Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, National Gallery 9th November 2011 – 5th February 2012.
The recent Da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery has been described as the Old Master exhibition of the century. However it was, to me, as interesting when viewed as a cultural phenomenon as when treated as an artistic event. The tickets that sold out months in advance, ticket prices pushed up from £16 to £600 on eBay, throngs of people queuing up from 7am each day to snag one of the few tickets released daily, one of the biggest- if not the biggest- names in art history on display. In many ways, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan could be viewed as the apotheosis of the ‘blockbuster’ exhibition. The near-hysteria surrounding the show is not without reason; many of the works have never been seen in this country before and most likely will not be back in our lifetimes.
Eavesdropping on others in galleries can be instructive, entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking. This particular show was unusually tense, however: queues formed in front of works and normally reserved Englishmen snapped at anyone deemed to be ‘pushing in’ (this being perhaps connected to a desire to validate the sheer effort of gaining a ticket for the show). The accompanying reverence for the works and the seriousness when it came to their perusal was unparalleled in my experience. Whilst drifting along yet another queue to view a painting I overheard an older working class couple hesitantly yet optimistically trying to figure out just what it was that made the work they were viewing ‘great’. Was it the quality of the draughtsmanship? The exquisitely fine technique? The timeless psychological intensity of works such as the astonishing La Belle Ferroniere? Although the couple did not appear to come to any solid conclusion as to what precisely it was that made the work great, they moved on satisfied with their experience of Leonardo’s oeuvre and utterly certain in the conviction that they had just experienced great art (and got their money’s worth). For this couple- and for many others- the aura of authority, of ineffable, mysterious ‘old-ness’ and greatness surrounding the works was enough. The works themselves needed no more precise justification, and only served to confirm any pre-held suppositions they had. Da Vinci is fascinating both as an artist and as an example of the power of the canon. Da Vinci is the paradigmatic artist- when people talk of art, more often than not it is his name and his work that is cited in order to illustrate whichever general point is being made. It is not the fact that Leonardo’s work shifted the paradigm of pictorial possibility in the 15th century that drew the crowds. Nor was it that the NG’s exhibition was a triumph of scholarship and unparalleled diplomacy that will not be repeated (or, probably, bettered) for a very long time. It was the allure of the name, the untouchable, great canonic name and the accompanying aura which surrounds his work which for so many people made this show one not to be missed.