PARIS — To judge by the marketing hullabaloo, the Leonardo da Vinci retrospective that opens here Thursday at the Louvre should be the visual equivalent of a 21-gun salute and a trumpet-and-trombone choir. Blockbuster’s plastered all over it, and rightly so. Timed-ticket sales for its one-stop run are moving right along.
But the marvelous show you actually see, honoring the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, is, tonally, some other thing: quieter, slower, better. It’s a succession of major painterly melodies set among ink-drawn pre-echoes and reverbs. It’s a confluence of presences and absences — art that’s there and some that’s not — both equally potent.
And it’s a biographical vapor trail of a talent who has been used as a romantic model of what a Great Artist should be — large-gestured, face-to-the-sunrise — but who largely departed from that ideal, who identified himself above all as a science-wonk, who spent as much time writing as making art, and who ignored (and missed) commission deadlines almost till the day he died.
That day was May 2, 1519. And his death, at 67, happened in France, where he passed his last years as court artist to King Francis I. Leonardo’s residency there helps explain why so large a percentage of his surviving works — a total of only about 15 to 20 paintings are generally attributed to his hand — ended up in Louvre’s collection, which in turn helps explain why the quincentenary tribute is happening in France and not in Italy, his native land.
Indeed, proprietorial Franco-Italian tensions have made the organization of the show something of a cliffhanger. Bad enough that the Louvre possesses permanent tourist-industry gold in the form of the Mona Lisa. Should France be able to cash in on Leonardos borrowed from Italy too?
That’s one possible gloss on the efforts of a cultural preservation group, Italia Nostra, to legally block the loan of one of the artist’s most familiar images, the drawing of the outstretched nude figure called “Vitruvian Man.” (Endlessly reproduced, it appears on Italy’s 1 euro coin.) And it was only a matter of days before the opening that an Italian court finally gave the green light for this work to travel to Paris for a limited eight-week stay.
(There was also one down-to-the-wire no-show: “Salvator Mundi,” a painting of much debated authenticity that sold for $450.3 million two years ago, reportedly bought by a Saudi prince, and has been all but unseen since. It’s place-marked in the exhibition — presumably it could still arrive — by a workshop version of the same picture from a Swiss private collection.)
Once you enter the show, though, you leave internecine politics (if not connoisseurial questions) behind. You’re now in Leonardo World, a penumbral, winding but wide-vistaed realm unto itself with roughly 160 works, and one that the Louvre curators — Vincent Delieuvin and Louis Frank — have taken scrupulous care to make as navigable as possible.
We know something about the path of the artist’s life from contemporary sources, chiefly Giorgio Vasari’s fascinating, if factually wonky, mini-biography. We learn that Leonardo was born out of wedlock to a young farmer’s daughter and rising notary who never legally claimed the child as his son. Vasari tells us that the young Leonardo was gorgeous, polymathically gifted, and, after being publicly accused of abusing a younger man, candidly, even emphatically gay.
He was a complicated guy. Sunny and shadowed, generous and withholding, self-confident, and not. Put everything together and you have a portrait of a charismatic outsider: well-met, clubbable, ultra-intelligent, but also both distracted and drill-bit focused. Driven, off on his own.
The show takes us straight into his early career as an apprentice in the workshop of the painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, a Florentine star and star-maker whose work is now on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (Perugino, future teacher of Raphael, trained with him too). And in the center of the opening gallery stands — astonishingly — one of Verrocchio’s major works, the over-life-size bronze “Christ and Saint Thomas,” on loan from the Orsanmichele in Florence.
Cast almost in one piece and an engineering marvel in its day, it’s an object lesson in the merging of realism and grace that defines 15th-century Florentine art. And so are the dozen or so small painted drapery studies arranged on the walls around it. Some are by Verrocchio, the master; some by Leonardo, the student. Can you tell which artist did which? Probably not, and neither could anyone at the time. Leonardo was ready for an independent career.
We follow that career for some 40 years, as the artist moves, almost always in the protective custody of powerful patrons, from Medici Florence, to an upsurging Milan, to Papal Rome and finally to France.
Commissions came early and fast, and always with due dates attached. To each project Leonardo would say, “Sure, great, no problem,” then stretch the deadlines to the breaking point, and well beyond. There were certain paintings that did get completed, sometimes by assistants. The altarpiece known as the “Madonna of the Rocks,” produced in two variations, was one.
The earlier, 1483-85 Louvre version, in which the artist fully participated, established a basic Leonardo “look”: a kind of magical super-realism, fantastic yet observationally exacting. Figures, often of fungible gender, are naturalistically proportioned; and every leaf in a landscape is accounted for. At the same, in the “Madonna of the Rocks,” the Virgin’s face has the glow of a tungsten lamp, and the stalagmite-style formation behind her looks like a yawning gaptoothed mouth.
