Louisville recently had an opportunity to view “Leonardo Live,” the 85 minute film of the once-live coverage of the opening exhibit “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter in the Court of Milan,” at the National Gallery London. The exhibit, which opened on Nov. 8th and closed a few weeks ago, was the first time Leonardo’s surviving paintings and drawings were all displayed in one exhibition, with the exception of the Mona Lisa. Before you curse the French for incompliancy, they did loan their version of “The Virgin of the Rocks” for a very interesting pairing with the National Gallery’s version of the same painting.
This was quite a feat orchestrated by the show’s curator Luke Syson who was probably in need of a well-deserved holiday after installation. International loans from Paris, Rome, St. Petersburg and even the United States made their voyage to London to take part in what Roy Strong of the Telegraph deems as, “the greatest exhibition of the century.” A few years ago, when the arts community was first beginning to feel the pinch of budget cuts, Syson advised that if museums were to ride out cuts and broaden their appeal “they must engage with the public emotionally as well as intellectually.” By George, he may have done it with this landmark show.
As an exhibit, it was monumental to have all of these works in one museum at the same time. Especially the pairing of the two versions of “The Virgin of the Rocks” which I didn’t even know existed. It was originally a commission for an altarpiece and it is still unclear why two of them were painted. I prefer the version that is held in the collection at the Louvre because it captures the babies as looking more like chubby cheeked infants than miniature adult figures, which always gives me a creepy feeling.
My favorite had to be the pairing of the portraits of the two women The Lady with an Ermine and the Belle Ferronnière. Leonardo became court painter to the city’s ruler, Ludovico Sforza when he came to Milan in the 1400’s and these portraits are a sampling of the women in Sforza’s life. Either mistresses or mistress/wife, they both profile the beauty of the women of the age and the talent of Leonardo as painter.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Lady with an Ermine
As a film, it was a new endeavor to feature an art exhibit on the silver screen and I would say there are a few kinks to be worked out. Mariella Frostrup, a television journalist, and Tim Marlow, an art historian and director of exhibitions at White Cube gallery in London, hosted the event. I’m not sure if it’s because Marlow looks and acts like America’s favorite host Ryan Seacrest that the film took on a hurried interview pace, but at times the guests that they were speaking to looked just as startled. I did appreciate the fact that they were talking to people of all different fields: a ballerina, an actress, a musical composer and even a Bishop. That may be due in part by documentary filmmaker Phil Grabsky.
The historical content that was added to the film was the most engaging and maybe this would have been better as a full feature documentary. The snippets of the behind-the-scene making of the show, the restoration of the National Gallery’s “The Virgin of the Rocks” and the making of its picture frame from pieces found In an auction catalogue, were more hashed out than two zealous hosts declaring the work of Leonardo as “brilliant” every few seconds. Read more about the frame here.
The $12 ticket charge was a little high, but in comparison to booking a flight overseas and the $25 museum admission price, it was a bargain. As far as the film goes, when introducing new ideas like showing an art exhibit on film, someone has to be first and I applaud the National Gallery for this trial run. If you’re a diehard Leonardo fan, then I would recommend it. If the idea of this exhibit is intriguing to you, you’d be better off with ordering a copy of the exhibition catalogue. Frankly, if you can’t be there in person, than reproductions with enlightening commentary is the next best thing.