Masterminding Masterpieces: Leonardo at the National

10 Nov

Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery is one of the most talked about shows of the year and I had been eagerly anticipating my visit.

One of the world’s most famous artists, Leonardo moved to Milan in around 1483, gaining a position as a court artist for the Sforza family.  He remained there until 1499 and returned from 1506-13 when he finished his second version of Virgin of the Rocks, now housed permanently at the National Gallery.  The exhibition focuses on his time in Milan and traces the development of his work, analysing what made him the artist of all artists.  Leonardo had great ambitions for the art of painting; he revolutionised the medium to express feelings and bare the soul and this is the first exhibition to study his ambitions as a painter.

Leonardo’s Saint Jerome in the National Gallery’s exhibition. Own photograph.

Five years in the planning, the coming together of this exhibition is an immense achievement.  The sensational and unprecedented loans and the amassing of these works is something that will, in all likelihood, never be attempted again.  Nearly every surviving painting from Leonardo’s Milan period is exhibited including nine of his own works plus around 60 preparatory studies.  Curator, Luke Syson’s approach was “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” and his perseverance and sheer passion for the project paid off.   The Royal Collection and Her Majesty The Queen have generously lent 33 sketches and studies which are some of the highlights of the exhibition.  Very few works actually come from the National’s own collection – they are, of course, showing The Burlington House Cartoon which looks spectacular in its new temporary home in the Sainsbury galleries.

Leonardo da Vinci, Study of a man with his head turned, c. 1495, red chalk on red prepared paper.  Lent by Her Majesty The Queen, image via www.royalcollection.org.uk

Each room is based on a theme, focused around one Leonardo and supplemented by drawings and works from his followers.  Often, the works serve little purpose, detracting from the main focus of the show.

Room two is themed Beauty and Love and shows two of the three portraits completed in Milan.  Leonardo talks about a painting’s capacity to inspire love, a response that this room is certainly capable of eliciting.  The Lady with an Ermine shows the Mistress of the Duke of Milan, described at the time as being “as beautiful as a flower”.  The divide of her face is mesmerising – one side is tentative while the other is alert with a slight smile, drawing us in closer.  The portrait is so vivid that we almost believe she is real.  Painted in 1488-90, the work shows Cecilia Gallerani with a white ermine, a visual pun on her surname since the Greek for ermine is galay.  It may also represent her lover, Ludovico Sforza, who had been awarded the order of the Ermine and was often known as l’Ermellino.

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (‘The Lady with an Ermine’), c. 1489–90, oil on walnut.  Courtesy of the Princes Czartoryski Foundation, image via www.theartsdesk.com

Shown in the same room is The Belle Ferronnière, a lady whose identity is much debated.  Syson thinks she may be the Duchess of Milan and, if so, the mistress and the wife are displayed here in the same room.  The figure’s head is a perfect oval and it is possible to see the ideal proportions of the face as Leonardo has imposed his geometrical workings onto a real face showing the ideal of womanhood.

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of a Woman (‘La Belle Ferronnière’), c. 1493–4, oil on walnut. Image via www.louvre.fr

There is a remarkable sense of encounter with his portraits, partly achieved through the power of the intoxicating gaze.  It’s easy to spend hours analysing one Leonardo but that is not my aim here.  Ironically, the popularity of the show will prevent you from affording these works the time they deserve.

Be warned.  Own photograph.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the inclusion of the two Virgin of the Rocks – one from the Louvre and the National Gallery’s own recently restored version.  The Virgin of the Rocks was intended as an altarpiece for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception but, when the original work was finished in 1485, Leonardo decided that the price was too low.  When they wouldn’t give him more money, he sold the work to someone else.  So, the Confraternity were forced to commission a replacement which was not to be finished until 1508.  Despite having the same subject, there are notable variations between the two works.  However, they are not shown here in competition or for comparison.  Instead, they are displayed opposite one another in conversation as individual masterpieces.  Nobody before now has seen these two works together and I doubt anyone ever will again.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1491/2–99 and 1506-8, oil on poplar, thinned and cradled. Image via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

I know that wall colour is a constant gripe of mine but it is important and they’ve chosen a gloomy aubergine that consumes the works.  Journalists at the preview seemed united in this criticism.  The wall texts do not show off the achievements of the exhibition and can often be relatively mundane.  Yet, the catalogue is fascinating, beautifully laid out and riveting.  It just didn’t translate well enough from page to wall.

In a career covering roughly 50 years, Leonardo only completed 15 paintings.  Prolific he was not, but a genius he certainly was.   This exhibition is a crowd-pleaser and visitors are flocking to see the Leonardos. The National Gallery may have restricted entry numbers but this is going to be hell on earth for anyone visiting.  On Tuesday, the queues were forming to buy advance tickets even though the exhibition is nearly sold out for this year.

Queues at the National Gallery. Own photograph.

The catalogue is definitely worth buying and illustrates what an amazing concept this is.  This will be the most important exhibition of the year.  Although it doesn’t have the razzle dazzle I expected, the works themselves and the fact that they are here is incredible.

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan is at the National Gallery until 5th February 2012, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

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4 Responses to “Masterminding Masterpieces: Leonardo at the National”

  1. Gary Kahn November 10, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

    Gorgeous!
    And congratulations on being among the first to see it.

    GK

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