National Gallery, London
The Observer, Sunday 13 November 2011
Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, the National Gallery’s once-in-a-lifetime show, is a revelation from first to last. It contains more than half of all the surviving paintings, so fragile and rare, begged and borrowed from around the world. These are sparely presented, one or two to a room, and with lighting superbly matched to that of the pictures themselves, with their pale figures looming out of the darkness like night creatures, held fast in knife-edge contours and sealed off by an almost alien perfection. The show is dazzling, mysterious and disturbing.
That there are any paintings to show at all is something of a miracle. Leonardo’s career is a catalogue of lost works and false starts. He ruined his greatest paintings, The Last Supper and the Battle of Anghiari, by experimenting with new fresco techniques that entirely destroyed the latter during his lifetime. His fabled Medusa disappeared long ago and his dream of the world’s largest equestrian statue, of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, never got any further than the clay model later shot to smithereens by French troops.
Leonardo probably started no more than 20 paintings, in any case, a scant total for a 50-year career. Of these only 15 are agreed to be entirely by him so it is remarkable to have nine in this show. He was notoriously slow, reworking a painting for decades, and constantly distracted by the visionary machines and armaments, the metaphysical and mathematical speculations, the strange inventions, anatomical inquiries and treatises on art for which he is celebrated.
Leonardo is a visual thinker who painted part-time; his mind is only intermittently expressed in paintings as opposed to schemes, sketches and words. So the National Gallery’s decision to include more than 50 of his stupendous drawings – thought-into-line – is not just wise but apposite. The show starts with one of the greatest drawings: his vision of how the mind works.
A man’s head is bisected in profile. The cross-section shows his external appearance – gruff mouth, Roman nose, wavy hair – but also his inner being, consisting of three interlinked chambers in the brain. Knowledge comes in through the eye, is processed in the first chamber, understood in the second (the soul) and stored by memory in the third. Centuries before anyone discovered how the eye works (still less the mind) Leonardo correctly conceives of it as an extruded part of the brain.
And when you look from this astonishing image, all its insights condensed in a little page, to the portrait of a musician, borrowed from Milan, this guess becomes true metaphor. The musician’s eyes are painted as glinting spheres, all vitality and inner perception. Leonardo senses the connection between mind and eye: to see is in some sense to know.
The Musician is a peculiar painting, with its wooden hand holding a stiff little score. Perhaps these elements are not by Leonardo? Doubts about who painted what keep surfacing throughout the show, but there is no mistaking the young man’s angelic nose and lips, or those clouds of curling tendrils that prefigure Leonardo’s later obsession with the movements of air and water. Already, the images are otherworldly.
Partly that lies in their superhuman precision. Leonardo is master of the metal point and sharpened quill, transmitting information to perfection on paper, the line controlled, incised, repeated: nothing spontaneous, everything studied. And the empirical character of the drawings – what does the world look like, how do things work – leaves its trace in the paintings.
Look at Cecilia Gallerani, Sforza’s beautiful 16-year-old mistress, turning towards something or someone unseen beyond the picture. This is a vision of lithe animation caught fast, pinned down. Her elegant contours are measured by headband, veil, straps and beads, but the painting itself keeps her tautly confined in its lines: a shapely contrapposto, not a hair out of place.
Cecilia is holding an ermine, Sforza’s emblem, and even without the adjacent studies of bears and dogs’ paws, one sees that this animal must be a composite, a mythical creature. And maybe Cecilia is too. The sheer strangeness of this wild thing, so impossibly still, is echoed in her preternatural beauty, somewhere between real and ideal.
It is this tension between what he observed and what he imagined that makes Leonardo’s Milanese paintings so singular. Much is made of the way he revolutionised portraiture, turning his sitters out of the traditional profile into three-quarter view, but you see this in Van Eyck, Botticelli, Messina and others before Leonardo. What strikes is something far more outlandish.
It’s in the drawing of a living neck cut away to show the nerves and vertebrae like the inner structure of a helter-skelter. And in the study of the skull he eventually acquires (“on the 2nd day of April 1489” as Leonardo excitedly records) where the skull is growing back into a man nose-first, as if still possessed of life and soul.
It’s in the drawing of twining biceps that metamorphoses into the astounding anatomy of St Jerome, a strenuous saint glowing out of brown underpaint like some musclebound superhero. And in those gloomy rocks and caverns, first observed as local geology then reprised as landscapes of the mind, jagged and fearful.
He sees, he draws, but when he paints, the seeds of reality have germinated into something hauntingly mythic and yet still momentary. I suppose the pre-eminent instance of this doubling is the Mona Lisa, ageless apparition and Florentine housewife all in one. She falls outside the span of this show – the years 1482-99, when Sforza employed Leonardo – but most of the works here have this quality.
Consider The Virgin of the Rocks. What a horrifying spot these saints are in, the vicious rocks around them, the jutting pinnacles in the distance like teeth, that cold blue water, those dismal caverns. The National Gallery has both versions of the picture, mounted on opposing walls and irresistibly proposing comparison: is the Louvre’s early version, yellow with filth, more tender-hearted, sympathetic and natural than the National Gallery’s newly cleaned vision of spotlit and sharply haloed figures with shellac complexions? Both partake of the real, down to the smallest botanical detail, but both are eerily remote: lunar figures, beyond time and out of this world.
The unprecedented massing of Leonardo’s paintings reveals strong similarities from one to the next – shattered rocks, pointing fingers, those angelic eyelids like slits in a jingle bell – as well as bewildering disparities. It is hard, for instance, to connect the dissolving sfumato of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist, a feat of diaphanous chalk and charcoal, with the hideously glib sfumato of the recently attributed Salvator Mundi.
The insistent frontality of this painting suggests traditional Veil of Veronica icons (Christ’s image miraculously transferred to cloth, not made by human hand). But the narcotised eyes, and those fingers holding an invisible joint, resemble some stoned symbolist fantasy. It may be by Leonardo – the National Gallery is apparently “testing” its authenticity here – but it remains a monstrously hard painting to admire.
So much about this show is contradictory, hovering, elusive. It is greatly to the credit of the curators, Luke Syson and Larry Keith, that neither the wall texts nor the marvellous catalogue – thorough, eloquent, original: that is to say, nearly unique in this field – attempt to pin Leonardo down. They allow him to be what he is, matchlessly strange and various.
That is most evident in the drawings, of course, with their teeming observations of eyeballs, teeth, architraves and flaccid jowls, their visions of apocalyptic downpours and their questing for the last trace of human presence even in the hollow of a skull.
The drawings are fully as riveting as the paintings and still quick with their maker’s touch. Because they seem to carry Leonardo’s thoughts with such immediacy, one searches them for a better understanding of the paintings; but the paintings resist. Their cool perfection compels, but so much else – meaning, mood, emotion – is withheld.
The experience at the National Gallery is of persuasive clarity and intense control, a way of painting disciplined by analysis, vision and pure draughtsmanship. But there is always something else too, something going on behind or below all this that one cannot reach or deduce: what was happening within that second chamber of the artist’s head.