The problem with the word 'genius' isn't only that we sometimes apply it to undeserving people, it's that we tend to use it as an explanation for why someone can do something that we can’t - the divine gift. The geniuses, of course, know better. As Ernest Hemingway once said “It's none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”
With Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter At The Court Of Milan, the most ambitious and talked-about art exhibition to run in Britain for over 100 years, you are given a glimpse not just of the crowning glories of the Italian master’s talent, but of the painstaking hard work that went into creating some of defining masterpieces of Renaissance art. It is a study of true genius in its entirety, from the formative scribbles on a piece of paper to the Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani herself, still alive, still beautiful, 521 years after she was painted.
The exhibition charts Leonardo’s purple patch as a painter when, aged 30, he arrived in Milan already established as a master. In a fateful union that would benefit the art world for centuries, Leonardo’s ambition found its perfect match in Ludovico Maria Sforza, the city ruler who would become his patron.
Given time and money to experiment, Leonardo quickly set about revolutionising what he saw as Milan’s conservative artistic culture. Before long, he’d rejected the convention of only painting portraits in profile to produce The Musician, a man turned in the three-quarter position looking out at the painter.
The exhibition starts there and then moves on to two of Leonardo’s four female portraits: La belle ferronnière and The Lady with an Ermine (Gallerani), whom he painted in an ‘idealised form’ (who said airbrushing was a modern concept?) in the hope that they’d “inspire love in the viewer.”
Next we go on to Leonardo’s unfinished exploration of the human form, the anguish-filled Saint Jerome, before reaching the exhibition’s centre piece: both versions of The Virgin of the Rocks (The National Gallery’s own and one borrowed from the Louvre in Paris) facing each other from across a room. The Madonna of the Yarnwinder and what is left of his Christ as Salvator Mundi hang nearby. It’s a gluttony of masterpieces, the glorious result of one the most ambitious efforts of curation in living memory. Most of these paintings are normally the main draw at other major galleries across the world.
Along the way, these landmark paintings are given a supporting cast of sketches showing Leonardo’s meticulous approach to his craft. Fine pencil studies of dogs' paws, arms, skulls, bears' heads - all testimonies to the science of his approach, less divine ability than evidence of steady industry and careful research. Inferior reproductions of his techniques by his gifted apprentices hang nearby, excellent in their own right but rendered somehow childish in view of the master, the eyes of their subjects duller, the movement in the hands gone.
Since Leonardo began its sell out run in November, tickets have sold for many times their original value and Trafalgar Square has hosted an almost permanent line of hopeful attendees. Many have left disappointed. Some commentators have chalked this up to middle class bragging rights - a desperation to be able to ‘say you’ve been’ at all costs, a somewhat dispiriting assessment of the exhibition’s extraordinary success that contains a grain of truth.
Perhaps people are flocking to see paintings that are over 500 years old so they can tell the world they have. But once inside, few in the mesmerised throngs I saw had the air of people ticking Buckingham Palace off their list or gazing up at Big Ben.
Instead, most of us seemed to be fulfilling Leonardo’s hope that we’d ‘fall in love’ with his beautified versions of reality, barely able to tear ourselves away from the people and scenes he created, a voice in our heads that urged ‘go back’ as we finally shuffled to the exit. This desire to linger, the heartache is causes to leave this monument to genius, is really why you should visit The National Gallery before 5 February, either by hard work, divine intervention, or both.
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