The Art History Newsletter

Leonardo and Richter

by | 17 December 2011 | Contemporary, Current Events, Museums, Renaissance

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan

The National Gallery, London, 9 November 2011 – 5 February 2012

Gerhard Richter: Panorama

Tate Modern, London, 6 October 2011 – 8 January 2012

Two great exhibitions currently taking place in London, Leonardo Da Vinci: Court Painter at Milan at The National Gallery (until 5 February 2012) and Gerhard Richter: Panorama at the Tate Modern (until 8 January 2012), offer a telescopic opportunity to consider how artistic concerns in Western culture have (and have not) shifted in the last half millennium. Though the artists are from entirely different eras, these exhibitions share at least two common themes: the primacy of the artistic process, and the exploration of artistic illusions. Where Leonardo’s process is explored through careful presentation of his drawings alongside his paintings, Richter’s process is made explicit in the wall texts that accompany the exhibition. Some of Leonardo’s greatest innovations were his careful studies of nature and the lifelike illusionism of his paintings. Richter’s work on the other hand points to the false nature of illusions, and questions the authority of representation.

The Leonardo exhibition is small and very rich. Each room is dedicated to one or two Leonardo paintings alongside related drawings and works by his followers.  The first room focuses on Leonardo’ Portrait of a Young Man (The Musician) of 1486-7, and frames Leonardo’s innovations in easy-to-grasp terms: he was one of the first artists to break out of the standard profile portrait formula dominant in 15th century portraiture. The Musician has the quality of a film still, as if frozen in some very subtle motion. The nearby Portrait of a Young Man from 1490-1 by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio sets up the theme of using Leonardo’s followers’ works as foils to the master, and that strategy works best here. This comparison heavily favors Leonardo, as his portrait has a sense of liveliness absent in Boltraffio’s picture. However, in some works which appear later in the exhibition, particularly some of the drawings in the room dedicated to the Virgin(s) of the Rocks, Boltraffio’s work is at times quite masterful.

Some of the most celebrated portraits by Leonardo come in the next room, where the Portrait of a Woman (The Belle Ferrioniere), c. 1494, and the Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with an Ermine), c. 1490, are arranged to vie for the viewers’ attention. That the cult of feminine beauty is still so dominant in contemporary culture surely helps these two pictures resonate with viewers. The crowds of visitors gathered in front of these women were practically impassible. In this case, one’s patience is indeed rewarded, as both of these pictures are exquisitely beautiful, with enough mystery to hold one’s attention for long periods. Despite the explanations offered for the awkwardly tense ermine held by Cecilia Gallerani, it just looks unsettling, particularly juxtaposed with the sitter’s delicate expression. The Belle Ferrioniere, however, unnerves you with her eyes. Certainly she is posed, and seems aware of the fact that she is being observed. Yet some clever, defining action appears to be taking form in her head, and we are left to imagine what it might be.

Focusing on Leonardo’s interest in the human anatomy, his unfinished Saint Jerome from c. 1490 is the centerpiece of the following room, with a dozen or so drawings that demonstrate Leonardo’s explorations of the human body. The Saint Jerome is a pleasant surprise simply because of how easy it is to see in this exhibition. At the Vatican Museums in Rome, the Saint Jerome typically hangs in small alcove which is dimly and unevenly lit. It is refreshing to see the work so beautifully displayed in The National Gallery, a rare presentation indeed, given how infrequently Leonardo’s work are lent out.

