As I write this blogpost there are twelve small exhibitions of drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci showing throughout Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I’ve had the chance to visit two of these shows and hope to visit at least three more.
Da Vinci died 500 years ago this year, hence the shows. All of these drawings are over 500 years old and can’t really have any bearing on contemporary art or thinking, surely?
Well, I disagree. These aren’t finished works of art; more like splinters from a mind seeking to understand the work through drawing. Water – turbulent and powerful – was fascinating to Da Vinci, and for someone tasked with engineering projects an important thing to understand. In the Sheffield show there’s a drawing (‘Studies of Water’ in the catalogue), showing how running water moves past an obstacle. To me, it’s clear that this isn’t just a depiction of something, but an exploration of it. His drawings are full of such problems being addressed visually. This is what makes them very contemporary indeed.
To see these drawings – each venue has twelve small sheets of paper, some of which show work on both sides – that are curious, inventive, and playful, as well as exquisite is a privilege. I’m lucky, I’ve seen a lot of good and famous art close up but seeing these drawings is somehow more intimate. The marks are tiny and the are images detailed which means you have to attend closely to each piece on a one-to-one basis. If you do go to see one of these shows, you’ll find yourself waiting to get close. That’s a fundamentally different experience to standing in, say, the Rothko Room in Tate Modern.
Seeing how Da Vinci annotated his drawings – often working out technical problems that confronted him when making large pieces – is fascinating. It would be wrong to wish that student sketchbooks were as good as this (he’s Da Vinci, after all) but the way he packs pages with fragments of exploratory, speculative drawings is instructive. Go and see the work and soak up the drawings’ detail and the spirit of enquiry and discovery they embody.
There’s a beautiful book published to accompany the shows which documents the work well and I recommend this, too. (Leonardo De Vinci: A Life In Drawing by Martin Clayton, published by the Royal Collection Trust)
In addition to the work, the venues are also presenting programmes of talks and workshops with details available at each venue.
Oh, and take a magnifying glass if you have one.
Each venue’s display is themed, but there is much to enjoy at whichever you manage to get to. All the exhibitions are free and run throughout February, March, April, and May. There is much more information on the official website, which can be found here: https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/exhibitions/leonardo-da-vinci-a-life-in-drawing-0/leonardo-da-vinci-a-life-in-drawing?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIo5zarq_F4AIVzrftCh2UaQrDEAAYASAAEgKlqvD_BwE
At the end of May the work will be shown at Buckingham Palace until October and then in Edinburgh’s Holyrood House from November until March next year. These two large exhibitions will have an entrance fee.
Image: LEONARDO DA VINCI (VINCI 1452-AMBOISE 1519)
Studies of flowing water, with notes. Verso: Studies of flowing water, with notes c.1510-13
Pen and ink over red chalk. Verso: Pen and ink over traces of black chalk | 29.6 x 20.7 cm (sheet of paper)
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