What can one say, that hasn’t been said before, about Leonardo da Vinci? Was he a genius, the greatest artist ever, the master of the sfumato technique, the quintessential Renaissance man?
The man who gave us the Mona Lisa, ‘the face that launched a billion selfies’, may today, sadly, be more associated with recent pseudo history and nonsense conspiracy theories, courtesy of Dan Brown et al.
It is therefore, rather refreshing, to see a small selection of his drawings at The Walker, as part of the 500th anniversary of his death. These small works in metal point, pen and ink, chalk and charcoal evidence a mind whose interests were myriad and diverse. His observation of the natural world, anatomy and the cosmos reveal a man who, whilst born at the end of Vasari’s so called, ‘Middle Age’, is emerging into a new world, a world based on observation and scrutiny.
The late Brian Sewell considered da Vinci a lesser artist, when compared to Michelangelo. Sewell considered da Vinci’s talents, and time, wasted in his drawings, at least those which were not preparatory works for later paintings. Such an assertion misses the point. Da Vinci appreciated that his talents could be utilised in fields beyond those traditionally associated with a ‘painter’ or ‘sculptor’; his drawings reveal an unending curiosity with the world, his observations on the orbit of the sun around the earth, (Copernicus’ theory was only published a quarter century after da Vinci’s death), and the studies of water flowing around an obstacle are a window into the man’s wonder-filled mind.
The strength of this exhibition lies in the selection, which offers such a breadth of subjects. Though the stand out pieces are undoubtedly the Head of Leda, the exhibition’s central image, and the drapery of the Madonna’s thigh. Leda’s face is an example of drawing’s primacy, of what can be achieved through the economical strokes of a pencil, capturing such delicate beauty. The ornate hairstyle, by contrast, shows how da Vinci’s studies of water could prove useful in capturing the intricate flow and curl of the Leda’s hair. It brings the drawing to life, giving it vibrancy and immediacy, despite the passage of half a millennia.
Seeing the drapery of the Madonna’s thigh is to encounter da Vinci the painter. It is a study for his later Virgin and Child with St Anne. The modelling of form is truly exquisite, it is beguiling, a masterpiece in itself.
Other works display a level of fine detail normally associated with a miniaturist, and his apocalyptic scenes necessitate the use of the magnifying glasses, helpfully provided. Evidently, da Vinci must have used lenses to draw these tiny figures, otherwise his eye sight in his dotage, was far superior to most men in their sixties.
Upon departing, a profile of an old man strikes me, a drawing produced towards the end of aa Vinci’s life. The hallmark hook nose is evident, so could this be a self-portrait? Is this the face of genius? I believe it is.
Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing is on display at Walker Art Gallery until 6 May 2019.
Ed Montana-Williams is an Art and Architectural Historian based in Liverpool