Leonardo at the Laing

By Isabella Garcia Foster

From 13th February to 24th April, the Laing Art Gallery in nearby Newcastle has the privilege of debuting Leonardo Da Vinci: Ten Drawings from the Royal Collection, the sixth exhibition in a series that year upon year continues to showcase nationwide some of this artist’s finest remaining sketches from his precious notebooks. This display is of immeasurable importance because of the unique opportunity it offers its viewers to witness the creative flair of such a world-renowned artist expressed in the delicate detail of his visionary designs: brainstorms that underpin the masterpieces of an artistic genius.

The Laing continues to welcome a steady flow of visitors to what has so far been an unsurprisingly popular event. The exhibition curator and the Royal Collection’s Head of Prints and Drawings, Martin Clayton, has demonstrated his extensive understanding of ‘the extraordinary scope of the artist’s interests, from painting and sculpture to engineering, zoology, botany, mapmaking and anatomy’ in his selection of 10 pieces out of 600 to choose from. He says that ‘these drawings are unparalleled in their range and diversity, and allow us to build up a comprehensive picture of Leonardo’s life and concerns.’

Through a curtained division in the first gallery, an informative video clip about the elemental ingredients used to create professional workshop materials in Da Vinci’s days is being screened. This allows the audience to imagine the artist’s cursive drawing technique in action and the versatility of an artist who was inspired by an eclectic range of subjects. From his depictions of mighty musculature in A male nude (c.1504-5) right down to the plumpness of a baby in Studies of an infant’s limbs (c.1490), he so effortlessly illuminated the human form with such thin ink and brittle chalk.

With these basic instruments, Leonardo Da Vinci could bring anything to life from his imagination and wide ranging interests. The transcendent gaze of the divine in A study for the head of St Anne (c.1510-15) starkly contrasted his venture into uncharted scientific territory, with investigations of The vessels of the liver, spleen and kidneys and The heart compared to a seed (c.1508). With the tenacity of a rigorously independent researcher, he undertook and recorded experiments with the analytical prowess expected of more fact-based disciplines, and not associated so much with the archetypal visual expressivity of the arts.

Da Vinci’s fascination with the natural world – as dramatic as Expressions of fury in horses, a lion and a man (c.1504-5), yet just as charming as Cats, lions and a dragon (c.1513-18) – allowed him to illustrate its contrasting movements and fleeting nature. His intricate Blackberry and bird’s-foot trefoil (c.1505-10) reproduces the momentary stillness of his stirring surroundings whilst encapsulating the same comforting equilibrium found in the whirlpool of A map of the Arno east of Florence (1504).

This delightful exhibition effectively presents Da Vinci’s Ten Drawings in a way that makes the work accessible and enjoyable for all. Innovative standing display panels integrate well with the gallery space, framed the double-sided artwork, inviting closer engagement with the drawings. I would recommend visiting this travelling exhibition while you still can, if not in Newcastle, then in one of the three other cities that it will visit before being permanently dismantled in January next year.

Photograph by Jay Cross via Flickr Creative Commons

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