Posts Tagged ‘Leonardo da Vinci’

Visiting old friends in London – very old friends

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

At the National Cafe, my Yorkshireman lunch companion gently suggested I pay a visit to the National Gallery next door.  I shouldn’t have needed the prompting.  We should respect the stable points of our past, the fixed compass points of our psyche.

I didn’t realize how much I had missed it.  My time was short, so I only spent an hour or so with the early paintings, the ones before about 1500.

England has always been the country that has most felt like home to me, even more than the U.S.  Leonardo da Vinci is small part of the reason why.  When I moved to London as a recent university graduate decades ago, the National Gallery was one of the first places I headed for, and Leonardo’s mysterious cartoon became one of the first of my friends.  Giorgio Vasari claimed that the work was created while Leonardo was in Florence, as a guest of the Servite Monastery – which would date it to about 1500. Vasari says that for two days people of all ages flocked to to it as if they were attending a festival.  Festival?  I think not.

As I made my way through the confusing rituals of finding a place to live and a job in a foreign city, I would return to Leonardo again and again, revisiting the dark, quiet alcove where we shared time together.  It calmed and centered me, and I drew strength from its gravitas.

We both have been through a lot since the last time I saw it – a vandal attempted to destroy it with a sawn-off shotgun in 1987, and very nearly succeeded, and I’ve survived my own rendezvous with extinction.

Not everyone is a fan.  John Berger wrote in the 1970s: “It has acquired a new kind of impressiveness. Not because of what it shows – not because of the meaning of its image. It has become impressive, mysterious because of its market value.” But I knew nothing of its market value when I saw it for the first time, nor did I know the efforts the National Gallery made to acquire it in the 1960s.

The nearby Wilton Diptych with its brilliant blues and golds was another psychic landmark for me – I hadn’t been acquainted with it at all before our face-to-face – but it was more like a fascinating and exquisite jeweled child’s toy than a steadying companion.  I don’t tire of it – Richard II reverently kneeling (as yet untouched by Shakespeare’s subsequent portrayal of him) – the pious stillness of the leftside panel, the drive and energy on the right.

There’s an even older friend in the gallery, a stable point that hearkens to my even more distant past.  Looking through my father’s many art books as a child, I was always picking “favorites.” I was surprised, years later, to stumble upon my clear front-runner from early childhood years, which has its home in the National Gallery. Little is known about Haarlem painter Geertgen tot Sint Jans, who died in his twenties, and only a handful of his paintings have come down to us.  But none of them are a patch on this miracle.  “Truly he was a painter in his mother’s womb,” said the more famous Albrecht Dürer.

I was struck, even as a child, by the wonder and awe, the tiny infant who is pure light.  It’s important never to lose childhood’s sense of the miraculous, and I hope I never have.  I still think this may be the painting I would like to have engraved on my heart.


Paris: inescapable culture, love at first sight

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

The superb Prélude de Paris playing for free in Colette Place. (Photo: C.L. Haven)

It’s hard to avoid cultural life in Paris – unless you put your mind to it.  And to my continual surprise, some people do precisely that.

As I was leaving my apartment today to say farewell to a few haunts in Paris, I heard a professional or quasi-professional choir on the streets below singing Christmas carols to an audience of passers-by.  By the time I got to Colette Place next to the Louvre, I ran into Prélude de Paris playing Vivaldi for whoever would like to listen.  (If you would like to listen to them, try here.)

Lonely guy.

Meanwhile, since Paris is the City of Love, I have to confess I fell hard while visiting the celebrated “Raphaël, les dernières années” at the Louvre, a historic collection exhibition in partnership with Prado (it continues till January 14). The Louvre itself lends itself to the sublime – and so does Jean-Baptiste, at right.  He was skilfully set in a small passageway of great paintings, all making the same gesture.  But he was … special.

Now here’s the thing:  I was all alone in my passion.  Everyone was swarming where they were told to swarm – the pack was thick around some of the bigger paintings, but Leonardo da Vinci‘s stunning work was all by its lonesome. It is believed to be Leonardo’s last painting, sometime between 1513-1516.