Leonardo’s portraits tend to look finished, though without a delivery history, it’s hard to tell. Confronted with the steely, appraising sideways gaze of the sitter known as “La Belle Ferronnière” (1495-99), any artist might feel compelled to wrap up the job on time. By contrast, the ready-to-be-amused face of the Mona Lisa inspires no such psychological challenge. Relax, she seems to say, this is fun.
(This painting isn’t in the show, but it is, of course, in the museum, holding court, in bulletproofed isolation, before stanchioned lines of selfie-snappers, in the Salle des États upstairs. And should you yearn to spend solitary time with it, the Louvre’s newly minted, seven-minute virtual reality experience, “Mona Lisa, Beyond the Glass,” lets you.)
Leonardo kept the Mona Lisa, apparently in perpetual progress, with him to the end, as he did other paintings, including the “Penitent Saint Jerome,” on loan from the Vatican and recently seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. You can take “Jerome” as either an unfinished painting or a highly worked sketch. And you’ll find the grandest example of such a Leonardian hybrid in the “Adoration of the Magi.”
The “Adoration,” in the collection of the Uffizi Gallery, was deemed too fragile to travel to Paris and is represented in the show by a full-scale photographic image produced by infrared reflectography, an x-ray-like imaging method used by conservators to view layers of painting and under-drawing, a history of thinking, revising, editing, tweaking, erasing, and inventing,
Reflectogram images of paintings and painting-sized drawings both included in and missing from the show are installed throughout the galleries, and attest to the investigatory work that the show, 10 years in the making, represents. Even more important, the curators have supplemented this photographic data with dozens of the artist’s preparatory drawings, organic evidence of his labor-intensive creative method.
In short, we see Leonardo’s hand and mind in action. And we see this action in constant, searching motion in a gallery devoted to his experimental scientific work, which he considered his most significant accomplishment, the achievement he wanted to be remembered by.
This material was largely consigned to notebooks — the so-called Codex Leicester, now owned by Bill Gates, is one — which the show sorts by disciplinary category: human anatomy, botany, zoology, cosmology, engineering. The drawn images are at once precise and poetic — a personable human skull; a tumble of kittens; an undulant star-of-Bethlehem flower; the world’s first helicopter — and all are accompanied by, or entirely encased in, exquisitely penned texts, some done in Leonardo’s lefty mirror-image script.
What’s the “art” part of all this? Isn’t this work, like Leonard’s endless studies and sketches, essentially just a form of note-taking? And as such, however virtuosic, isn’t it closer to a practice of skill rather than to the making of art? Actually, no. Leonardo’s great accomplishment was that he erased the distinctions between art and ideas, putting a positive, endgame value on long-term exploring over short-term arriving.
He wasn’t, like his younger rival, Michelangelo, a determined monument maker, a product man, who gave even his craziest ideas physical form — say, making a painting of heaven as big as heaven. (Leonardo’s one semi-achieved monument, “The Last Supper” fresco in Milan, quickly proved to be a self-obliterating wreck.) Leonardo was something like what we now call a Conceptual artist, maybe the original one. Ideas — experiments, theories — were creative ends in themselves.
And yet a few extraordinary objects, however much he considered them to be in flux, remain.
One is the Louvre’s sublime altarpiece, dating from around 1500, depicting Saint Anne, the Virgin, and the child Jesus playing with a lamb. (Wonderfully, it’s accompanied here by the full-scale cartoon from the National Gallery, London.) As a family portrait, the image is inexpressibly, even goofily tender (Mary sits, like a giant child, in her mother’s lap). As theological statement of redemptive loss, it’s a heartbreaker. As a composition of color and volume set against one of the dreamiest landscapes in Western art, it’s what we come to museums to see.
So, Leonardo was an orthodox artist, an audience-pleaser, after all. Or was he? Consider the painting titled “Saint John the Baptist,” on view nearby. Like the altarpiece, it’s a devotional image, but not entirely a religious one. He depicts St. John as a pretty, seminude young man. Smiling seductively out of darkness, illuminated as if under a streetlight, he points a finger heavenward as if to say, “Want to come up to my place?”
Is this the reading the artist was after? We’ll never know. And so an excellent, deeply considered exhibition, one at pains to make Leonardo’s life and art read clearly, closes with mystery, in this painting and in the small final images that lead you out of Leonardo World. One is a posthumous red-chalk profile portrait of the artist by his longtime assistant, Francesco Melzi. From it, Leonardo stares impassively across the room at a drawing of his own titled “A Deluge.”
Probably done a year or two before he died, it’s a gestural explosion, a turbulent image — catastrophic? ecstatic? — of a wind-whipped, water-drenched world caught in the process of coming into being or falling apart. We don’t know which. For him both were the same. Change — light to shadow and back to light — was a form of God, and it was the engine of his art.
“Leonardo da Vinci” is at the Louvre Museum, Paris, Oct. 24-Feb. 24. Reservations required. Information: louvre.fr.