While my readers are well aware that most of the nonsense, hogwash and jiggery-pokery in the arts today largely revolves around Modernism, Post-Modernist theory and the art ‘business,’ there is sometimes a refreshing bit of unmitigated bleat to liven things up for those of us genuinely interested in the fine arts. I refer, of course, to the upcoming show at London’s National Gallery (November 11- February 5) featuring their recently discovered painting of Christ by Leonardo.
Let’s take a moment first to think of Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest minds of the Italian Renaissance. Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452-1519) was an illegitimate child who grew up to be a painter, sculptor, architect, inventor, scientist, musician, engineer, mathematician – indeed, simply listing his many accomplishments can make lesser men feel woefully inadequate, so I’ll stop here.
Because da Vinci was both a perfectionist and a tireless tinkerer, not many of his artistic achievements survive to the present day. His experimental methods sometimes led to the ruination of his own works soon after completion, or, as is more often the case, he seldom moved beyond conception because of technical difficulties or simple lack of follow-through. His mind was too filled with ideas – for improving our understanding of anatomy, or creating a new varnish or devising a new weapon of war, whatever – for him to have been completely successful at anything. Indeed, Leonardo was the kind of guy who dreamed of how to finish a project before he had even begun it.
Though there are several hundred surviving pages from Leonardo’s notebooks – including designs, random notes, quick sketches and his shopping lists – there are very few finished Leonardo paintings, and even there some doubt remains on attribution. So when the National Gallery promised to unleash the lost Leonardo, Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World),the art world took notice.
Perhaps the most depressing facet of this entire debacle has been how willing Dr. Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery, has been to trash his own reputation and his hard-earned expertise. Dr. Penny was the previous Clore Curator of Renaissance Painting at the National Gallery, with a doctorate from the Courtauld Institute. He was also an Andrew W. Mellon Professor at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts.
But it seems that anyone with the necessary £16 ticket fee is as much of an expert as Dr. Penny. Here is what Dr. Penny said in an October 9 London Times interview comparing Salvator Mundi to The Lady with the Ermine and the Mona Lisa:
They respond, but hold something back. You can’t think about them except in relationship to the viewer. They imply a narrative of which you are a part. That was not true of portraiture before Leonardo. The Salvator Mundi radiates intense presence. But because it’s Leonardo you do wonder if you’re going mad–and you certainly want people whose opinions you respect to look at it. People can judge for themselves.
Perhaps that radiated presence was something in the ventilation system, for here we have a man who has seriously devoted his life to art and art history, saying to the world that an uninformed opinion is as good as an informed one. Only in this Post Modernist World, where arguments that are “faith based” hold as much water as those built upon science, experience and knowledge, could such a distinguished scholar so debase himself.
Is it a real Leonardo? (No … I’m not going to say judge for yourself.) I do not have the real expertise necessary to make a determination like that, nor have I physically seen the picture. But, as long as Dr. Penny invites us to make a judgment, let’s open that door and walk right through it.
The face of the Salvator Mundi Christ seems to be familiar to those of us who have looked at Leonardos because of the eyes, which seem both sleepy and knowing, and have that quality of ‘mystery.’ However, I find it extraordinarily unlikely that Leonardo would paint Christ against so dark and empty a background. Look at Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks or Mona Lisa or even the unfinished St. Jerome, and you’ll see that he was a great believer in some kind of misted background that perhaps commented on the foreground figures. (Yes, Lady With an Ermine is also against a neutral background, but she is the ringer.)
Also, just what is that in His hand? A crystal globe? We know Leonardo was interested in optics, but if he were making some kind of in-joke, wouldn't it perhaps be a little more clear?
Also – I have two perfectly good eyes, and have been using them for many, many years. No ‘radiated presence’ comes through my optic nerve (whatever the hell a radiated presence may be), and I certainly don’t feel as if I am in contact with an interesting and profound mind, as I do with other of Leonardo’s works.
I also have a perfectly good nose – and it detects the faint, sweet odor of horse puckey. The National Gallery’s show, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, is a huge, expensive undertaking for the museum. It is only natural (too natural!) to want to up the ante a bit with news of a possible new Leonardo. The ‘discovery’ of this ‘lost’ masterpiece has created considerable coverage for them (evidence: this column) and it shows no signs of stopping. If you are in London sometime in the next two months and have a spare £16, take a look and feel the radiated presence. And then, you to, my son, can be an art expert.