It’s with high expectations-indeed, the highest-that we go to an exhibition of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. And the exhibition that Carmen C. Bambach has organized at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman certainly meets those expectations with the requisite inventory of marvels. We expect genius; Leonardo’s draftsmanship turns out to encompass almost everything that engaged the phenomenal variety of his interests.
The range of subjects is almost as amazing as the gravity, vigor and unflagging invention of the execution. In addition to the expected religious subjects-mainly studies of the Virgin and the Christ Child-there are anatomical studies, architectural studies, botanical studies, ballistics studies, maps, manuscripts and some sketches for The Last Supper . There’s an elaborately detailed drawing of a cannon factory, and some of the most poignant sketches of infant children I have ever seen. There’s one painting, St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness -which, like so much of Leonardo’s work, was never completed- and a commentary in the show’s catalog explaining why it’s deemed appropriate for this particular painting to be included in a survey of Leonardo’s drawings.
“For reasons that are still entirely unknown,” writes Ms. Bambach, “Leonardo abandoned this monumental, exquisitely rendered portrayal of St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness at the very initial stages of painting. In its unfinished state, it is a virtual drawing on the wood panel, revealing a breathtaking glimpse of Leonardo’s creative process at the stage between the final designs on paper and the painting surface.” Also entirely unknown are the date and the circumstances of the painting’s creation. It’s Ms. Bambach’s opinion, however, that “a date about 1482-85 seems likely.”
Leonardo’s drawings in this exhibition are placed in the company of drawings both by the masters he emulated, the most important of whom was Andrea del Verrocchio, and the artists whose work he, in turn, directly influenced. But perhaps the most unexpected revelation in this extraordinary exhibition is Leonardo’s preoccupation with the grotesque. Many people who come to this show with fond memories of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre are likely to be stunned by the artist’s intense interest in depicting what Baudelaire, writing many years later about Goya, once characterized as “human countenances weirdly animalized by circumstances.” These grim caricatures of human deformation are few in number but so powerful in effect that they seem almost to represent a separate order of sensibility within the exhibition itself-an impression confirmed by Ms. Bambach’s commentary in the show’s catalog. Whether his subject was lethal weaponry or the anatomy of the human nose, Leonardo’s rendering was based on systematic study. Ms. Bambach quotes from Leonardo’s own notes: “If you want to acquire facility for bearing in mind the expression of a face, first make yourself familiar with a variety of [forms of] … heads, eyes, noses, mouths, chins, and throats, and necks and shoulders. And to give an example, noses are of ten types: straight, bulbous, concave, prominent above or below the center [of the length], aquiline, regular, flat, round or pointed. These hold good as to profile. In full face they are of eleven types …. Of grotesque faces [ visi monstruosi ] I need say nothing, because they are kept in mind without difficulty.” It’s these visi monstruosi , which he rendered with such evident relish, that put us on notice that Leonardo, when he turned away from more exalted or purely technological subjects, harbored a distinct taste for the macabre.
In this and many other aspects of the exhibition, we are reminded that the Renaissance was a great age of invention and experiment in art and in other realms of intellectual endeavor-an age to which our own remains deeply indebted in many fundamental ways. It would be nice to think that the achievement presented to us in this exhibition would have the effect of making us all a little more circumspect in our claims for the accomplishments of our own time. One way of measuring the difference, after all, is to recall that while the Renaissance gave us Leonardo’s Mona Lisa , one of the acclaimed creations of the 20th century was Mona Lisa’s mustachein L.H.O.O.Q. (1919),a puerility we owe to the talents of Marcel Duchamp. And following in the tradition (as I suppose it must be called) established by this defacement of the Mona Lisa , we are now being invited to admire the glimpses of Matthew Barney’s crotch at the Guggenheim Museum-a reminder, if we need one, that even our standard for the grotesque has been degraded.
Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 30.