The primary aim of this selection from the Royal Collection of ten drawings by Leonardo da Vinci is to show him as the “archetypal Renaissance man”. In representing his widely encompassing interests, which range from anatomy to portraiture to weaponry designs, this exhibition surely achieves this. However, what is perhaps more interesting is the degree to which Leonardo’s different drawings stretch from the starkly pragmatic and coldly practical to the ephemeral beauty of the human form. Put another way, it is the range of emotion produced in the viewer over the course of just ten pictures which is so arresting.
Currently being shown in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, after having visited Birmingham and later travelling to Dundee and Hull, the drawings occupy a fairly small room towards the back of the ground floor. Curator Jenny Gaschke has made a bold choice in selecting a deep royal blue for the walls, but, after the initial adjustment from the light outside, the colour choice works very well in drawing the soft images out from their backgrounds. A red chalk study of Oak and Dyer’s Greenweed on pale red prepared paper looks particularly alive now that its clay-like hues are set against the cobalt wall colour.
And of course, making artworks come alive is what Leonardo does best. The recent National Gallery exhibition of Leonardo’s works showcased this particularly well by including the many spectres of his oil paintings. Yet, although included in a sizable quantity, many of the artist’s drawings were sidelined by visitors to that very large exhibition. Here, in this small but perfectly-formed exhibition, we have a greater chance to witness the way not only plant life, as with the Oak and Dyer’s Greenweed, but also with The head of Leda and The head of an old bearded man in profile (placed next to each to emphasise the delicate beauty of one and the gnarled wizardry of the other) seem to appear with sorcery out of the flat paper.
In Haruki Murakami’s most recent novel 1Q84, the story of a young boy who spends most of his time carving rats out of solid lumps of wood is recounted. The boy, it is told, talked of “pulling the rat” out of the wood, as though every piece of wood had a rat potentially lurking inside it. Looking at some of Leonardo’s work gives you the same inkling. It is as if that very sheet of paper had a Leda inside of it, but only he was able to conjure it out for us to see. The head that appears is too rounded, too three-dimensional to be anything but reality. I am sure I could take tea with her. We could discuss hair.
Contrastingly, other works in this selection entirely lack this magician’s touch. Leonardo, it would seem, was also capable of placing unfeeling cold shapes onto chilly grounds. The anatomical drawings and the Designs for Chariots and other Weapons left little impact on me, although that may be the simplistic response of someone who went into art and not medicine or engineering. However, the point promoted here is that Leonardo did both. Here is someone capable of appreciating all areas of life and remaining interesting to both scientists and artists 500 years after his death.
Ultimately, what is fascinating is that not the simple divergence of his interests, but that a man could handle humanity with such a deft magician’s touch whilst apparently spending much more of his time overtly preoccupied with machines. Spend an afternoon in the blue room and begin to understand the true meaning of “well rounded individual”.
Ten Drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci is at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery from 31st March till the 10th June 2012.