Victoria and Albert Museum
Most exhibitions lead you somewhere, taking you through a series of rooms that trace some kind of artistic development. Early years, maturity, late style etc.. You can wander through at leisure, going back and forth, and decide what you like best. Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design has none of that. The entrance queue snakes through a small foyer, and then wham! You’re there, right at the heart of things. One glowing room, two long, long display cabinets, encrusted with Leonard’s manuscripts, whirring animations of the drawings projected overhead, and the faithful processing past in silent reverence, much as they would pass by the tomb of a much esteemed monarch. With Leonardo, one is getting to the very heart of things.
Leonardo, Manuscript in Queen’s Collection
This is hardly surprising. Leonardo’s up there with Michelangelo and Raphael, the cornerstones of a Renaissance that established a framework for human creative aesthetic achievement. Fragments, excerpts and sketches from the exhibition are familiar because Leonardo is so often cited as part of this achievement. But then the exhibition reminds you how strange this arrangement is. Leonardo has astonishing artistic facility, but what we see is the engineer, the stage designer, the mechanic, the biologist. Of course, we all know Leonardo’s abundant skills in these areas, but one is jolted into asking why Leonardo is placed within the artistic canon. Surely we should see Leonardo in other canons relating all the other subjects he covered? But of course it is an institution like the Victoria and Albert that has the links with the Queenís Collection and the British Library; the administrative grease that lubricates such an exhibition.
Exhibitions tend to show finished works, professional studies, work done for dukes, merchants, banks, rich aesthetes. Here we see a personal world of notebooks, thoughts, sketches, investigations, and unfinished moments of fantasy. Itís a raw, unpolished form of communication, and one can see Leonardo trying to formulate a swarm of intellectual sensations as ideas. Itís a far distance from the artistic impulse to creating objects that others can admire and appreciate. The communication here is not with others, but with the self, as it experiments, ponders and defines. All of us, I suppose, conjure up and toy with ideas, shift them around in our heads or make rapid jottings on paper, and then leave them half-finished. But to see this done with such invention and facility is strange and moving.
But more than providing the means for seeing Leonardo go through mental motions that everybody else does, the exhibition highlights his individuality, his strangeness, and his quirkiness. There’s the secretiveness, the insistence on the compact, small dimensions, the refusal to expand. The mirror writing and the neat margins tell one story but then the drawings tend to break into their own universe, fracturing the tight lines of text. There’s the ambiguous sexuality, familiar through his portraits, but also visible through his intriguing portrait of the mechanics of sexual desire – the phallus standing to attention – although the exhibition is at pains to point out that this may be a later addition. The tiny cinematic figures crouching, jumping and stalling are remarkable for the physical dynamism they exhibit, despite being crushed within such tiny dimensions. I’m not quite sure how to interpret such an array of minuscule figures decorating the page – maybe Leonardo just made them small so that he could fit plenty on one piece of paper.
Such incongruity is part of his drawing style as well. While Leonardo the proto-empiricist trumpeted the wonders of observation, there was an obviously stylistic bent to his drawing. Spirals and curves appear everywhere, in eddies of water, in storm clouds, in handrails. While the content of Leonardo’s work can be used to frame him as a symbolic forefather of mechanics, science and progress, the manner in which it is expressed tells of a very distinct, and peculiar, individual.