Intelligence and interpretation

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing (Liverpool edition), until 6th May 2019, Walker Art Gallery, free

Leonardo da Vinci at the Walker is an exhibition that has come along with a lot of expectation. For this you can also read a lot of baggage.

Let me start by telling you about the opening night (some of which you might have seen on my Instagram). It was, hands down, the most formal opening I’ve ever been to. There was a video address by Prince Charles! There was a real-life speech by the Lord-Lieutenant of Merseyside – which wasn’t even a thing I knew existed – in full uniform! The emphasis was very much on the fact that these drawings belong to the Royal Collection – have done for the last few hundred years, apparently – and that this is impressive in its own right.

The Head of Leda, c. 1505-08

Then – it’s Leonardo da Vinci, a name that’s practically become synonymous with Genius. The man painted, sculpted and created architecture. He knew about anatomy and physics, and dreamed of contraptions beyond the reach of his time. History has held him in high regard as a Big Deal.

Such a Big Deal, in fact, that one exhibition is not enough to do the man justice. Instead, the UK is marking the 500th anniversary of his death with 12 exhibitions, each of 12 drawings, so that as many people as possible have the opportunity to be astonished by his mastery.

This is the baggage. The expectation that these drawings are our taste of the talent of a man who, we are told, will never be equalled and that we should all stand in awe of.

The only way to talk about this exhibition, then, is to say whether it left me with that impression of an unparalleled genius that it sets out to represent. And to that, I have to say it tries…but I’m not especially convinced.

Look, I’m not exactly saying that he wasn’t good – he clearly knows what he’s doing. Each of these 12 drawings has a level of detail that is quite remarkable. Da Vinci is clearly wanting to capture the visual truth of nature, and he gets it. And he can capture it all when it’s really small. There’s one I liked in particular, A River Landscape, that is really small yet so detailed. Not only is it fun to pick up one of the provided magnifying glasses, it may also be necessary.

The drapery of the Madonna’s thigh, c. 1515-17

The reason that some are so small is because they’re nothing more or less than the sketches we see. Da Vinci has drawn on each side of some of the papers – these are not works he intended to be idolised and framed. I think the idea is one device in imparting the message of the Genius – “if these are just his ideas, imagine what else he could do!”

The thing is that they’re good, but they’re not necessarily Unparalled Genius. I know other artists who are also bloody amazing at drawing who could demonstrate this level of skill. So talent alone, although impressive, isn’t quite cutting it.

But there is another aspect to the Genius that the exhibition (and as was emphasised by Prince Charles in his video) want to leave us in awe of: his range of interests. The idea is that each exhibition shows the diversity of topics that da Vinci studied, that his breadth of knowledge is an example to emulate.

Here, my questioning is more about the message it’s sending. My issue is that it feels rather ironic to be celebrating the life of a man who was able to study widely and is celebrated for representing himself creatively, at at time when it’s precisely these qualities that are being bred out of our education system. Also to some extent out of adult lives too – I have certainly been in professional environments where expressing that I had interests out of work left me at a disadvantage.

There was something about the whole mood of this exhibition that felt a little patronising. A sense of da Vinci’s Genius being a ‘given’ that if you don’t feel, well, that’s your lack of understanding. That he is special because he studied widely and mastered self-expression, without acknowledging that he was a product of a class and way of life that is practically unimaginable. Or maybe the problem is that it’s not unimaginable to those who work with the Royal Collection. Maybe there, the traditional idea of the Renaissance as a pinnacle of civilization still lives strong. Maybe my problem is that I’ve never particularly felt that, and this exhibition did nothing to make me change my mind.

I feel like this is all a controversial opinion; everything else I’ve read about this exhibition series has been pretty glowing. But I’m not going to say I’m impressed just because it’s the ‘big name’ of Leonardo da Vinci. I didn’t leave the show feeling any different about him than I did before.

In short: this is a fine exhibition of some very technically good drawings. Take it as that, and you’ll have no problems. Maybe you will see them as works of a particular talents the likes of which you’ve never seen before – great! But don’t feel like you must.

All images: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

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