The art content for this blog is usually written by Ann Jones. Ann is an artist and art teacher with a passionate and wide-ranging knowledge of her subject. I, as will quickly become clear, am not Ann Jones. I don’t know much about art, and I don’t even know what I like. I usually write about reality TV. You do the sums.
Apparently, it is as part of the Jubilee* celebrations that ten drawings by Leonardo da Vinci have made their way from under the Queen’s bed** to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. I’ve been meaning to go for a while and yesterday, on a beautiful afternoon, I wandered up the hill with my wife and baby son. When Banksy took over Bristol museum, with his flippant and soulless nonsense, there were two-hour long queues, all day, every day for three months. People came from all over the world. One woman reportedly came twice, from Canada, to see a fibreglass angel with a bucket on its head. Yesterday, I waltzed straight in to see a collection of drawings by, arguably, the most important cultural and scientific figure of the Renaissance, and was one of about ten people in the room. Seriously, humanity, you try my patience.
I won’t complain, though, as the relative unpopularity of the exhibition, meant that it was possible to get very close to the drawings, which in some cases was very necessary due to the tiny size and remarkable detail, and to spend ages looking at them without feeling you were selfishly blocking someone else’s view. And it was a fascinating view.
The ten drawings*** span da Vinci’s life from his thirties, when he was working for Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan, through to his dotage, aged seventy, employed by Francis I of France. The works also cover the span of his interests and reveal, in exquisite detail, the extent of his polymathy. Here we see Leonardo the designer, the inventor, the anatomist, the geographer, the botanist, the satirist, the politician and, always, the observer. The work displayed gives a surprisingly comprehensive view of the man for such a small sample, and what is clear is how every element of his interests informs and colours every other. All strands of human endeavour are inextricably linked for Leonardo; science is informed by art, and art improved by science. The earliest work on display here is from 1485 and it is a drawing of military innovation. This is significant as it was on his military usefulness that da Vinci focussed as he applied to Sforza for patronage – he claimed that he could “make big guns, mortars and light ordnance of fine and useful forms, beyond the common type,” though obviously, he claimed that in Italian. The pen and ink work show a number of novel weapons which Leonardo argued would greatly enhance the military prowess of Sforza’s Milan. The drawings are detailed illustrations rather than technical specifications, and nothing here would enable an observer to actually build these things, indeed, there is no evidence that any of these things were ever built. They serve as advertisements of Leonardo’s innovation, and as proof of his artistic capabilities, and the wideness of his education. The horses depicted pulling one of his flail-engines, and bearing his triple lance, are classical in their construction and reminiscent of works of antiquity. This is no accident. What I liked most about these was that I could imagine them being drawn, and could sense a boyish delight in destruction behind them. Yes, they showed that Leonardo was familiar with Phidias, and that he was an exceptional freehand artist, and that he was imaginative and innovative; but on some level they were also simply doodles of powerful, imaginary weapons. I’ve drawn stuff like that on the backs of maths exercise books, though mine had laser beams. Another piece that reminded me that genius doodles too, was the collection of apocalyptic scenes from 1517-18, which found a much older Leonardo sketching tiny, intricate scenes of the end of days. The museum thoughtfully provided magnifying glasses for these pieces, and as I peered at images of skeletons rising from the grave and cloud-like conflagrations raining fire across landscapes, I wondered at the life of a man who imagines power in his youth and powerlessness in his dotage. I also thought “Cool! Zombie skeletons!”
Some of the most fascinating work was a pair of anatomical drawings of the bones of the human feet and the musculature of the arm and shoulder. Although none of the work in this exhibition, with the exception of the head of Leda, could be considered famous, these pieces do provoke something of the sense of déjà vu associated with viewing work familiar in reproduction. I was perplexed by this, a little, as I couldn’t really see why this would be so. I can name various completed works by da Vinci, and I was aware of the renaissance tradition of anatomical drawing, but couldn’t think when or why I would have seen so much of it as to render these pieces familiar. Then it struck me – serial killers. I’ve seen so many crappy serial killer movies and TV shows and read far too many gory serial killer novels; and these guys love themselves a bit of da Vinci. There are three things you need to be a proper serial killer: a wall covered in newspaper reports of your crimes and candid photos of young women you have eviscerated/intend to eviscerate, a leather bound journal filled with impossibly small writing and a selection of stained prints of early modern anatomical drawings. Fortunately, seeing the originals did not, yet, set me off on a Dante’s inferno inspired killing spree It did make me wonder whether these pieces were drawn in situ – as da Vinci, unlike other artists of the period carried out his own dissections, or whether they were drawn from memory. I have to assume the latter, as the paper was free of gore stains. The detail is remarkable and the work is extremely precise. This is interesting, as other works in the exhibition display a tendency of da Vinci to draw over his works, sketching in alternative angles for the limbs of his subjects which often give the sketch a sense of movement. These pieces, however, are defined and definite, as they would have to be if they were to serve an academic and scientific purpose.
