Exhibitions United Kingdom

The Select View

Leonardo in London: an unrepeatable opportunity missed

Reunited, sort of: the Louvre's (left) and the National Gallery's Virgins are installed on opposite ends of the fourth gallery, making it impossible to get more than the vaguest idea of how Leonardo changed his mind over the years

Just as Leonardo’s Last Supper followed a Leitmotiv of triples (three windows; groups of apostles in threes) to honour the Trinity, so there should be three triumphs in connection with the remarkable exhibition of his work at the National Gallery in London: “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan”.

As it happens, the triumphs are unmistakable in two parts of the enterprise. The curator Luke Syson’s achievement in gathering together nine of Leonardo’s 15 surviving paintings is an astonishing feat. It seems extremely unlikely that such generosity among the scattered owners of these masterworks will be repeated in the foreseeable future.

Almost equally impressive, second, is the catalogue for the exhibition, produced by Syson and a number of colleagues [to be reviewed in the January edition of The Art Newspaper]. This is a work that meets the very highest standards of scholarship, judgement, and presentation. In only one respect, the exhibition itself, does it seem inappropriate to speak of a triumph.

To keep to our theme, there are three reasons the display falls short. First is the location. Many words have been written about the gloom of the basement galleries in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery. This is not the place to repeat them, save to say that it is especially hard on a master of delicate light and shade.

This is not the only setting for major exhibitions that lacks natural lighting. The Scuderie del Quirinale, the former papal stables of the Quirinal Palace in Rome, home of a huge Caravaggio retrospective last year, are equally untouched by daylight, and thus limited in their ability to lift the spirit.

The one show in the Sainsbury space that seemed fittingly situated was “The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700” in 2009/2010, which was notable for its grim depictions of the dead Christ. But an artist like Leonardo, not to mention such obvious explorers of light as Canaletto, Turner, and Claude—the last two to be celebrated next year with the sub-title “In the Light of Claude”—would surely benefit from the privilege accorded to Velázquez in 2006, when his work was hung in larger, airier, and brighter rooms upstairs.

Second is the problem of displaying drawings. By their very nature, they require close attention, which is notoriously difficult in the crowds at a large exhibition. Framed and hung on walls, they are certainly easier to see than in horizontal cases, where the viewer’s shadow tends to obscure the object. But it remains impossible at the exhibition to emulate the experience offered by the catalogue, where one can flip back and forth in intimate connection between a drawing and its application in a painting. This may well be an insuperable problem, especially with an artist like Leonardo, who liked to jot down his perceptions all over a sheet, but the advantage of the catalogue in this case is notable.

The third and final reason for regret concerns a decision that was by no means inevitable. In addition to the nine paintings, the National Gallery enjoys another unique favour: it has been able to bring together the Paris and London versions of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. There seems little likelihood that the two paintings will ever again be in the same room, and the chance to look at them side by side could have been the star attraction of the show. That is exactly what happened in 2010 at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich during the exhibition called “Rubens im Wettstreit mit Alten Meistern” (Rubens in competition with old masters), where the Rubens versions hung alongside the paintings he had copied. Sadly, however, the two Virgins at the National Gallery have been placed facing one another at opposite ends of the fourth gallery, the longest in the basement space. Especially when the room is full of people, it becomes impossible to get more than the vaguest idea of how Leonardo changed his mind over the years. An explanation that has been reported is that the Louvre picture, dark and unrestored, would have suffered from too close a comparison with the more vivid, recently cleaned National Gallery panel. That such considerations (or any other that might be put forward) should have been allowed to rob viewers of an unrepeatable opportunity to look at two related masterpieces side by side prompts the profoundest of regrets. At least the catalogue reproduces them on facing pages, but then, the catalogue is indeed a triumph.

“Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” is at the National Gallery, London, until 5 February 2012.

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