I’ve seen the Leonardo drawings from the Queen’s collection before, but they never cease to astonish.
That’s why I hightailed to Manchester Art Gallery the day after the exhibition opened and was (pleasantly) surprised to see a long queue of people waiting to get in. I decided to go back during the week, which I did, only to find a queue again. Not quite as long, but still an unusual sight for a Manchester gallery.
But then I suppose Leonardo is a pop star of the art world. Ask anyone to name three artists and I’d hazard a guess that the master will be amongst the trio.
Then again, I use the word astonishing, rather than beautiful. Which to me is what art should be and that applies to the grotesque work of Francis Bacon through to Picasso’s tortured cubist work.
Wikipedia cites Leonardo as ‘artist, scientist, anatomist, architect.’ He also, of course, designed war machines, but I’m not sure what the job title for that skill is.
The room at Manchester Art Gallery feels like a chapel. Necessarily controlled lighting to protect ink and paper more than 500 years old – 2019 marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. But the viewers also seemed to have a sense of silent reverence and, of course, the intricacy can only be viewed very, very close up.
‘Studies of Men in Action’ features more than twenty figures barely larger than a thumbnail. And still the anatomy is perfect. Most of the drawings are so eponymous that everybody has seen them already in some context – and probably from school days.
As always in real life they are to be wondered at, often festooned and crammed with notes in Leonardo’s backwards writing. But it leaves you wondering – again – why so small, tight and intricate? What was going on in his mind as he worked with his nose so close to paper, as he must have done just to see himself the marks he was making?
I was reminded of being trapped in the biggest thunderstorm I have ever experienced whilst driving through France some years ago, too intense to continue safely. I pulled into the nearest hotel to shelter for the night. It was called Château du Clos-Lucé in Amboise and, once dried off, the name began to nag at my memory.
I finally remembered that it was where Leonardo had spent the last three years of his life, having fled there to avoid the political chaos in Rome. Inside the château is the chapel where Leonardo is reputedly buried, although not proven. The only evidence is two plaques, one in French and one in Italian, which say, ‘The final resting place of Leonardo.’
That’s two ‘chapels’ now in just one short piece about the master. These drawings have to be seen. That’s a must.
But also on show are drawings from the Gallery’s own collection, just three here by Adolphe Valette, John Singer Sargent and Henry Moore. These and the others in the collection are beautiful as well as astonishing.
I guess it also left me wondering why there weren’t queues to see the Annie Swynnerton exhibition there recently. A Manchester artist little recognised in her lifetime, but whose work is…well, beautiful.
I hope that the crowds drawn to the Leonardo exhibition will return in numbers for other great offerings at Manchester Art Gallery, both permanent and visiting. And thanks Maj for lending the drawings to Manchester.
Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing
Venue: Manchester Art Gallery
Dates: Friday 1 February 2019–Monday 6 May 2019
Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley St, Manchester M2 3JL