Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece

A hi-tech but unsatisfactory exhibition marks a 500th anniversary, John Westbrooke writes

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It’s 500 years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci, the original Renaissance man, still best known as the painter of the Mona Lisa, but also a restless experimenter in many fields – he even designed a flying machine and submarine, though neither was built.

Only 15 or so of his paintings survive, and the National Gallery is celebrating his anniversary with an innovative but odd exhibition of one of them, the Virgin of the Rocks. It’s been in the gallery’s collection since 1880 and you can usually see it for free; but the purpose of the show is to tell you more about its making.

Leonardo painted two of them for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan, a charitable lay group who wanted it as the altarpiece in their new chapel. The first was done about 1485, but the painter got into a dispute with them over payment, and sold it privately; that version is now in the Louvre in Paris. The dispute was evidently settled, because he began again in the 1490s and eventually handed it over in 1508. (He was a very slow worker.)

The subject of the painting is a meeting between the Virgin Mary and her young son Jesus with St John the Baptist, also a child, and an angel. They’re hiding in a cave on their way to Egypt to avoid the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod is said to have ordered the killing of all boys under two years old.

I mention all this because the gallery doesn’t. There’s a lot of technology on display, some of it inventive and intriguing, but there’s surprisingly little actual information.

One room, “The Studio”, seems to be a mock-up of Leonardo’s workshop, though it may be a conservation studio. The centrepiece is a digital image of the painting, but with a rolling display showing the differences between the two versions. The most obvious is that the angel in the London version is no longer pointing at John, and John is holding a cross. There are lesser differences in colour and shape, and to my mind the figures in the Louvre version seem more human because they’re looking at each other more intently – but this may be simply because of different cleaning regimes. Whatever: there are no captions discussing any of this.

The same frame also displays successive images showing the development of the painting over the many years Leonardo worked on it, thanks to recent advances in X-ray scanning. The very earliest seem to show a different picture altogether, with Mary kneeling before the angel, but you can see the elements gradually coalescing into the Virgin of the Rocks we know today.

Another room, “Light and Shadow Experiment”, consists of separate display cases of objects – rock, face, geometric shapes – in which viewers can adjust the angles and brightness of light shining down to see the difference this makes: the four figures in the painting are all well lit, presumably by God’s grace, despite being in a cave with their backs to the entrance.

Also in the room is a recreation of the Virgin in the painting, photos of a model – presumably a very large number of photos so you can investigate the effects of lighting from different directions on a touch screen. This may give you some idea of the possibilities open to Leonardo when the painting was composed, though it doesn’t give any explanation of why he might have chosen one light source over the many others available to his imagination.

And finally, “The Imagined Chapel” – the painting itself, the centre of an altarpiece with smaller panels on either side. (The real chapel is long gone and the painting was sold.) Choral music plays to replicate the experience of viewing it in its original setting.

Changing images are projected on to the surroundings, showing … what? Presumably different ways the painting was displayed, or might have been; but again, no explanation of exactly what you’re seeing or why. There actually is a placard in this room, next to the exit rather than the entrance, giving a few sentences on how the painting was completed and handed over, but nothing about what you’ve got in front of you.

There’s one other room, the entrance to the show, lined with photo murals of mountains – Leonardo took trouble with his rocky scenery – and hundreds of cubes, some you can look through at the mountains, some with elements of his work on them, and a lot with quotations from his writings.

These are all shown backwards. Why? Because Leonardo wrote backwards in his notebooks. This might have been a code, though an easy one to break (you only need a mirror), or it might just have been because he was left-handed, and writing from left to right would have smudged the ink. But is anyone going to stop and read them all? Not me.

You can see what the gallery is trying to do here: use the latest technology to offer an “immersive” experience, showing you in-depth things about the painting you might never have thought of. It’s aimed at younger viewers – as witness the note in the accompanying cataloguette that Leonardo was “the possessor of a great pair of legs”.

For all that, I didn’t find it satisfactory. “Show, don’t tell” is a useful maxim for film directors who include too much expository dialogue, but showing is standard practice for art galleries. For special exhibitions like this, a lot of telling should also be included, and there’s almost none here.

As for the Louvre, it’s holding a mega-exhibition of many of Leonardo’s works. The National Gallery did the same back in 2011, including both Virgins of the Rocks, so it makes sense that they’ve attempted something different this time. But I didn’t come out much the wiser about a genuine masterpiece. There aren’t even any pictures of the painter’s legs.

Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece (commissioned and produced by the National Gallery and created by 59 Productions) runs at the National Gallery until 12 January 2020. Tickets £18 including optional £2 donation; £2 more at weekends, £2 less if you book online.