24 February 2012

Leonardo: not just for nuns

Leonardo's 1489-90 portrait, 'Lady with an ermine'
Part of the problem in living on the edge of the world is that you tend to miss out on the spectacular exhibitions that visit the great galleries in the big cities. Wellington might have a decent array of galleries and Te Papa, the national museum, but it can hardly compete with the riches on offer at the great European or American institutions. Which is why it was a small treat to savour the Embassy cinema’s presentation of a British ‘cinecast’ of the National Gallery’s history-making exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.

The exhibition ran from November 2011 to early February 2012, and collected a spectacular range of Leonardo’s paintings and drawings together for what may be the greatest ever exhibition on his work. The cinecast, Leonardo Live, is a relatively new idea: an arts documentary broadcast live from the scene of the exhibition, to give viewers at home and in special cinema screenings a closer look at the artworks and fill in some of the backstory around the artist and his work.

Naturally, the Wellington screening was a recording of the November live broadcast rather than a live presentation, due to the time difference involved between the UK and New Zealand – although it’s nice to imagine a scenario in which a forward-thinking cinema like the Embassy might try out an actual live broadcast, which would have to be relatively early in the morning if it is to catch the European evening timeslot.

The exhibition is remarkable in that the nine Leonardo paintings featured might sound like an insubstantial number, they actually comprise about half of his lifetime output of paintings. Such was his multi-faceted range of talents, Leonardo seldom lingered on the art of painting, and only completed about 20 paintings in total (as far as we know). This scarcity makes the presence of the artworks in the exhibition even more exciting. For example, Leonardo is only known to have completed four female portraits in his life, and the National Gallery displayed two of them, including the exquisite and groundbreaking portrait of the 16-year-old Sforza mistress Cecilia Gallerani, known as 'Lady with an ermine' (pictured above), which was on loan from Krakow in Poland. (Unsurprisingly, the Mona Lisa, the world's most famous painting, did not make the journey from the Louvre to join its fellow portraits in London).

Another juxtaposition is in evidence in the display in the same room of both of Leonardo's versions of 'The Virgin of the Rocks', which were prepared for a chapel commission that the artist, typically, was immensely tardy in completing. The Louvre's version is the older and is bathed in the soothing golden hue of ancient works, while the National Gallery's own is perhaps 25 years younger, and has been spectacularly restored to thin out a patina of discolouring varnish that was ladled on in the late 1940s. Says the Guardian's Laura Cumming:

Consider The Virgin of the Rocks. What a horrifying spot these saints are in, the vicious rocks around them, the jutting pinnacles in the distance like teeth, that cold blue water, those dismal caverns. The National Gallery has both versions of the picture, mounted on opposing walls and irresistibly proposing comparison: is the Louvre's early version, yellow with filth, more tender-hearted, sympathetic and natural than the National Gallery's newly cleaned vision of spotlit and sharply haloed figures with shellac complexions? Both partake of the real, down to the smallest botanical detail, but both are eerily remote: lunar figures, beyond time and out of this world.

Leonardo Live worked for me because it was successful in balancing the demands of the viewer for quality photography of the beautiful artworks with the desire to explain and educate about their origin and historical context. Host Tim Marlow managed to race through his links and conduct fairly interesting live interviews without losing track of time or resorting to too many platitudes, and the indefatigable Mariella Frostrup performed well as a sofa-bound interviewer, even if her brief instalment with a slightly panicky bow-tied artist threatened to derail the tight schedule.

The Telegraph reported on the London screening:

The audience, who had paid £8 a head, appeared well pleased with the experience: a great introduction to the exhibition, was the general view in the foyer afterwards – "a great balance of expert opinions you’d never otherwise have the opportunity to hear", "better than straining to read the information panels". A trio of game Irish ladies in subdued leisure wear declared themselves particularly satisfied. "But then", said one, "we are drawn to all aspects of Christ and the spiritual." And why was that? "We’re nuns."
Post a Comment