Leonardo's dazzling drawings: a once-in-a-lifetime look
New York — Leonardo drawings very seldom see the light of day. For one thing they are extremely sensitive to light and so are generally safely packed away. For another, not too many people own them -- not even major museums.
All the more reason, therefore, to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see 50 such items from the greatest collection of Leonardo drawings in the world: The Royal Library at Windsor Castle.
Included among them are Leonardo's most celebrated landscapes, botanical studies, and studies of the flow of water -- as well as the 10 drawings of the famous Deluge Series. In addition, the Metropolitan has added a small selection of Leonardo drawings from its own collection, along with drawings and prints by his contemporaries and followers.
Together these works are proof of the marvels ensuing when boundless curiosity and a genius for drawing meet. And they bear witness to one of the most creatively restless and innovative minds the world has ever seen.
To quote Sir Robin Mackworth-Young, royal librarian at Windsor Castle, in his forward to the exhibition catalog: "Of all the men of genius who played a part in the Italian Renaissance, none is more remarkable than Leonardo da Vinci. Master of any discipline to which he set his hand -- painting, sculpture, architecture, anatomical dissection, engineering, music -- he exemplified the spirit of enquiry about nature to which the vast corpus of modern scientific knowledge owes its origin.
"The impact of his genius has been preserved for us more directly than most of his contemporaries by his extraordinary talents for drawing. . . . A few strokes of chalk, pen, or stylus suffice not only to record some outer object --it with an inner energy, often of striking intensity."
I was most struck by the surface delicacy of these generally very small drawings, and by their linear clarity. This is particularly evident in such a drawing as "A 'Star of Bethlehem' and other Plants" in which gentleness of touch and acute observation join forces to produce a work that is both delicate and precise, and in which we sense the fragility of the various plants while yet taking note of the exact differences between them.
Leonardo thoughtm in terms of line when drawing, even when portraying such things as wind, water, and clouds. By that I mean he not only used line to establish the contour of a form, but also to indicate its movement and energy. Thus water is shown as a sequence of lines representing its movements as it rushes down an incline, swirls and eddys in a choppy stream, or bursts forth from a conduit. It resembles, in other words, wavy or messy hair, but is altogether convincing in giving us an idea of what water can do, and how it performs under certain conditions.
Much the same is true of teh way Leonardo drew clouds, especially those which indicated a storm was brewing or that the earth was on the verge of a deluge. The more catastrophic the activity, the happier he seemed to be -- with clouds swirling about, trees bent over, and people and horses fleeing. And all portrayed by hundreds and thousands of little lines that repeat in their movements the cyclonic events taking place high above the earth or just over the alpine peaks and valley of his drawings.
On other hand, many of his botanical studies, landscapes, and occasional figure studies are the very model of pictrial serenity. There is an intriguing drawing, "Allegory of River Navigation," that looks almost as though it could be a drawing by Bosch, and another fascinating study, "Standing Woman in Landscape." And among the works by other artists, I was particularly taken by the exquisite "Study of a Tree, Possibly a Fig Tree" attributed to Cesare da Sesto.
This exhibition is a remarkable event. Be warned, however, that these drawings are small, and even, in some instances, tiny. As a result, viewing them requires concentration and study, something rather difficult to do in galleries as packed with people as this show has been the times I've gone to see it.
At the conclusion of this showing at the Metropolitan Museum on June 7, the drawings will be returned to Windsor Castle. Old Master Drawings'
Another exhibition of old master drawings is on view at Paul Rosenberg & Co. here. Although these drawings can by no means compare with those by Leonardo, they are, nonetheless, excellent examples of drawing as practiced in Europe from the 16th to early 19th centuries. Included among them are fine studies by Goltzius, Greuze, G. D. Tiepolo, and Ingres.
Unlike the Leonardos with their precise linearism, the majority of these drawings take full advantage of ink and color washes and in some instances come close to the appearance of small paintings. The Tiepolos especially are full-bodied and extremely detailed.
There is a quite remarkable chalk study of a "Seated Sibyl" by Alessandro Allori, a brilliant ink and wash sketch of "Apollo" by Bartholomaeus Spranger, and a wonderfully solid nude, "Figure Study for a Neptune" by Francesco di Maria. It's a small show, but one well worth viewing.