Wednesday, 6 March 2019

A Leonardo dozen, Mantegna, Bellini, Lotto

We, as in the British, have been well served by the Royal Collection's holding of more than 500 sheets of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci; I well remember a Hayward Gallery exhibition of 88 back in 1979. 2019 is the Big Year, five centuries after Leonardo's death, so the big show at the Queen's Gallery in the summer will include nearly 200.

Before that, the more interesting idea to display 12 drawings in each of 12 regional galleries and museums, and for free, has been realised with a great deal of care to lend each institution a representative selection of Leonardo's work in the study of human figures, anatomy, animals, topography, inventions across a lifetime. In later years he foresook painting, and who can be that sorry? I know his canvases are masterpieces in the art of chiaroscuro, but - and this is my blind spot - I find the shadowing and the colours we now have make many of his figures look waxy. The only one I personally love is the Lady with an Ermine in Cracow's Czartoryski Museum.

Whereas my Birmingham experience last month, when I travelled up to catch Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Lithuanian composer Čiurlionis's The Sea and some of Grieg's incidental music for Ibsen's Peer Gynt, struck me with the force of revelation. I decided to take a lunchtime train and see if I could get to see the 12 drawings on display in the city Museum and Art Gallery (which I already know fairly well, and now like the Pre-Raphaelites much less than I did in my callow youth). That meant queueing for about half an hour, in lively company, before being admitted in to a single room where the admissions control meant you could get to see everything in close-up (especially useful for me when I took my thick-lensed specs off). I'm not going to illustrate them all, but want to select a few that especially struck me.

Birmingham was especially lucky to get Leonardo's most beautifully-executed large-scale map, of the area around the long marshy lake that used to occupy the Valdichiana in southern Tuscany. The reason for this highly finished work isn't clear; it may have something to do with Leonardo's plans for the Arno canal (the Canale Maestro along the length of the Valdichiana did not begin until 50 years later). But the area covered is much larger, and includes Siena in the lower centre, nicely detailed.

Two earlier works from the previous decade, the 1490s, show Leonardo's habit of including diverse studies on the same sheet of paper. The one illustrated up top started with geometrical shapes before going on to include a rearing horse and rider, an old man in profile, a standing warrior, a study for a screw press and nature studies including a blade of grass and a cumulus cloud. Below is a study for the head of St James in the Last Supper (which I still have to go and see; on various occasions when I was in Milan it wasn't viewable) in red chalk and architectural sketches, in pen and ink, for modifications to the Castello Sforzesco.

The red chalk studies I love the best include this magical stand of trees

with a single tree illustrated on the other side of the sheet (Birmingham have made sure you can see both sides; only the group is illustrated in the splendid and very cheap catalogue for the 200, excellently annotated by Martin Clayton).

In later years Leonardo's understanding of anatomy was enriched by human dissections. Birmingham's specimen shows the bones, muscles and tendons of the hand.

A close-up shows the meticulous mirror-writing developed for practical reasons by the left-handed artist.

It's especially fascinating that in his final years Leonardo turned to objective studies of a cataclysmic deluge. Clayton writes eloquently about this:

It is surely not fanciful to see this obsession with death and destruction as the deeply personal expression of an artist nearing his end - an artist who had seen some of his greatest creations unfinished or destroyed before his eyes, and who had a profound sense of the impermanence of all things, even of the earth itself.

These studies seem light years away from the paintings in the first rooms of the National Gallery's stupendous Mantegna and Bellini exhibition, In fact the difference is about six decades: the 'deluge' series dates from Leonardo's last years in France, while Mantegna's Presentation of Christ in the Temple was executed around 1455.

In the first of many instructive direct comparisons, the NG exhibition showed us how close Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini were in the 1450s and early 1460s (Mantegna was Bellini the younger's brother-in-law), Only the central four figures in Bellini's obvious homage are the same (I see Rona Goffen in the big Yale monograph I have thinks this is 'studio of' and possibly even a copy, don't know if that's been discredited since or not).

My favourite gallery in the world was already well equipped to provide the backbone of this show; it even has both artists' treatment of The Agony in the Garden. There was a special fascination for us in that our good friend Jill Dunkerton took us round on a 'friends and family' preview afternoon.  She'd been working on the restoration of Bellini's Death of St Peter Martyr for the past three years, and the difference she'd made was on display for the first time. This is what it looked like before

 and now; you can already see the softer light, the blue sky that's edging towards Titian (the date is about 1509, shortly before Bellini's death).

It's a strange and in many ways horrible picture, though as Jill pointed out, we shouldn't feel too sorry for Peter of Verona's death at the hands of the Cathars he had persecuted as Inquisitor in Lombardy. The tension is between the foreground action and the scenes of everyday rural activity (even though it's more chopping that's going on). The rows of trees that fill the picture height  in all but the top left hand corner, adding to the claustrophobia, are in themselves beautifully painted, though Jill had some work to do here. A help in gauging some of the original colours was the Bellini workshop's treatment of the same theme in the Courtauld Gallery.

