Updated: Mar 13, 2019
Last week I visited a modest display of the Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci 's drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. May 2nd, 2019 marks the artist's 500th death anniversary...that’s half a millennium! He was 67 when he died. How this artist still remains alive in the collective memory of the world (not counting the Mona Lisa), and in his lifetime changed the entire approach to scientific research, pioneered studies in human anatomy and physiology, engineering and optics, and even today paves the way for our understanding of natural phenomena, is mind-boggling at best. If there were an individual to claim the crown of Renaissance, it would be Leonardo da Vinci.
As I stood before the surviving fragments of 4 exquisite drawings of this left-handed draughtsman, it wasn’t his familiar technique that arrested me; rather it was the luminous illusion of human forms on two-dimensional surface that spelled “mystical”. I try not be a star-gazer when appreciating any artist’s work. But when one comes across an image that immediately shatters the logical brain, it is wise to accept defeat. It is that marvelous defeat one feels when encountering these drawings. Describing their splendor in words would be “gilding the lily”. So I will share some images instead; my musings in text precede them.
Who cannot be struck by this extraordinary study for “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne”? There is much written, assessed and debated over this drawing. In turn it stands quietly amidst the clamor of scholarly voices, radiant and sensual. Many artists attempted to emulate the “sfumato” (cloud effect) technique of da Vinci, but few came close to creating it in this way. This one had a hypnotic effect that I couldn’t shake off.
A lizard saves a sleeping man from being bitten by a snake. This allegorical design of a medal or a brooch by the artist speaks for his skills in designing theatrical costumes and festival decorations in the court of Ludovico Sforza “Il Moro” in Milan. Animals as symbols of human virtues was a common theme during Renaissance.
Here are a few compositional sketches for what became precursors to some of Leonardo’s masterpieces. The studies are often done on both sides of the surface, which makes one realize how fortunate are we to have reams of drawing paper at our disposal in art supply stores! And yet, do we produce art like this? Perhaps some still do. Perhaps.
This profile of a man haunted me after I left the museum. Leonardo's fascination for life’s vicissitudes reflected in aging faces distinguishes him as a profound realist who doesn’t fail to see the poetry in the quotidian. The shading technique that he developed to render three-dimensional form is most evident here; the lines go from lower right to upper left, a rather discomforting thought to a right-handed artist!
One master copying the other
The following study by Rembrandt of da Vinci’s The Last Supper in ruddy red chalk was a surprise to me. Several artists get seduced into making studies of The Last Supper. Rembrandt’s sketch made me think of three words: Baroque, boisterous and bold. None of these we associate with da Vinci. Yet it is Rembrandt’s tribute to a great master in his own unique and inimitable style. Simply precious.
The exhibition included works by da Vinci’s followers, among whom Wencheslaus Hollar (1607-1677) seemed prominent. Many of his studies of the master’s works have informed us of the originals which are now lost. For instance the drawing below; the expressive, manipulative manliness in the faces of this study always fascinated me. Some experts believe that these are faces of different types of insanity. Hmmm...
Here is another study by Hollar. A young man caressing an old woman. Apparently da Vinci obsessively represented couples with contrasting physiognomies: young and old, conventionally beautiful and the so-called ugly. I shall not attempt to psychoanalyze this one.
Whether they are originals or their studies: the allure of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings is timeless, his oeuvre immense, and his images always fresh and tender. There were other prints and drawings in the exhibition. I chose to mention the ones that stayed with me after I left the museum. Because of their hyper sensitivity to light, works in the Department of Drawings and Prints collection at the Met (a staggering one million of them!) can be displayed only for a limited period. This exhibition closes on April 28th, 2019.
If you get a chance, GO!
P.S. For those interested in reading more, a detailed account is provided on the Met Museum’s website. ______________
Drudgery of the Dismal Design
As a nod to classical beauty I want to mention this article I read recently.
It made me realize that there are others in our world who recognize the immeasurable value of living with beauty and having an appreciation of beautiful neighborhoods. Architects: PAY HEED.
As I said it in my Facebook post "The onslaught of soulless buildings is a daily occurrence in our urban environment. This article is well written. I find that making our immediate worlds as beautiful and green as possible is one of the ways in which we can sustain aesthetic living."
Plant a garden. Paint a picture. Compose that melody. Dance your dance.
Vive les arts!