Friday, 3 February 2012

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, at the National Gallery

Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Head of a youth with ivy wreath, ca. 1491-4
Metal point of grey prepared paper, Florence, Uffizi
We went to London specifically to see the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. My dissertation was on Gian Cristoforo Romano, a sculpture who worked in Milan during part of the time Leonardo was there and in 1988 I organized an exhibition, The Sforza Court: Milan in the Renaissance 1450-1535. In graduate school I took a course abiut Leonardo taught by Ludwig Heydenreich, a scholar whose biography of Leonardo presents the artist in all his aspects, demonstrating the interconnectedness between his mechanical studies, his nature studies, his anatomy studies, his sculpture and his painting. This book appears to be out of print and forgotten, but from it I came to appreciate Leonardo as an archtypical Renaissance Man and have believed that his painting was only a part of his significant research and thinking.

In the course of studying Renaissance Milan and its court, I also became somewhat familiar with several artists of considerable ability who were working there before and during Leonardo's sojourn. Among them Vincenzo Foppa was probably the major figure before Leonardo arrived. An image of Foppa's Young Cicero Reading fresco of 1464 gives an idea of the subtlety of his modeling with light and shade, his ability to create sophisticated complex poses, his interest in perspective, and a bit of his landscape style. The court to which Leonardo arrived was extremely rich and quite sophisticated and it might have offered Leonardo some learning opportunities. The London exhibition continues of the tradition of presenting Leonardo as the sole genius around whom skilled but inferior followers were working. It does this even while exhibiting some gorgeous and inspired drawings and paintings by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (c. 1467-1516) that actually challenge the National Gallery's attribution of some of works hanging near the Boltraffios.

I do understand that art politics often affect the way objects are identified in museums. The National Gallery exhibition is very impressive just for bringing together about 8 paintings attributed to Leonardo, plus a few attributed to his followers and a good number of drawings related to the paintings. The negotiations must have been difficult and I'm sure the curators had to make changes related to what loans were available.

My primary reason for going to the exhibition was, of course, to see the London and Paris versions of the Madonna of the Rocks  and the exhibition was of great value just in making that possible. I think everyone expected that the two paintings would be shown next to each other, but the curators opted to have them facing each other across a modest-size gallery. Nonetheless, walking back and forth between them, I was able to make some useful comparisions.  A very nice and straightforward discussion of the two paintings is in the review by Charles Hope in the Feb. 9, 2012 New York Review of Books. Hope concludes on the basis of the documentation that the London version must be by some artist in Leonardo's shop.  I agree on stylistic grounds as well. The New York Review article provides a good pairing of photographs of the paintings.

I've always thought the London version of the painting was rather harshly modeled, much more like marble or porcelain sculpture than human flesh. I think I had also noted that the London vegetation looks far more schematic and stiff than the flowing, organic plants in the Paris version. This is quite easy to see even through the thick and darkened varnish of the Louvre version. The baby Jesus in London seems freakish, with a strangely bald head and overarticulated muscles. When I notice that the Louvre Jesus has very similar modeling, it then reinforces the impression that the London copies the Paris one, and sometimes the copyist doesn't quite understand his source.

The figure that struck me the most in the in person comparison, though, was the angel. In the Paris version, the angel has no attributes and has a rather odd pose, suggesting that it is leaning forward or, it always seems to me, that it is actually a sphinx figure. I've wondered if that could be a reference to the Old Law, with the pre-Christian figure predicting Christ's salvation. The London figure is definitely an angel, complete with halo and wings. But when one tries to see how the upper torso is connected to the legs, there seems to be a break between the figure and the drapery over the legs. In photographs one just imagines that the figure is there in the shadows, but in person I couldn't find the figure. So there's an erect figure and then a little behind it, painted drapery suggesting backside and legs. I imagine that the painter of the London version was trying to reconcile this angel with an underdrawing, a sketch, or a memory of the Louvre angel.

The halos in the London version, and St. John's cross, also strike me as something an artist would add who wanted to be sure we knew who the people are, who didn't trust the viewer to understand. In the Louvre version the sphinx-like angel looks at us and points to St. John, who worships Christ, who blesses him back. The Virgin, with her arm around St. John, reaches out in blessing. I had never thought before that she may refer to the Madonna della Misericordia, the Madonna of Mercy, symbolically embracing all humanity under her robe and promising everyone salvation. In London her arm and robe still encircle St. John, but without the angel's gaze, we are not invited into the scene, another change that seems to make the painting less innovative. Rather than perfecting Leonardo's idealism, as the exhibition texts suggest, the London painting hardens the modeling and simplifies the subject, as a copyist (and someone obeying the wishes of conservative patrons) might do.

There's more about this exhibition that puzzled me. The labels suggest that Leonardo went to Milan as a musician, connecting that idea with the portrait of a musician attributed to him in the first gallery. I purchased the catalogue just to confirm that the point of the curators was really to focus on his music and painting, mentioning but disregarding the famous letter Leonardo wrote to Ludovico Il Moro, recommending himself as an engineer of public works, and inventor of weapons, and, by the way, a painter and sculptor. The exhibition includes many drawings, but does not mention all of Leonardo's scientific studies, to my mind thus omitting major aspects of his art. Of course, referring to Leonardo as a musician and to his delivery of a silver lyre to Ludovico Il Moro, one perceived reason for his move to Milan, sets up the viewer for the portrait of a musician that follows.

