Master draftsman at work

Through his sketches, Leonardo da Vinci is revealed in a New York exhibit.

Picturing Leonardo da Vinci in today's mobile society is no stretch. One can easily imagine him on a cellphone, multitasking as he surfs the Web to survey his manifold interests: science, engineering, military gadgets, and - oh, yes - art. A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman," until March 30, highlights all of the polymath's diverse talents.

Only 15 of Leonardo's paintings (many unfinished) survive, but about 4,000 sheets of drawings reveal his vast curiosity. This chronological survey of 120 works on paper shows the mutability of his mind - both a strength and a weakness.

On the same sheet, a sublime sketch of Virgin and child (a study for an oil painting) might coexist with detailed diagrams of a mill wheel and mechanical gears. One can almost see the gears of his mind turning, as it skipped from subject to subject.

Contemporaries criticized Leonardo's inability to finish projects. One complained in 1506 about his ruined "Battle of Anghiari" mural: "He made a very small beginning of a very large thing."

Leonardo (1453-1519) was constantly getting sidetracked, as another noted in 1501: "His mathematical experiments have so greatly distracted him from painting that he cannot bear to touch a paintbrush."

This sense of frustration continues in the current exhibition. Many of the sketches are very faint, small-scale, and hard to view in the presence of crowds. Their quality is so tantalizing, it makes the loss of the fully realized works based on the sketches even more lamentable. Focusing on what they reveal about Leonardo's genius offers more rewards.

He perfected two innovations learned when he apprenticed in Verrocchio's studio: quick, improvisatory sketching of figures from various angles and sculptural rendering of form by smudging cross-hatched lines to give an effect of relief.

Leonardo defined the latter technique, called sfumato, as "in the manner of smoke." He seamlessly blended lines drawn in chalk for an illusion of rounded form and depth. His "Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing to the Right" turns red and black chalk lines into a fully representational image. Leonardo invests his madonnas with melting looks as they regard the Christ child with wonder and love.

Unlike Michelangelo's amazons, Leonardo's females seem soft, with tender mouths and downcast eyes. They reveal his breakthrough in making personality transparent. One can almost see inside their hearts and heads.

In another innovation, Leonardo arranges figures dynamically, often twisting them in contrapposto, rather than presenting impassive, idealized figures in stiffly symmetrical poses of the early Renaissance.

Their gazes and gestures interlock to unify the composition and incite a swirl of eye movement.

Leonardo's main concern was to capture the motion and energy of both mind and body. He did not believe an artist could portray the physique without understanding the human mind and soul. His figures come alive in his portrayal of their emotions and thoughts through expressive gesture, pose, posture, facial features, and what must be called attitude.

A sketch of St. Peter shows an old man with a glowering brow and stern lips, utterly believable as the "rock" upon which early Christianity was built. His drawing of Christ's head is only three inches high, but the crown of thorns atop a furrowed forehead, circles under the eyes, and anguished expression invoke great feeling.

A loan from the Vatican - "St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness" - shows Leonardo's technique. This oil on wood panel painting is unfinished, virtually a drawing on wood. The receding landscape in the background, rendered in blurred blue, shows his invention of atmospheric perspective. (Distant objects appear hazy and indistinct, as Leonardo learned from his study of optics.) The pleading look in the hermit's eyes as he gazes toward a crucifix attests to Leonardo's gift for conveying emotion.

A sheet of drawings of cats illustrates the artist's protean mind. This feline has more than nine lives, for Leonardo captures it in 21 poses: crouching to pounce, sleeping in a ball, licking its leg, humped up in fear with fur on end, rolling and tussling on the floor - a kaleidoscope of moods and modes of motion.

That's what the show trumpets more than anything: the myriad, shifting layers of Leonardo's interests. From diagrams of weapons to anatomical drawings, from saints to ballistics and geometry, one sees how Leonardo visualized the infinitude of his thoughts.

Nothing got past this man, for whom observation was the source of all knowledge. In these drawings, he recorded, explored, expanded upon, and transformed observation into the raw material of art.

A 16th-century commentator bemoaned the loss of Leonardo's murals, saying, "Only the drawings remain, but neither time, nor death, nor other accidents can vanquish them. With great praise and glory for the artist, they will live forever."

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