cartoon’, all but destroyed by a the blast of a vandal’s shotgun in 1987. Questions of restoration and of how present Leonardo’s original brushstrokes are in these conserved works will mar any serious enjoyment of their palpable beauty and are, in this instance, better left unstated.
All too often it seems that works by Leonardo are considered in isolation but, as evidenced by this exhibition, they are given an entirely new significance and relevance when shown together. One of the final works on display, and for many the most controversial, is Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’, only this year recognised as an original Leonardo and displayed for the first time in this exhibition. Any doubts one harbours about this work’s authenticity should be discarded when it is seen hanging with other examples of Leonardo’s painting. Even considered in isolation the work would show clearly the distinctive geometric undercurrent and hazy use of paint that has been celebrated in a number of other works, but in the context created by this exhibition, the painting is given new relevance, new significance and surely myriad reasons to confirm its authorship.
The exhibition addresses, in its final collection, the deterioration of the rapidly-deteriorating ‘Last Supper’ in the Santia Maria della Grazie chapel in Milan. A high-resolution image of the original is contrasted with a sixteenth-century copy of the ‘Last Supper’ and allows one the novelty of some comprehension of Leonardo’s original intention for the work. Again it is bolstered by countless studies and drawings and again we are struck by the sense of intimacy these insights create. At times it almost feels invasive.
Whilst in Milan Leonardo wrote of ‘the confused things that kindle the mind to great inventions.’ At the Sforza court the ‘confused’ elements of Leonardo’s mind were channelled into a fierce and wild creativity, the results and inventions of which are admirably channelled by the collection of his works displayed in this exhibition. Words: Jerome Hasler © 2011 ArtLyst