Leonardo 500: an intimate look at an infamous artist

Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens

A collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings is touring the UK to celebrate 500 years since the artist’s death. Twelve drawings are right here in the north east so I went to Sunderland to check them out.

Leonardo da Vinci occupies an interesting place in our culture. He’s simultaneously mainstream – find someone who hasn’t seen a reproduction of the Mona Lisa or has managed to escape the ubiquity of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – while being one of the most critically acclaimed artists in history.

His body of work is prolific and incredibly eclectic. He was a portrait artist, a painter, an inventor and an engineer; his natural curiosities explored all realms of artistic and scientific inquiry.

In the 500 years since his death, his work has had a profound influence on arts and sciences and remains unmatched in its impact.

To celebrate this anniversary, the Royal Collection has launched a nationwide exhibition to showcase 144 of the artist’s drawings at 12 venues across the UK. Sunderland’s Museum and Winter Gardens is one of those venues and has a dozen da Vinci drawings on display.

The museum’s gallery space feels suitably sumptuous for an artist of this stature. The deep green walls and low lighting create an intimate showcase of the 12 pieces, and Sunderland certainly rises to the level of galleries more used to exhibitions of this profile.

While small, the exhibition succinctly portrays the depths and range of da Vinci’s interests. There are paintings, cartography, anatomical sketches, botany and stunning portraits within the 12-strong display, each illustrating the unparalleled breadth of the artist’s mind.

At times, the exhibition borders on voyeurism. To gaze at handwritten notes and thoughtful scribbles felt like perusing a diary without the author’s consent. It is not clear if da Vinci intended all of this work to be public so there is a visceral intimacy to viewing it up close.

The exhibition’s narrative successfully tells the story of da Vinci’s life, from illegitimate son to artists’ apprentice in Florence and on to master craftsmanship and infamy. The technical secrets and majesty of each piece are revealed, giving a sense of the scale of innovation demonstrated by the 12 exhibits.

While exploring these pieces, I was taken back to 2012 when I viewed the Mona Lisa in The Louvre. I glimpsed arguably the world’s most famous portrait over the heads of hundreds of tourists, pivoting between phones, camera lenses and tall people to get a clear view. I saw the painting in the flesh but didn’t have the opportunity to admire its artistry or see da Vinci’s brush strokes on the canvas.

This exhibition is different. It provides the chance to see everything in detail, to witness the raw structure and artistic significance of 12 great works of art. It’s a profoundly intimate tour of one of the world’s most striking minds and I highly recommend taking a look for yourself.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing is open from 1 February to 6 May 2019 at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens. Find out more here.

Image credit: See It, Do It Sunderland

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