Leonardo da Vinci - National Gallery until 9 Feb

  • So does this show live up to the hype? Yes, yes, yes! With so much written about this exhibition and queues wending their way around the National Gallery the big question is was it going to actually be any good when you got inside. Even celebs were busting to get in with gossip that Jeremy Irons had to be sent to the back of the queue.

     

    What I found most amazing was the imagination pouring out of the paintings, it had the questing thirst and inventivesness of Picasso which was something I didn't expect. And then everyehere you look there's more - drawings of dog paws, drawings of hands, drawings of people faces, drawings of cloth - but these are not just drawings it's as if there's a search for beauty in each of these things.

     

    There's a quote on the wall that sets the tone quite well - "Tine will destroy the harmony of human beauty in a few years, but this does not occur with such beauty imitated by the painter, because time will long preserve it. And the eye... will derive as much true pleasure from depicted beauty as the living." Seems like a simple quote - but it almost lays down a challenge to question the nature of reality with these paintings, by trying to make them as real as possible.

     

    Take Portrait of a Woman (The Belle Ferronniere) - this picture has an almost extraordinary realness to it - I don't mean it's a photo realistic copy of what you can see - the realness is because there's a feeling of the heat and warmth of the sitter, Leonardo didn't just paint what he could see, he painted the experiece of seeing this person. Seeing the picture in the flesh I was amazed at how the ribbons down the arm of the dress seemed to flutter, fold and twirl in front of your eyes. There's a sense of this passion of trying to make the painting as real as possible, not to show off virtuoso talent, but as part of a quest to undertsand what it means to be human.

     

    La Belle Ferronniere

     

    The other thing I did not realise is that Leonardo's painting is so loose and light. We're so used to seeing it, and seeing it in reproduction that you almost take for granted the paintings, but when they are compared to the paintings of his contemporaries, as they are here, it's astonishing just how brilliant but casual they look. It's almost as if you can see the work he put into it, but the more he worked the simpler and more alive the painting begins to seem - it doesn't become overworked. 

     

    The first few rooms have these most extraordinary paintings, such as the one mentioned above and Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine), which are just unbelieveably great and have this life to them, so much so that it makes you think that the lack and general dismissal of painting things from life these days is insane.


    The Lady with an Ermine 

     

    Then there is a brilliant room where both of Leonardo’s versions of the Madonna of the Rocks hang together. The National has pulled off a real coup here, getting the Louvre to loan out their version, and even though it appears behind what one assumes is bullet proof glass it looks stunning. It's great looking at the two paintings which are so intensely similar and also so extraordinarily different. The composition is mostly the same, but the earlier painting from the Louvre is all green and soft colours, a painting imbued wth nature. The later one from the National Galery is all blues and blacks and dark light contrasts, a more refined and spiritual painting. I couldn't help being reminded how Wordsworth wrote his epic poem The Prelude in 1805 and then it was all full of the intensity of his inspiration of nature, and then he rewrote it in 1850 rejigging it with a Christian slant.


                                       

    Louvre version                                                                                Later National Gallery version

     

    This is a stunning show - and it really does live up to the hype!


    Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan is on at the National Gallery London until February 9 2012.

Comments

1 comment
  • Sadia Arif
    Sadia Arif interesting review, look forward to seeing it!
    7 January 2012