Strokes of genius captured in all their glory
Leonardo Live allows viewers to study the master’s work in startling digital detail, writes Nick Miller.
‘I think works of art are our last refuge from technology.’
Robert Simon, art historian
Imagine going to an art exhibition and not having to wait in long queues or push through crowds, or fume over some stubborn philistine’s shoulder to see a corner of a masterpiece.
Being able to lean forward without fear of setting off some invisible alarm, to press your nose almost onto the canvas as you study the subtle shading of a hand, the glint of light that sparks a whole character in an eye.
And now imagine that this exhibition is a never-seen-before collection of the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci.
That’s the premise of Leonardo Live, a 100-minute high-definition digital movie that captures da Vinci’s work as it went on display at Britain’s National Gallery late last year in an exhibition hailed as one of the greatest curated.
The performing arts have made a successful transition to the digital screen, with operas, plays and classical concerts by the world’s most prestigious companies becoming as convenient as popping down to your local art-house cinema. Now it’s the turn of the visual arts. The exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, quickly sold out, but because of the fragility of the paintings, the exhibition could not tour. Hence, the digital movie.
But the virtual reality is a little more flawed.
The exhibition is filmed in a digital format that often judders awkwardly as it scans across the works, and blurs with digital compression when it moves.
The exhibition’s opening night is presented in a style initially reminiscent of the Super Bowl and intersperses some admirably expert commentators with the ramblings of clever people who know nothing about da Vinci. (‘‘This is entirely enigmatic to me,’’ says one interview subject, early in his long opinion of the painting we are looking at).
Compared with a live exhibition where, crowds permitting, you get to choose where to look and how long for, your digital eye is immobile. Looking at the master’s revolutionary Portrait of a Musician (which broke the convention for portraits to be done in profile, turning the subject slightly towards the viewer to allow more personality to emerge) is frustrating even in highdefinition digital: are those bright flecks dust, or a reflection of the light, or an element of the painting?
As the National Gallery curator Luke Syson acknowledges in the film, he has seen these works many times in digital reproduction and ‘‘they are entirely different’’ when seen in person.
There is no doubt about the extraordinary nature of the exhibition, an unprecedented one-off that gathered fragile, priceless works from the United States, Poland, Italy and France. Nine paintings, almost everything da Vinci produced in Milan, are surrounded by 54 related drawings and other works by his students and contemporaries.
Some of the paintings even da Vinci may never have seen next to each other, such as the two versions of The Virgin on the Rocks, one recently restored to vivid, harsh and revealing effect by the National Gallery, another tenderly transported in its soft, blurry glowing loveliness from the Louvre.
In case that wasn’t enough, there is The Belle Ferronniere in all its saucy jealousy, eyeing off the luminous Lady with an Ermine, which has been called ‘‘the first modern portrait’’.
In the next room, the unfinished Saint Jerome gives a fascinating insight into the painter at work. And then there’s the newly authenticated Salvator Mundi, a ‘‘pop star Christ’’, and the Burlington House Cartoon (also known as The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist) that reveals the delicacy of da Vinci’s smoky sfumato technique.
Robert Simon, an art historian and private art dealer who was key in recently authenticating Salvator Mundi, has seen the film once and the exhibition twice. He can see the advantages of both.
‘‘They took great care to limit the number of people they let in [to the gallery] at a time but I don’t think they were quite prepared for how long people do stay and linger – it did get crowded,’’ he said. ‘‘But the experience of it is quite phenomenal.
‘‘I’m enough of an old-fashioned person to think there’s nothing like the direct experience of a work of art, which I still believe in. But comparing [the video] to other ways of memorialising exhibitions, such as catalogues, there’s an aspect of the experience of the exhibition, the physicality of the scale of it and the environment that has been created, it’s really quite remarkable.’’
Simon said the video could not capture an essence of the live experience. ‘‘I think works of art are our last refuge from technology, from having to experience indirectly through computer screens and the like – we lose a little bit,’’ he said
‘‘But the experience of seeing things sequentially [in the video], the remarkable quality of the filming in high definition, does give a kind of detail that one cannot really experience there [at the gallery], and being able to linger without the crowds, being able to study, there was no sense of being rushed on to the next picture. There was something memorable [about] being able to study these paintings in phenomenal quality, up close.’’
It is an experiment, Leonardo Live – doubtless one that would have fascinated the original Renaissance man – and director Phil Grabsky and producers BY Experience are in talks with other galleries to reproduce it.
But, like da Vinci’s own sketched creations, it’s an experiment that may or may not fly. Leonardo Live is showing at Dendy Quay tomorrow at 11am and Sunday at 1pm.