One little remarked upon advantage of this exhibition is the opportunity to see many of the Leonardo’s drawings from the British Royal Collection in the context of the artist’s practice. In this the case, the curatorial implication is that studies such as those hanging in these room are part of the process of developing paintings, like the one Saint Jerome was en route to becoming. Indeed, virtually all of the drawings by Leonardo in the exhibition are arranged to a provide a sense of the artist’s process, regardless of how tenuous the connection may be between the actual paintings and drawings exhibited in any given room.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is the opportunity to view together for the first time both versions of the Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks, dating from c.1485 and c. 1508. The earlier Louvre version is presented first, and its dark, mysterious presence is reinforced by the brightness and bolder coloring of the later National Gallery version. Many viewers prefer the Louvre version. It was painted first, and is generally accepted as more purely representative of Leonardo’s concetto. No doubt the sense of mystery that surrounds the Louvre picture is one source of its greater appeal. While it is of course a remarkable painting, I have to take the perhaps unpopular position the National Gallery version provides a better viewing experience in the context of this exhibition. The recent cleaning and restoration of this painting undoubtedly means that in its present state, it creates a viewing experience closer to the artist’s original intent than that of the Louvre version. Yes, the Louvre painting has had a life of its own beyond the grasp of Leonardo, and this history is presumably what the Louvre wants to preserve by leaving the picture in its present state. Yet next to (or across from) the Louvre painting, the National Gallery picture is gloriously crisp, exquisitely detailed, intensely colorful, and radiantly present. The Louvre picture is equally luscious, but heavily yellowed and desaturated. In fact, the stunning success of the National Gallery’s refurbishment hints at the possibilities that lie beneath the grimy surface of the Louvre painting.

The curatorial hand is perhaps at its strongest in the following room, where the painting known as the Virgin and Child (The Madonna Litta) c. 1495, is the focus. To its left hangs a beautiful Leonardo drawing of a woman’s head in practically, though not precisely, the same pose as the Madonna Litta.  The drawing has the effect of making the Madonna of the painting look rather stiff and tired. To the right of the painting, a drawing by Bolraffio of the Christ Child greedily suckling his mother’s breast looks exactly like the version of the child in the painting. There is no conclusion from the way the visual evidence is presented other than the suggestion that the Madonna Litta is in fact not by Leonardo.

The theme of attribution follows the viewer into the next room, where the recently authenticated Christ as Salvator Mundi, c.1499,  hangs, along with several drawings, the Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Yarnwinder), c.1499, and The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (The Burlington House Cartoon), c.1500. In these last two rooms, the question of attribution, which in the case of the Salvator Mundi has been discussed widely in the media, has the potential to distract from pictures themselves. While the top portion of the Salvator Mundi seems remote and distracted, particularly the face of Christ (for which explanations have been offered), the bottom half is exquisite. Christ’s hands are the stars of this picture, both the elegantly shaded right hand in the act of blessing, and the left hand partially obscured by the deservedly much-discussed crystal orb.

Turning to the right, viewers find themselves faced with the large drawing known as The Burlington House Cartoon. Another one of Leonardo’s unfinished works, this one has the distinction of having been exhibited to large, adoring crowds during the artist’s lifetime. It is this aspect of the historical Leonardo that seems to unite his contemporaries with a twenty-first century audience. As the Salvator Mundi attests, Leonardo isn’t done yet. His oeuvre is a work in progress. Hence there is the pervasive sense that despite what we know about this great artist, there are things beyond our grasp which may or may or be made clear in the future.

One gets the sense from the timing and length of the Leonardo exhibition, the ticket price, and the lack of any special accommodation for the massive crowds, that The National Gallery did not foresee the frenetic popularity surrounding the exhibition. The exhibition is overcrowded, making it difficult to actually view the works on display while one is pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with other viewers. Given the institution’s dedication to public service and education, it would not be out of the question to expect some kind of special accommodation for the enormous number of people who otherwise would not get to see the show. I feel very lucky to have been able to see this exhibition, and I hope that The National Gallery could find a way to share this extremely rare opportunity with a wider audience. Of course any show of this nature is going to be crowded, but this one seemed to set a new standard.

While Leonardo Da Vinci: Court Painter at Milan focuses on a small portion of the artist’s career, Gerhard Richter: Panorama at the Tate Modern follows the stages of the artist’s career (thus far) chronologically. Whereas Leonardo is presented and understood as remarkably innovative, indeed practically without precedent, Richter looks to have spent much of his career absorbing the influences of, and reacting to, earlier artists and styles.

The topics around which the fourteen rooms are arranged vary from Richter’s rejection of Abstract Expressionism (though the specific term is avoided), to his interest in the constructed nature of landscape, to his attempts to address the intersections of political and personal history. Over one hundred works are presented in the well-lit, evenly spaced galleries, creating a refreshingly comfortable viewing experience.

