From the monthly archives:

May 2010

Photo of Nina Akamu's 24-foot-tall bronze sculpture Il Cavallo greets visitors at the exhibtion's entrance.

Yesterday, I saw the da Vinci exhibition at the Getty. From the beginning, it’s obvious that this is an exhibition about process rather than product.

The show is introduced with a giant photograph of a 24-foot-tall bronze sculpture — but it isn’t a da Vinci. The bronze was cast by a contemporary artist in the 1990s in honor of one of da Vinci’s never-realized ideas. The first room you naturally gravitate toward contains a single marble figure. Again, not a da Vinci. In fact, the neat thing about this exhibition is that not one of da Vinci’s completed works are on display here, not even in reproductions. (Only 15 of his paintings survive, so original finished works must be hard to come by, even if you’re the Getty.) What we get instead is the story of a master’s development, his apprenticeship, persistence, struggles, hopes, and failures, told though his sketches and notes and incomplete pieces, and by works that inspired him. The success of this exhibition demonstrates the positive result of limitations and the value of using restraint in choosing what to exhibit.

Introductory text situates the exhibition within all of many things one could discuss in an exhibition on da Vinci.

That first statue, “Bearded Prophet” by Donatello, was one of da Vinci’s early inspirations. I liked the minimalism and the sparseness of the interpretation in that room. One label describes the cleaning of the statue, dramatized by before-and-after photos. A second interpretive panel discusses the context of the statue and the likely influence of this work on da Vinci. A wall-sized photograph of the bell tower shows where the statue was originally placed. And that’s it. In a room devoted to one work of art, you feel that you have time and space to really look.

Perhaps 20 or 30 pages of da Vinci’s sketches and notes, arranged on walls and on pedestals, are displayed in the central area of the exhibition, in two sequential rooms. Each drawing has its own display space and accompanying text, which makes you feel like each is a story of its own. Magnifying glasses allow you to see the exquisite detail in the mostly tiny drawings. As usual per the Getty, the text tells you just what you wanted to know about each sketch — what’s significant about it? — in beautifully simple prose. Happily for an art history ignoramus like me, no prior knowledge about da Vinci is required to appreciate these drawings or understand the exhibition.

Da Vinci's "mirror writing" is enlarged into a wall mural that's both gorgeous and purposeful, and interpreted with the Getty's just-what-I-wanted-to-know text.

As I perused the pages of his notebooks, I began to notice that da Vinci’s handwriting was entirely illegible to me. Yes, it’s Italian, but shouldn’t I be able to recognize the letters? Eventually, a label next to a page of suddenly sensible scribblings speculates about why da Vinci used normal handwriting here, rather than his usual “mirror-writing.” Mirror-writing? I figured I must have missed the explanation on one of the labels, and went back in search of it. I looked at every label in the two rooms. Nothing. Eventually, I gave up. But then, in the hallway between the second room of sketches and the next part of the exhibit is a wall covered in magnified images of da Vinci’s handwriting, with another lovingly-termed text panel that tells you about the mirror-writing. I was delighted with how this mystery was evoked and its resolution delayed.

The next room displays an incomplete da Vinci painting. Once again, a whole room devoted to one piece of art. Further rooms showcase works by da Vinci’s contemporaries, highlighting relationships and influences. Throughout the exhibition, you read about myriad ambitious projects that never materialized. What emerges is the sense that it isn’t the final product that really matters. And I was left with an impression of da Vinci as not so much an unimaginable genius, but as a person: someone who was brilliant, but who also struggled and was disappointed, who had rivals and friends, and whose greatest achievements may not, in fact, have been his own works, but his contribution to the larger canvas of intellectual thought.

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