On ViewThe Louvre
Leonardo da Vinci
October 24, 2019 – February 24, 2020
One of the things that entered my mind as I stood in line in the cold and rain waiting to be admitted to this year’s mega-exhibition, the Louvre’s Leonardo da Vinci, is my aversion to queuing up for weekend brunch in New York. I’ve long wondered what sort of breakfast would compel me to wait near an hour for the privilege of ordering it. In line in Paris, however, I had to face the fact that the brunch phenomenon fell considerably short of what I was now doing. After all, I had voluntarily gone online many months before to purchase tickets to an exhibition that required the annoyance and expense of transatlantic travel with a nine-month-old baby. The greatest exhibition of Leonardo’s art that would be presented in my lifetime, an event only prompted by the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, and that required international lawsuits to bring some of its objects to Paris—apparently that was the sort of breakfast that could get me to stand in a brunch line.
The secret to any pilgrimage is said to be the process of “getting there.” The ordeals that go into achieving a goal tend to magnify one’s experience of its realization. But is anyone’s art worth the effort of a sleepless six-hour redeye flight? Leonardo would not have hesitated to say yes. When praising the art of painting, he pointed out the great lengths people go to simply to enjoy pictures, and noted how people fell in love with paintings or worshipped them. Accordingly, when Leonardo installed a full-scale drawing made in preparation for a painting of the Virgin and Child with St. Anne in Florence in 1501, hordes rushed to see it. Apparently, some things haven’t changed.
I suspect that the Renaissance crowds who clamored to see Leonardo’s drawing came for an experience that is rather more humdrum today. We no longer live in a world where naturalistic images are almost as scarce as the artists capable of making them. After all, we capture images with our phones that look more real than anything Leonardo ever painted. Nevertheless, Leonardo’s few finished works still convey something of the magic they worked on early viewers. Seen in sufficient light, Leonardo’s Belle Ferronière (c.1495) and St. John the Baptist (c.1515), both normally shown in suboptimal conditions in the Louvre’s Italian Gallery, pop into focus as paintings that engage the viewer in an engrossing dialogue. The lady in the Belle Ferronière sits across a parapet, graceful and receptive to our company; the young man in the St. John leans out of the shadows with a benevolent smile and a gesture towards heaven, perpetually reprising his role as the forerunner of Christ. In both cases, we are willingly taken in by Leonardo’s beguiling presences, not least because his technique is so refined that his “hand” all but disappears.
Most of Leonardo’s surviving works are characterized by an extreme intimacy. Even in larger paintings, like the Louvre’s Virgin of the Rocks (c.1486), the psychological lynchpin is the beholder’s relationship with the pointing angel, who looks out at us to share a moment of mutual recognition. But if it is difficult to enjoy such intimacy with Leonardo’s paintings when they are hung in a crowded exhibition, appreciating his drawings is yet more complicated. Small, intricate things, the drawings demand an attentiveness that is hard to conjure among a throng of exhibition goers. When I would rush to look at a temporarily neglected sheet, eager to enjoy an unimpeded view, a swarm of people would simultaneously materialize around me. There was good reason for these viewing frenzies: several of the most iconic of Leonardo’s drawings were shown alongside many of the artist’s notebooks. Still, despite the crush of onlookers, there were one or two short moments when I had a great Leonardo to myself, as I did before the most famous drawing of all, the Vitruvian Man (c. 1490).
The arrangement of the show is largely chronological. It starts with Leonardo’s training in Andrea del Verrocchio’s Florentine workshop (Verrocchio is represented here by his over-life-size masterpiece in bronze, the Christ and St. Thomas [1467-1483]) and then rehearses his travels back and forth between Florence, Milan, Rome, and France. Along the way, important themes (e.g. “Science”) are singled out in separate spaces. Paintings that could not travel are represented on the walls by infrared photographs blown up to actual size, whereas those works, like the Last Supper (c. 1490s), that cannot be moved or are lost (e.g. Leda and the Swan [c.1503], Battle of Anghiari ) are represented by Leonardo’s own preparatory drawings and period copies. Like the drawings and unfinished works, the infrared images reveal Leonardo’s artistic process, reassuring us that he didn’t conjure up paintings out of thin air.
Although some of the show’s lessons could be more easily gleaned from books than museum walls, this viewer was still grateful to encounter Leonardo in the flesh. In the first room of the exhibition, where Verrocchio’s Christ and St. Thomas is displayed, a series of drapery studies by members of Verrocchio’s workshop, including Leonardo, is arrayed. I have always loved these wonderfully illusionistic images. With their infinite gradations of whites, grays, and blacks, Leonardo’s drapery studies in particular have been likened to black-and-white photographs. In person, however, this parallel with photography falls apart. Drawn on delicate paper, they spoke to me above all as fragile, material objects. Although they were shown behind protective glass, I could see how the weave of the paper with its tiny horizontal striations corresponded, here and there, with the texture of the represented fabric, lending physicality to what might otherwise seem a transcendental, almost disembodied exercise. Paradoxically, the greatest experiences I had of Leonardo’s work in this exhibition were those rare moments when I perceived the materiality of an image asserting itself alongside the artist’s illusionism, intensifying, rather than collapsing, the boundary between what is the real and what is represented. And this realization, small though it may seem, made the whole rigmarole of the exhibition worthwhile.