Jan 2012 Journal

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Art notes (review)

Inscrutable, enigmatic, ethereal: these are the faces of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings. Hailed as a genius of invention - not only of art - he may have produced only 20 paintings in his lifetime, but each is an icon of time, formalism and spiritual beauty.

Nine paintings appear in the National Gallery’s much lauded landmark exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan (until 5 February 2012), sponsored by Credit Suisse, accompanying his many sketches and the works of students and contemporaries. This is the first time in 500 years that all nine paintings, garnered from galleries around the world, are seen together - an unrepeatable experience. All nine derive from his time as a court painter to the Milanese ruler Ludovico Maria Sforza in the late 15th century.

Leonardo was concerned with perfection, the ultimate symmetry of feature. He would tamper with his work to improve on the model. But some ineffable spirit began to move him to generate, not just mere beauty, but the soul qualities that surpass it. Two paintings of society beauties have the instantly recognisable status of the Mona Lisa. Both are portraits of Ludovico’s mistresses at different times. The two have aroused drooling remarks from art critics - one even mused how he would have thrown himself into the river (he can’t swim) to save them! The exquisite semi-profile of the 16-year-old Cecilia Gallerani, better known as The Lady with an Ermine (metaphor for purity) reflects the beauty, wit, scholarship and poetry for which she was famed. Her perfect serenity conveys both youth and understanding; it is typical of the artist that he brings this spiritual dimension to his work, demonstrating how a painter can capture a beauty destined to be destroyed by time.

The other portrait - less surreal, more knowing - features the opposite semi-profile of an older mistress, La Belle Ferronniere, who might have been the Duchess Sforza herself. Studied closely, both share the Renaissance features of wide eyes, stern regard and small mouth. But this one, loaned by the Louvre, has a totally different expression. There is evidence here of Leonardo’s rigid and mathematical view of beauty but he also absorbs the rhythms of nature and harmony into his work.

We see this in his two paintings of the Virgin of the Rocks - at both ends of one gallery. The one loaned by the Louvre (commissioned and paid for 25 years later by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception after a dispute over fees) is darker, portentous, while the second, recently restored and belonging to the National Gallery, is more luminous. Here Leonardo contrasts the murky depths of the cave with the blue light from sea and sky beyond, reflecting the Madonna’s blue dress and etiolating her face and those of the child, John the Baptist and others.

A much restored painting of Christ as Salvator Mundi has an almost eerie power. A full-scale copy of his nearly destroyed wall-painting The Last Supper is in the Sunley Room with some of the 590 drawings connected to his paintings, including 33 sketches loaned by the Queen.



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