Leonardo da Vinci holds a unique place in the Western imagination. At once artist, scientist, inventor, theorist, teacher, and writer, he has become our definition of genius—the embodiment of the “Renaissance man.” But that’s just the Art 101 gloss. It doesn’t explain his singular authority. Others have had far-ranging minds. Others have had divinely gifted hands. But other artists have not aroused in thinking people the same insatiable curiosity. They have not made jottings that are treated as if they were fragments of the true cross. In our day, there will be no better chance to contemplate the source of Leonardo’s enigmatic authority than Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although he is one of the greatest of painters, he would not be “Leonardo” without the drawings.
Organized by Carmen C. Bambach and George R. Goldner—and accompanied by an excellent catalogue—the show contains nearly 120 of Leonardo’s works on paper. (It also has one painting, the extraordinary but unfinished St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness from the Vatican, which has some underdrawing.) Chronologically arranged, it includes representative examples of the artist’s main interests: the early views of drapery, in which the cloth has life enough to make the flesh seem redundant; the fiery studies for the lost painting The Battle of Anghiari; the depictions of fabulous, infernal war machines; the tender portrayals of women; the intense research into the movement of water. And, of course, the curators include the passionate notations in the inimitable handwriting. By exhibiting his many aspects, allowing them to ripen together in the mind of the viewer, the show of drawings creates a rich portrait of the artist—and, more subtly, of ourselves. We cannot stop looking at Leonardo because, in his restless line, Western culture finds the lineaments of its own elusive reflection. He is the indispensable mirror.
The reflection is one that never seems to stop moving—in many different ways. You will rarely find, for example, a drawing of a standing horse; Leonardo must evoke the flaring of the animal’s legs and hooves. While drawing, he will often add a second and third view of a subject, not just to find the “right” solution to a pictorial problem but also, one senses, to honor the multiplicity of experience: He must know how things are from every side. His sensibility is steeped in paradox and tension. Is he an artist who could make profoundly peaceful, maternal images? Yes, but also one who could convey the mad blood lust of battle. His figures often have a particular gaze. They seem to look within as well as without. If Leonardo revered abstract principles, he was equally taken with exceptions. He could create what appears to be a perfect face but also obsessively drew “grotesques.” (He was known for following interesting faces down the street.) He insisted upon the truth of the moment and cultivated the sensation of eternity. Critics rightly describe him as a great empiricist, but he was certainly no prisoner of fact. He famously researched the properties of water—what fact could be more ineffable than water, what subject more ever-shifting or difficult to capture?—but in his “Deluge” drawings, the apocalyptic terrors of the imagination appear to overwhelm science. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they are just studies of water in extreme circumstances. It is part of Leonardo’s power that he leaves an edge of uncertainty.
Leonardo had trouble finishing grand projects. That may have been regarded as a failing by his contemporaries, but it now looks like just another way he embodied the truth. Although he set himself monumental tasks, Leonardo was not an artist of complete answers or easy resolutions. He preferred beginnings to ends. (I’m not sure that, given the choice, we would actually want Leonardo to complete the St. Jerome.) Drawing was a way of thinking for him and, like thinking itself, was more verb than noun. It seems fitting that the emblematic genius of Western art should find endings difficult, for his culture, then as now, is also a work-in-progress, one without final thoughts. The scientist might search out answers, but the artist did not unriddle the world. Leonardo left the smile on the Sphinx.
Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman
Through 3/30 at the Met.