Oscillating between the extremes of painterly photo-realism and pure abstraction, Richter’s oeuvre is united by themes of representation and history, or art history. One aspect of Richter’s delicately painterly images drawn from photographs is to question photography’s claim to any sort of truth. They often succeed in stealing back the authority of representation from photography itself. The wall texts emphasize the artist’s process, describing his motivations and techniques in any given phase of his career. In Richter’s case, the wall labels function as the drawings did for Leonardo, creating an overall sense of what the artist was trying to achieve and helping viewers identify with him.

Some of the most simply beautiful paintings by Richter are his large seascapes, such as Seascape (Cloudy) from 1969. One is confronted not only with an elegantly modeled surface, but also with the sense of viewing something much bigger than oneself. The deliberate painterliness of the otherwise precise pictures builds enough visual tension to open the picture to concerns outside of the raw beauty of nature and the viewer’s place in the vast openness. Here, wall texts explain Richter’s large seascapes as his attempt to deal with Romanticism, something about which the artist has serious critiques, but nonetheless can’t seem to write off.

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of Richter’s practice of incorporating elements drawn from other artists into his works is his 1973 repainting of Titian’s Annunciation of 1535, housed at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice. The re-presentation is largely faithful, save for the textured softness which for many has become Richter’s trademark. Up close, Richter’s Annunciation looks almost abstract, as pools of color spill into one another. From across the room the picture glows, taking on a cinematic quality and suggesting the sort of mysterious spirituality one imagines that Titian sought to evoke in his own viewers.

On the next wall in the same room hang three large paintings of clouds dating from 1970. Each is colorful, delicate, and comfortable in its status as a painting. At this point in the show the viewer is tempted is to find comparative examples from the history of art in order to explain the cloud paintings. Wall texts help direct viewers toward Dutch landscape painting, but given Richter’s interest in photography I couldn’t help but think of Edward Steichen’s Equivalents series, an early twentieth century attempt to make photographs which would perceived as Art.

Richter’s purely abstract paintings (such as Abstract Painting, 1977) stand out in his oeuvre for his acidic use of color, which at times is quite jarring. These are certainly the loudest of Richter’s works, and they underlie his career-long interest in the tension between abstraction and representation. One curatorial curiosity of this exhibition was the placement of one or two small pictures of flowers (for example, Flowers, 1977) in rooms filled with large abstract paintings. Rather than provide a meaningful counterpoint, they serve to confuse the viewer’s understanding of the curatorial presentation, and no explanation is offered.

Both the Richter show and the Leonardo show continue with additional displays after they appear to have ended. In the case of The National Gallery, Leonardo’s fresco of The Last Supper from the convent of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, c.1478, is the subject of the additional room (which one finds on the first floor of the main building, entirely separated from the rest of the exhibition). Several drawings from Her Majesty The Queen’s collection set up the viewer for Giampietrino’s contemporary full-scale copy of the work from 1520, on loan from The Royal Academy of Art, London. The awkwardness of the placement of this final room is quickly forgotten, given the power of the works on display. In the case of the Richter exhibition, a final exhibition room appears after exiting through the café and gift shop, and it indeed seems like an afterthought.

Richter has been so successful at absorbing and re-presenting so many different styles that most viewers will find something intriguing on offer at the Tate Modern. Furthermore, viewers should find it easy to step into the artist’s shoes and re-imagine his process. That is, of course, a central source of fascination with Leonardo’s drawings: the opportunity to try and see his mind at work. His finished paintings, of which there are precious few, display his mastery of unsettling illusions, the kinds of illusions that Richter would deliberately deconstruct by painting in a way that is simultaneously photorealistic and painterly. The Richter exhibition is an utterly pleasant experience, with a well-paced presentation and none of the madness surrounding the National Gallery exhibition. The Leonardo show is somewhat of an exercise in patience. Yet the works on display are so rarely viewed in this sort of context, and so fundamentally worth viewing, that one’s patience is indeed greatly rewarded.