Leonardo: The greatest Show on Earth?

Billed not only as the exhibition of the year, but indeed as the show of a lifetime, the official line is that this is ‘the most complete display of Leonardo’s rare paintings ever held.’  All the advance-booking tickets are now sold out, with reports of internet re-sales of £16 tickets for up to £250. Already the show has accumulated similar mystique to the artist himself.

Less enthusiastic critics have grumbled that there are ‘only nine Leonardo works’ on display, the rest being the works of his close contemporaries and students.  Here though, they are wrong, for although there are indeed only nine paintings on display, they are accompanied by a rich array of astonishing small sketches, a medium offering the viewer a degree of intimacy with the artist.

The ticketing system limited to 180 every 30 minutes appears to be working well.  It is worth explaining that you are not actually shepherded out after your 30 minute window closes, but the movement of the crowd keeps a natural rhythm of people arriving and departing.  On the whole, the crowd was no denser than on a busy Saturday morning at The Royal Academy’s superb Degas and the Ballet exhibition.  The secret, of course, is that art crowds tend to be rather polite and if you adopt a vague air of importance and carry a notepad (even one that came free with Elle) it’s really no trouble to cut a path through the more congested areas.

The exhibition is not an example of great curatorial innovation, but then it really needn’t be.  Both the paintings and the – often minute – sketches confound expectations gathered from reproductions with their haunting human fleshiness.  We feel the warmth of these 15th century ghosts who are more marvels of oddity than exemplars of beauty to the modern eye.  Looking at these apparitions, I found myself reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic consumptives or the greenery-yallery androgynes of Burne-Jones’s dreams.

Ghosts are a good theme for this exhibition, for echoing around the rooms is the continual murmur of the missing lady.  Whisper it: Mona Lisa.  Eavesdropping on fellow viewers, it seemed more people were talking of what, or whom, was missing than what was present.  Concisely – more fool them, because whilst she resides in France what is represented here is a magnificent collection of shiver-invoking spectres, both entrancing and beguiling.

Although perhaps not worth £250 in these tight-budget times – one could always stand in a grave yard for free and experience similar sensations – I must send away my inherent cynicism and side with the party line: there is just something about Leonardo.

9th November 2011 – 5th February 2012

Adult: £16

Student/Art Fund member: £8