The drawings also offered an insight into da Vinci as a politician and satirist. Francis I, the young king of France, was reputed to have been in awe of Leonardo’s intellect, and indeed he doted on the old man, spending many hours with him and, reportedly, holding him in his arms as he died. Twenty years after the death of da Vinci, Francis still declared that “There had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo.” It’d be nice to imagine that the adoration was mutual, as history records Francis as an intelligent, cultured man, but the evidence of the artwork suggests a more critical relationship. The drawing entitled “A Masquerader on horseback” is a design for a costume to be worn to a masque or ball, and as such might have been worn by the king himself, or more likely one of his retinue. The masques and balls were lavish affairs, and, as so much of the pomp and ceremony of the period, were intended to show the power and richness of the monarch. It was fitting then, that Francis would task da Vinci, his most prized artist and advisor, with designing the costumes. The sketch has some of the sense of movement and vivacity described above, and much of the artist’s time has been spent designing the materials from which the costume is to be made. And here’s the rub, as well as spending time working on the folds of the material (and find me a renaissance artist who could resist drawing flowing material if given the opportunity,) da Vinci specifies that the costume include checked cloth, scalloped necks and feathers as decoration. The checked material and scalloped neckline were reminiscent of the clothes worn by Swiss mercenaries much used by Francis in his attempts to expand France’s territory and influence in Europe, especially in Italy (da Vinci’s manor) ; whilst the feather decorations are symbolic of prostitution. Francis called Leonardo the cleverest man there ever was; Leonardo called Francis a thug and a whore.
My favourite pieces in this exhibition were the Head of Leda (1505) and the Head of a Bearded Old Man (1518). Both of them were drawn solely in the pursuit of art, by which I mean, whilst his anatomical study clearly informs the delivery, these pieces were not intended as design or record or specification, but simply as art for art’s sake. The head of Leda is an early sketch for a painting never realised. You’ve seen it before, though you might not have known what it was. The exhibition notes describe how da Vinci is less interested in the expression of his Leda, and spends more time on her intricate hairstyle. Indeed, the hair is beautifully depicted, but I think to dismiss the serenity of the face as blankness is to miss the point. Leda is shown with her eyes cast down, but this is not shame**** rather there is a knowing humanity that is inspiring. Her eyes may be demure, but the set of her jaw and nose are strong and aquiline. There is steel here. This is not simply Leda the victim; this is Leda the mother of warriors. She may have given birth to Helen of Troy, destined to be passed around antiquity like a beautiful rugby ball, but she also gave birth to Castor and Pollux, and they were Argonauts, and to Clytemnestra and she took no shit. The Head of the Bearded Old Man is the latest drawing in the exhibition. There is a poignancy to it, as it was drawn late in da Vinci’s life. The exhibition notes observe that whilst old men tended to be comic figures in Leonardo’s early works, they became grave and respectable as he aged. What’s particularly interesting is the way da Vinci is dealing with what must have been failing eyesight. There is less finely drawn detail, and some da Vinci work is so finely detailed that it looks like a bank-note, but there is still a confidence in the pen work, a brio, a certainty of forms and structures which make this the most compelling piece in the exhibition for me. I wrote in my notes that it was “almost impressionistic.”
I think, and this might be a banal and uninformed view, because I am both of those things, that Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings, whether pen and ink, chalk or metalpoint, are better than his paintings. The cartoon of St. Anne, the Virgin and child with John the Baptist in the National gallery in London is a more fully realised and humane work that the painting of the same subject in the Louvre. This exhibition is an opportunity to see ten of his drawings, done for different purposes and in different media, but all suffused with genius. I could go on, but this piece is already very long and I have a reputation around the Mostlyfilm offices for waffling on a bit. I haven’t talked about the aerial views of the Pontine Marshes and shared my bafflement at how a man living before the successful invention of flight (though not for lack of him trying) could possibly have drawn something that accurate. I haven’t mentioned the exquisite nature of the Oak and Dyer’s Greenwood, drawn in red chalk on a red background with the finest shading imaginable. I hope I’ve inspired you to go. The exhibition remains in Bristol till the 10th June, and from there it goes to Belfast, Dundee and Hull. I urge you to see it.
*OED – “A year of emancipation and restoration – where goods that have been sold are returned.” It’s a bit of a stretch, but I’m taking that to mean we can keep the pictures, or at least pinch some Duchy shortbread from Sainsbury’s.
** The bumph says that the royal collection is “kept in trust for the nation” by the Queen, which is nice of her.
*** Actually a fairly arbitrary number, and not that accurate. Some sheets have more than one drawing on them, counted as one work, but the anatomical drawings are on opposite sides of the same sheet and count as two separate works.
**** She has been ravished, you recall, by a swan, or at least by a Zeus dressed as a swan. I never got that. How is a swan more likely to be successful with the ladies than a god?