A restorer's background knowledge is always immense, and when I asked if the canvas had been cut off on the left, where we see only the rear and the back two legs of a donkey, Jill was able to tell me that Bellini, always inquisitive about his fellow artists, had met with Dürer and been intrigued that he had done exactly the same kind of 'life goes on beyond the picture' effect. Not sure exactly which work she was referring to, but I found this, Dürer's drawing of light horsemen fighting, from 1489, which fits the bill.

I was astonished to find several critics complaining that the exhibition was 'too academic'; is anyone too stupid to appreciate the similarities and differences between Mantegna and Bellini? I do also wonder if anyone departs from the feeling myself and many others have of love for Bellini and immense respect for the more meticulous, spatially conscious Mantegna? So many of Bellini's angels and putti have exquisite faces and wings; the mastery even of a severely damaged painting like the so-called Rimini Pietà is obvious.

And no reproduction can do justice to the lit-from-within quality in possibly my favourite of all Madonna and Childs, with saints Catherine and Mary Magdalen equally exquisite.

It seemed like an embarras de richesse that at more or less the same time, relatively unheralded, the National Gallery had another stunning exhibition, relatively small but with nearly as high a quotient of great paintings, of Lorenzo Lotto. This one was free, the thinking being that visitors wouldn't want to pay twice, but it would have been worth a substantial admission price. Again at Jill's instigation, we were very lucky to see many of these paintings, and to be introduced to a genius I feel a personal stake in, when Bergamo held a big Lotto exhibition back in 1998. There we saw the big altarpieces in town, the intarsie of the Santa Maria Maggiore choirstalls and the frescoes in Trescore Balneario as well as the 50 paintings in the show. A couple of years later we took a Lotto itinerary around the Marche before a walking weekend in the fabulous Sibillini mountains (alas, Castelluccio at the head of the Piano Grande was destroyed in the recent earthquake). The great glory here was the richly-coloured Crucifixion in the pretty but very much working village of Monte San Giusto.

One small place still on the list to visit was Asolo, where an Assumption of the Virgin with Saints Anthony Abbot and Louis of Toulouse (1506) hangs in the Duomo. Now not necessary, because here it was in the second room of the National Gallery exhibition. News to me that the Virgin has the face of Caterina Cornaro, former Queen of Cyprus made Lady of Asolo in the last years of her life.

That apart, the great glory, as in Bergamo (where the painting is normally in the Accademia Carrara), was the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, with Niccolo Bonghi (1523). It's a shame the picture was damaged not long after painting, allegedly by a French soldier; there should be a landscape through a window in the upper part.

But that still doesn't detract from the tenderness and intimacy of the hands in the central group.

Once again, the Royal Collection comes into play with its famous portrait of Andrea Odoni; the exhibition had done a good job in assembling similar antiquities either side of the painting. But I'm sorry if I whet your appetite; both exhibitions closed some weeks back, and I kick myself for not returning to the Lotto.


David Damant said...

How many artists can we recognise by seeing a single line? Leonardo and Picasso, of course.

David said...

Though if we're talking drawings, Matisse was surely the master of the single line.

Graham Rickson said...

There’s a da Vinci exhibition in Leeds too – lots of anatomical sketches and studies for an unrealised equine sculpture. Amazing to be able to walk in off the street and see them up close. And fun to learn that his backwards script was for purely practical reasons, not as a secret Dan Brown-style code.

David said...

I'm heading back to Birmingham midweek for Graham Vick's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, so I'll see if I can just breeze in this time to take another look (that Saturday was bound to be busy, though I loved the wait). The superb 'Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing' has illustrations and numbers at the back for the 12 drawings in each gallery - in addition to our two cities, the others are Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Derby, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Southampton and Sunderland - so I can see what you got. Horses and skulls especially!

Susan said...

Love this post, as you may well imagine. Today, I was packing up a bookcase of music and poetry books to take down to our NYC apartment (we are in the throes of downsizing--this will take a while, but step by step we go) and thinking about, despite having had a "fine," and in terms of the times, costly, education, how much I don't know that I would like to know. So of course I was amused by your observation: "is anyone too stupid to appreciate the similarities and differences between Mantegna and Bellini?" I would be one who has NO IDEA about that. For that reason alone, I am sure I would have loved the to see that exhibit, just to find out a bit about that very thing.

David said...

Certainly not condemning as stupid anyone who doesn't know either artist well, just that if you went to the exhibition, you would enjoy and notice the similarities and differences very quickly. Anyway, you are one of life's most curious about things, and that will never change. So much to learn and appreciate, so little time to do it in!