There are other oddities about the installation. The first major painting on view is the Portrait of a Musician, which is here strongly attributed to Leonardo but has been frequently doubted by other scholars. Its label suggests that the painting is hugely innovative in depicting the man in three-quarter view rather than profile. I had just noticed the New York Times article about the Italian portrait exhibition in New York, illustrated with Andrea del Castagno's three-quarter frontal Portrait of a Man, dated ca. 1450, which demonstrates that this format was pretty well established by the time whoever painted the Portrait of a Musician. What puzzled me, though was that two other portraits of men were compared to the Musician, but one was next to it and the other, quite similar, was around the corner in the next gallery. The exhibition attributed these two works to Leonardo's followers Boltraffio and Marco d'Oggiono, but it was hard for me to confirm that they were not by the same artist, probably because both had similar hair styles and bloodless lips. It certainly would have been interesting to be able to see them together. And this might have been a good time to introduce these two artists as documented members of Leonardo's studio in Milan.

I think everyone loved seeing La Belle Ferroniere and The Lady with an Ermine in the same room, two gorgeous paintings. I love the backlighting on La Belle's chin and the soft modelling of her very regular features. At one point I thought maybe I could get a better idea of the texture of her dress by looking at the giant photograph near the entrance to the exhibition, but the photographic process flattened and blurred all the detail. Seeing the paintings in person really makes a difference. The Lady with an Ermine had me looking around the room to see if any of the women there had shoulders that slope as much as hers do, almost as if she herself is ermine-shaped. While her hand is lovely and expressive, it also looks too large and a bit distorted.

I notice that Martin Kemp has raised the question about the Madonna Litta from the Hermitage, which is attributed to Leonardo in the exhibition catalogue entry, but attributed to Boltraffio everywhere else in the catalogue. I keep puzzling over the assertion that the Leonardo drawing of a beautiful, idealized woman served as the drawing for the Madonna Litta. (The link to this drawing also takes you to an article with good images of many of the works in the show, by a scholar who accepts the National Gallery's attributions without question.) They both look down to the left, but their eyes are completely different. I can't judge the attribution of this work, but I do question whether Leonardo remained so ignorant of anatomy as to place the Virgin's breast just under her neck and joined to her shoulder. A drawing attributed to Boltraffio of the infant Christ and another of drapery seem closer to this painting, although the drawing is fresher and more lifelike. (I would love to post images of these, but the system is too slow and I'll have to try later.) This is, of course a common characteristic, that drawings seem fresher and livelier than the paintings that follow them. It is also difficult to prove that the drawings are FOR the painting rather than AFTER the painting, but others do think the Litta Madonna is by Boltraffio.

It's here that I started asking myself whether the paintings are wonderful rather than whether they are by Leonardo, since people seem to be swayed by famous names and attribute greatness to a work just because a name is connected to it. I just read a British newspaper review that unfavorably compared the Litta Madonna to Boltraffio's Madonna of the Rose, saying that it confirms that Leonardo is the greater artist. But if the Litta Madonna is by Boltraffio, then maybe he's pretty wonderful also? And the Madonna of the Rose is a wonderful painting, much more subtle and touching than it looks in reproduction.

Boltraffio as presented in the exhibition seems a really wonderful artist. If you Google images by him, you get a wide range of paintings and they don't look all that great, although some of them are also thought to be by Leonardo. But the drawings in the National Gallery's Leonardo exhibition and the few paintings exhibited there suggest that he had a really great ability to represent human feelings and tenderness and a lively drawing ability. The Madonna of the Rose from the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan and the drawings associated with it, as well as the drawings shown with the Litta Madonna make me want to know more about Boltraffio and see a more careful assessment of his work.

Finally, the exhibition brings up questions about Leonardo's workshop. There are at least a dozen Milanese artists called "followers of Leonardo" and apparently his notebooks list multiple assistants whose work is not known; Kenneth Clark conjectures that these were various craftsmen and machine makers. Two painters, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Marco d'Oggiono are named in documents and have surviving work, which is probably why they were included in the exhibition. Another assistant, Giacomo Salai, is famous for being a rapscallion but no paintings have been associated with him. While Marco d'Oggiono's works are not particularly interesting, Boltraffio's are, and I would like to have seen more about him as a personality. His drawings and paintings seem almost to have slipped into the exhibition perhaps to fill the spaces between the Leonardos, rather than to call our attention to his ability. Perhaps the idea of "followers of Leonardo" is still awaiting the kind of  reassessment that Rembrandt's have enjoyed in recent years.

In retrospect, now I'm thinking again about the several Boltraffio paintings and drawings that were displayed quite near the London Madonna of the Rocks. These particularly caught my eye as lovely images and I wondered then why the curators had chosen to display them in that location. I imagine they thought it would demonstrate Leonardo's influence, but now I'm wondering also if Boltraffio may have been one of the painters of the London painting, especially when a drawing in the exhibition is compared in the catalogue to the golden swath of drapery across the Virgin in the London version. In any event, while the exhibition celebrated Leonardo's painting, it also revealed something of the delight of Boltraffio's work.

No comments:

Post a Comment