Leonardo: Painter at the Courts of Milan

Whichever way I write this article, my words will inevitably be read as sacrilegious. That is because Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael have become the “Trinity” of art as the three most-famed Old Masters – men considered of divine inspiration, of godly genius. Their fame has not faded. An exhibition of Leonardo works at the National Gallery has caused frenzy. The artist has demanded time and he has demanded money; queues and queues of people have submitted to him. When I see mania such as this over an artist, I will always wonder why and to discover this, I had to brace myself and commit to seeing the exhibition as any good self-professed art critic would.

So amidst all the hype and assumptions of genius we have passed like folklore from generation to generation, what did I observe about the artist? Throughout the exhibition I was faced with quotes in awe of Leonardo, to which I only wondered: was Leonardo really a creative genius, or just an impeccably talented craftsman? (It is no terrible thing to be just a very skilled craftsman, but I know that Da Vinci, hyperbole galore, has been made out to be so much more.)

Yes, his craftsmanship is impeccable. His drawings are utterly spectacular, you cannot take that away from him and thankfully they make up the majority of the exhibition. Leonardo exercises faultless control of line from an undisturbed concentration in observation and imagination. The level of detail and accuracy in his drawings are astounding. And then to his large-scale cartoons, lines sweep across partridge in the furious freedom of creativity. In these we see his fine ability to compose – to place together people, places and ideas in a manner that is complimentary to all. In these preparatory mediums, which utilise only monotone, he does so well, but when transferring design to colour he really does not. His oils just aren’t that wonderful.

The opening prose of the exhibition insinuated this (though most – with selective sight – will have probably failed to spot it). Leonardo rarely finished oil paintings. Of those that he did, a large push and a healthy financial persuasion were required. It seems obvious to me that he did not like to paint much when you look at his oil paintings, and also that we are giving him undying praise quite unjustly.

Let me discuss the notoriously prized National Gallery and Louvre ‘Madonna of the Rocks’, which have come together for this exhibition. The use of colour in both is dull. In the National Gallery version this may seem relatively obvious, for the Virgin, the Christ Child, and their setting are all a merging melee of brown. The Louvre version may seem sprightlier, but when it comes to tonal variation Leonardo paints like he draws – with one colour at a time, in black and white. Mary is autonomous; she is not painted in the world, illustrating a lack of recognition of the reflection of light off the surfaces around her. It is not good that the Virgin looks like a china doll.

The best painters are able to bring to life their creations. This is the miracle of good painting. I really cannot claim this to be true of him. The effect of one-dimensional approach to colour is that his paintings show little conception of texture. One texture, an oily slide from one shade to another is seen to fit all. If only he could have painted as sensitively as he drew.

My theory about Leonardo is that he was exceptionally clever. The clocks of his mind always driving his ideas forward, never remaining still enough to paint a good enough painting. His obsession therefore was the art he created in the process. These were the visualisation of ideas. He was an artist driven by conceptions, and less – as we wish him to be – by perceptions. Looking at his oils so closely will not help identify his genius.

The artist himself said this in so many a word: “a good painter is to paint two main things, namely, man and the working of man’s mind. The first is easy [this he shows in his drawings at least], the second difficult, for it is to be represented through the gestures and movement of the limbs.” We can be sure that his aims always revolved around ideas, and that ideas are most clearly exposed in process (his drawings). He identifies in this quote, that it is painting that reveals the peak of one’s ability. An artist must put together the design and draftsmanship of drawings with the texture and colour that paint contains. But if it was as a painter that we wish to see him as a master, we will never be able to fully.

There are no tickets left that can be bought in advance. If you’d like to see this exhibition, turn up on the day, but expect to queue for 3 hours, starting early enough in the knowledge that only 500 tickets are sold each day. Tickets are £16 for adults and £8 for students. The exhibition runs until 5th February.


Published on The Student Journals


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