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Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman


A lot has happened since the "first" man, I was thinking while touring the Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) exhibition of drawings now at the Metropolitan Museum. Verisimilitude, achieved by hand and eye, is much in evidence here, and actually requires a little readjustment, accustomed as we are in this century to at least a little abstraction, even in the most rigorously representational work. The plentiful works include nearly all of the preliminary studies for the “Madonna of the Rocks” and the “Battle of Anghiari,” as well as portraits, compositional sketches, botanical studies, and many of my idiosyncratic favorites: the two sided sheet of dog paws, and the cute little kittens licking their privates.

Not the least of the many good reasons to get to the show is to catch the antecedents of Dali’s Surrealism, not to mention the da Vinci influence on Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Johns, and Beuys, as well as Giacometti. This is drawing inspired by carved stone, especially marble relief. Contemplate the heavy yet precise outline separating form from page, and you are immediately reminded that Leonardo’s formal study was with an indifferent painter who happened to be the most brilliant sculptor of the time: Andrea del Verrocchio (“true-eye”). An artist of the Renaissance was charged with the task of not only capturing likeness, but of applying the robust pantheistic aesthetic of the ancient Greeks to that likeness, without bringing sitter or self under suspicion of heresy (though heresy at the time was a slightly more relaxed affair than it would be 50 years later). In order to pull this off smoothly, the artists of the day relied on an available canon of representation, symbolism, and formal hierarchy. It would still be many centuries before artists would free themselves from this tradition to contemplate and investigate the actual world of visual evidence.

The great appeal of Leonardo is exactly this ability to exploit the conventions of representation, to which he contributed a hauntingly lyrical descriptive line and a genius for solid but unconventional composition. Ultimately his work is that of a stunningly gifted illustrator: accurate, impersonal, almost altogether humorless, unless grotesque caricatures strike you as funny. What Leonardo took “from life” were types and facial expressions for the characters in his religious and secular dramas, commissioned works for church and court; and illustrations of his studies in hydraulics, physics, mechanics, and anatomy, all well within the parameters of depiction in his time. What distinguished his work from that of his contemporaries and followers was the uncanny accuracy of his eye.

da Vinci kept his bags packed, not altogether surprising for an artist who often failed to complete commissions for which he had been paid, and a record of his successive patrons and journeys gives a thumbnail history of the social and political events in his time. Leaving the once revolutionary commune of Florence, recently fallen under Medici control, Leonardo arrives in Milan where no sooner is he comfortable designing tournaments and festive entertainment events for Sforza’s court then France breaks down the city gates. Sforza splits, da Vinci heads east, stopping for a visit with Sforza’s wife’s sister in Mantua, and moving on to Venice, under invasion by the Turkish navy. A brief journey to Florence, and then north again, for a job as engineer and military advisor to the assassin Cesar Borgia. When somebody gets the idea to poison the boss, Leonardo heads back to his hometown, Florence, which is once again a free republic after the death of the Medici ruler. Here he works literally back-to-back with Michaelangelo on a commission celebrating the victory of the commune over mercenary troops from Milan at Anghiari in 1440. Leonardo’s contribution to the mural project refuses to dry, however, and as his paint runs down the wall, he runs off to Rome, at the invitation of Cardinal Guliano, whose Medici brother was Pope Leo X. It was there, passing time in the Vatican gardens waiting for painting commissions that never materialized, that he took up the studies of botany, geometry, and composition. Finally, in 1516, after the French king Francis I again extended his rule past Milan, Leonardo and his companion Francesco Melzi (check out the only work certainly by him, a wonderful portrait) returned with the king to France, where da Vinci died in 1519 in the small whitewashed castle in Amboise.

The works in the exhibition are remarkable achievements, as are nearly all surviving examples of high Renaissance works on paper. In our own time, we have inherited the "look" of these works in the form of photography and cinema, both of which have embraced the conventions that allow us to read shaded shapes as being "real." Because of the Renaissance, we navigate easily between the natural world and indexes of coded information that allow us to construct narratives to flesh out what we see only in bits and pieces. The mind and eye learn to understand the world through linked groups of conventions to the extent that what we "see" is what we think. Should this disturb us? Yes.

Ever since the Renaissance, it has been the pastime of art writers, historians, and your average Joe and Betty to exhort artists on both sides of the social, political, and gender fences to nourish art with helpings of science, politics, and passion (secular or religious); in brief, to make art that is "about something." This is what got me thinking about "First Man," not the rather fundamental "Man," Master of the Arts and of Personal Destiny, self-realized and individual, as created by Vitruvius and popularized by Leonardo (the guy in the circle-in-the-square/measure-of-all-things). This "Man" was indeed a new template of consciousness, one which beckons and seduces even into our "Modern" century; a model of consciousness we shed only with reluctance and difficulty. Walking through the exhibition I was thinking about how a lot had happened since William Fetter’s "First Man."

Despite the howls over the death of humanism, the cold objectivity of "abstraction," the loss of meaning in the arts, rather quietly and unnoticed by the trend spotters, groups of artists have been working on Leonardo’s ideas for centuries and well into our own time. Fetter was the guy who coined the phrase "computer graphics" while he was punching out equations that created airplanes on a T.V. screen at the Boeing corporation. In 1960 he punched out "First Man," a "human factor" figure sitting in a fighter plane cockpit: the first figure created for, by, and in T.V. space, or, if you prefer, cyberspace. Art and science meet again after long and separate journeys, and the new artists even had their own form of Leonardo’s mirror-writing: Classified Information. Their work would not be seen by the public for many years, and it would be commissioned by many of the same types Leonardo worked for, but now called The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Office of Naval Research. Financing of the art would be through universities and through corporations such as A.T.&T. and Bell Labs. This revolutionary work could be created and stored on the phosphorescent coating on the inside of a T.V. picture tube, and artists, filmmakers, and mathematicians got to work creating a new parallel world of shaded polygons, bump maps, ray tracing, and most important, the credible illumination of a world without seasons or night or day. This was a central concern of Renaissance art as well: feature recognition, the creation of conventional pieces that when assembled would resemble the "real" world in its central features.

Recently American scholars and museums have enjoyed the ability to host a number of survey exhibitions and artists’ retrospectives remarkable in scope, quality, and scholarship. The current collection of Leonardo drawings, brought together by Dr. Carmen Bambach, in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Metropolitan, is a wonderful example of the esteem in which the institution is held. Dr. Bambach is a past winner of the prestigious Salimbeni Prize, and a current nominee for the College Art Association’s Charles Rufus Morey Award. These 120 fragile sheets, many seen here for the first time, are a triumph of trust and delicate negotiation, of the ability of powerful institutions and eminent scholars to achieve a rare event: an outstanding world-class exhibition. The firm delicacy of da Vinci’s drawing is a forceful reminder that global cultural exchange is achieved only with determined dialogue. We may soon find ourselves in a position where such dialogue is no longer possible, and if that happens, we will not see exhibitions of such quality in our museums for a very long time.

Leonardo is still very much with us, and his work as a draftsman is singularly important because, to an even greater degree than that of his contemporaries, it emphasizes utility and dispassionate function. We admire it because in one way or another we have all needed to use drawing as a tool, so as actual practicioners we understand how Leonardo’s superior skill can legitimately be called “great.” The “art” part, of course, still depends on what we collectively experience as “art”, and that to a large degree is determined by what people like Leonardo or Michaelangelo did, as well as Cézanne and Pollock. In the end, it’s all about sensation, and a tour through the Met’s exhibition of da Vinci’s drawings is a not-to-miss experience.


Jim Long


The Brooklyn Rail

APR-MAY 2003

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