The terrifying genius of Leonardo

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

A cataclysmic storm is unfolding. Dense, thunderous lines of black chalk sweep rapidly around the paper in frantic curls of awesome energy. Rocks tumble beneath the irresistible force of an engulfing flood. Cloud and rain, vapour and water, both churned by the same punishing vortexes, become almost indistinguishable. The scale is hard to judge until you glimpse, in the foreground, a hilltop fortress, dwarfed and ruined by the relentless inundation. Man and his monument, both powerless in the face of almighty nature.

It’s a terrifying scene of chaos and one that Leonardo da Vinci revisited numerous times in his final years. Facing his own mortality, he produced a series of these intense, obscure drawings in which he imagined an apocalyptic storm obliterating the landscape. This obsession with the power of water was not new. His private notebooks are filled with observational drawings, visualisations and treatises on fluid dynamics, and his engineering expertise earned him the title ‘Master of Water’ from the Florentine authorities, but in these late drawings he merges that rigid scienza with quite startling fantasia.

We think we know Leonardo, the most scrutinised of artists, but delve into his private drawings and surprises can still emerge. In these papers, he recorded his observations obsessively, seeing and learning through looking and drawing. As we all know he was an artist, an anatomist and a botanist; he designed canals and weapons, buildings and balloons, he surveyed land and drew maps; he invented complex machines and simple tools. But he also glued wings and horns to his pet lizard and played tricks on his friends, pumping up a handful of bovine intestines, for example, until they ballooned so large they filled the room and sent everyone cowering into a corner. He found all this, his art, his science, his pranks, entirely compatible.

This year, an unprecedented opportunity to peer into his world presents itself. The second of May marks the quincentenary of Leonardo’s death and so heralds a flurry of related exhibitions across Europe. In Britain, the focus is on the huge group of Leonardo drawings that are held in the Royal Collection, including the entire deluge and apocalypse series. This is the largest single collection of Leonardo’s work anywhere and, at almost any point over the next year, up to 200 of the drawings will be on display somewhere in Britain.

Leonardo: A Life in Drawing begins with simultaneous exhibitions of 12 drawings in 12 cities across the country before two major shows at Buckingham Palace and the Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh. With the collection usually hiding from the light at Windsor Castle, this run of exhibitions offers a nationwide opportunity to assess Leonardo’s colossal private output. The 200 drawings that will be exhibited show him in all his guises, scribbling people, horses, cats and dragons, teasing out his inventions, conjuring engineering projects and compulsively recording his scientific findings. It is, effectively, a vast exhibition of his galloping mind.

Each Life in Drawing exhibition offers its own succinctly curated tasting menu of Leonardo’s preoccupations and methods. The installation at Kelvingrove in Glasgow, my local show, presents a typically dense microcosm of the artist’s processes, neatly demonstrating in a dozen drawings how he was able to shift his focus between diverse subjects while sticking to a belief in the underlying systems of proportion, geometry and dynamics that connected them all. These root harmonies and ratios are identified, codified and applied again and again in his work.

So it is that his extraordinary studies of turbulent water that were to obsess him throughout his life can be related to his drawings of human hair, the eddies and swirls of one obeying the same laws as the pull and drift of the other. Equally, the rhythms in Leonardo’s heaves of rock are consistent with the contours of the human face, while dissected muscles and tendons correspond to the fractals of a botanical study or water systems on a map: anatomy always a microcosm of nature.

In these Glasgow drawings alone we can appreciate Leonardo the draughtsman, the caricaturist, the designer, mapmaker and anatomist. He draws in metalpoint, chalk and ink, often sketching out his ideas loosely in the fainter medium before defining his conclusions in ink. As a draughtsman, his work is deft, but no more wonderful than that of Raphael or Michelangelo. It is the sense of watching a thought process unfold across paper that’s so fascinating.

The structure of a bear’s hind foot is observed with phenomenal delicacy. An adjacent drawing of a dissected human brain was informed by Leonardo’s experimental injection of wax into the inner ventricles better to determine their form, an innovation of his own invention. The human spine beside it, detailed in ink, was also the first successful study of its kind. There’s a remarkable lineage of discovery here, in just three drawings, and achievements that alone would establish the reputation of lesser men.

If we can have any regret about Leonardo it is perhaps that the restless nature of his mind inhibited the production of more major, completed works. But his true genius lies anyway beneath those few final products, in the vast mine of observation and exploration, in his life in drawing, in his brain on paper.

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