Different story a few floors above (no pun intended).  In deference to Zbigniew Herbert‘s poem, I dutifully made the trek, following the prominent signs, to the Mona Lisa.  I couldn’t get within 15 feet of it, the crowds waving cellphones at it, like masses of seaweed swaying on the ocean floor.

My friend Max Taylor said it’s the same old, same old:  “I will never forget the first time I saw this painting, in July 1976, about a month before I turned fifteen. The Mona Lisa was behind glass a few paintings away on the same wall and was attracting all the attention, while everyone was ignoring this mysterious and fascinating painting.”

My friend and artist Susan Williamson told me I better enjoy it while it lasts.  He will not always be “‘a light that shineth in the darkness.” Jean-Baptiste is about to vanish on me.  Apparently Leonardo, who was always experimenting with pigments, mixed resin tar tar in one of the layers of paint. Susan has tried it herself, and said it gives a beautiful, honey-colored glow to her painting … at first.  Then it keeps darkening and darkening over the years, to pitch black eventually.  It’s not a fixable problem, because the resin and paint and tar are all mixed up together.

Enjoy him while he lasts.  He’s worth it.  Only another century or so to go … then pffffftttt!

I should have paid a visit.

Saturday, December 10th, 2011

"A resemblance of the divine mind"?

During my recent London sojourn, I passed the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.  I hadn’t visited in years, and didn’t this time. Yet I remembered an old friend there: the Leonardo da Vinci charcoal cartoon of the Madonna, Child, St. Anne and John the Baptist.  I remember sitting contemplatively in the darkened alcove that housed it after I first moved to London years ago.

I should have stopped in last month.  Little did I know that a megawatt exhibition of Leonardo’s paintings had just kicked off.  On the other hand, a friend reminded me, do I want to fight my way to spy Leonardo intermittently through large mobs of chattering people?

My desire was piqued more than assuaged when I saw a magazine on a friend’s coffeetable, with another old friend on the cover.  No wonder the Lady with an Ermine was not available for viewing when I went to Kraków last spring (I’d introduced myself in 2008).  She was being gussied up for London.

“Yet what is even more impressive is the way that these spectacular loans have been devised, not simply to draw crowds – although they will, of course, do that – but to encourage us to think more deeply about Leonardo as an artist. Far more even than Michelangelo, he has come to stand as the archetype of universal genius – an anatomist, inventor and theorist pursuing his pioneering studies alone – to such a degree that the fact that he was primarily a painter operating in the commercial and courtly world of Renaissance Italy has been in danger of being forgotten.  The exhibition focuses on the 18 years he spent in Milan at the court of Ludovico Sforza.”

The article, by Michael Hall, was the cover story on a magazine I hadn’t thought about for years, ye olde Country Life, which I had always thought a stuffy, snooty sort of affair, filled with the names of people I’d never heard of.  It’s been revamped, and now it’s rather fun. There’s still a lot of pricey estates in the English countryside (though now it looks a bargain when compared to the Bay Area housing markets), but it also discusses a William Golding centenary exhibition, “Lord of the Flies and Beyond,” at the Bodleian, and a small tidbit on how the proceeds of the sale of two sketch-leaves of Edward Elgar‘s unfinished 3d Symphony are going to the great-great-granddaughter of the woman he he loved madly (she’ll be using the money to study at the Royal College of Music).

Meanwhile, the Leonardo exhibition continues till February 5, though I’m unlikely to catch it. It brings together more than half of his known paintings.  It also includes the first painting in over a century to be accepted as a hitherto unknown Leonardo:

“…an emphasis on perfect beauty that is strongly evident also in the newly discovered Christ as Salvator Mundi, begun in about 1499. … Leonardo strives to go beyond reality to embody an approach to art that he described thus: ‘The divinity which is the science of painting transmutes the painter’s mind into a resemblance of the divine mind.'”