Utilising cinema restores Da Vinci’s revered works, writes Film Critic Harry Taylor
You’d be hard-pressed to find a major European city in 2019 which isn’t hosting some form of Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, as Renaissance Italy’s most revered son celebrates his 500th year of immortality. From the modest but excellent selection of sketches arriving in Birmingham earlier this year, to the Louvre’s daring, definitive retrospective, Da Vinci fever is at a renewed high half a millennium since his death.
But experiencing the Italian’s works in a gallery setting often feels inadequate and distracting, as more and more eager visitors cram into sold-out exhibitions to catch a fleeting glimpse of his paintings, sketches and writings. With the majority of Da Vinci’s work disseminated amongst far-flung galleries, rarely can his art be exhibited together completely, and his most famous works of all often feel as far-removed as the man himself; be it the Mona Lisa, hermetically sealed behind inches of bulletproof glass, or the recently discovered Salvator Mundi, currently residing in a private collection.
Enter Leonardo: The Works, a documentary that aims to give audiences the immersive, comprehensive experience that galleries can’t provide. Featuring insight from art critics, historians and even Leonardo himself, the film exhibits every one of the maestro’s accredited paintings in Ultra High-Definition, with every crack, blemish and brushstroke projected in fine detail onto the big screen.
It’s the latest in a line of documentaries by Exhibition on Screen that provide access to artworks and exhibitions from around the world, curating a cinematic tour of an artist’s oeuvre alongside illuminating analysis and commentary. And Leonardo: The Works makes the most of its cinematic format, taking a forensic approach to Da Vinci’s art. It highlights how his subtleties of composition, lighting and colour made him the most important artist of his day, perhaps of all time. From his sparing use of dappled light to imply a fleeting moment of spiritual enlightenment in Saint John the Baptistto, to his depiction of the Virgin Mary’s facial contours, the film consistently shows how the intimacies of Leonardo’s work demonstrates his artistic philosophy.
The film also ambitiously draws connections between Leonardo’s scientific observations of the outside world and his idealised visions in his paintings. Showing how his studies of bird’s feathers influenced his depiction of a winged angel, or how his early sketches of muscle structure informed his first paintings of an infant Christ, the film sheds light on how Leonardo channelled the scientific observations he made on a daily basis into his art.
Structurally, the documentary linearly traces the artistic developments of Da Vinci’s output, beginning in Florence, where as a young apprentice his talents outshone those of his veteran tutor Andrea del Verrocchio. The Baptism of Christ, a painting on which the two collaborated is examined, with the master and pupil’s differing styles suddenly becoming stark and pronounced on the big screen, Leonardo’s contributions to the painting’s landscape, overall composition and characters outclassing Verrocchio’s. After seeing Da Vinci’s work on the painting, Verrocchio supposedly never picked up a brush again. From his beginnings as an apprentice, Leonardo felt the weight of classical antiquity on his shoulders surrounded by remnants of the classical Roman era. And as art increasingly became an intellectual pursuit, Leonardo consistently strove to innovate whilst simultaneously pleasing his patrons, without whom he would go bankrupt. It was a balancing act he would maintain for most of his career until in his final years of life in France, where as an ornament of the royal court he was paid a fortune to live a luxurious lifestyle and create artworks for the state.
The documentary also uses Da Vinci’s art to illuminate his relentlessly questioning, often progressive mind. Breaking social decorum, many of his early paintings of women — namely his portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci — depict the subject looking directly at the viewer rather than in profile as convention demanded. A likely homosexual with an elusive demeanour and little family commitments, Leonardo’s outsider status allowed him to exist outside of the traditional establishment, untethered to outdated modes of thought and tradition. Leonardo still feels modern in many ways, from the short quotes interwoven throughout the documentary to the more general portrait of the man they paint: a man who conceived of the bicycle 400 years prior to its invention, who was an avid vegetarian, and who famously bought caged birds only to set them free.
Leonardo’s personality also manages to shine through. Succinct anecdotes combined with select quotations embellish the documentary’s subtle depiction of the man behind the paintings. Yet the documentary rarely gets lost in factual titbits for their own sake — they always feed back into and inform the art on screen. Da Vinci’s multitudes of talents, abilities and interests culminate in the Mona Lisa, at once the most famous artwork of all time yet also a painting which suffers from extreme cultural fatigue. The immediacy and power of Da Vinci’s magnum opus has been all but lost due to both overexposure and endless parody. Yet in its analysis of works like the Mona Lisa, the documentary’s format shines. After minimal but pertinent commentary and forensic, detailed shots of the painting’s intimacies, the documentary draws back, bringing the full work into view, and you experience the painting all over again, seeing it with a fresh perspective and a new appreciation, like hearing a song again for the first time.
Often soundtracked by a chorus of choir singers, projecting these artworks in this way onto the big screen in the darkness of a theatre restores some of the sense of majesty and reverence they must once have held in Da Vinci’s lifetime, when artwork stood as rare instances of visual perfection in a world infinitely less image-saturated than ours. By drawing back and giving audiences an immersive cinematic experience, the film deepens the appreciation of Da Vinci’s art beyond anything that might realistically be achieved in galleries, bringing the viewer one-on-one with the intricacies of his painting and showing that perhaps, when it comes to experiencing Leonardo’s works, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Not just an illuminating and diverse examination of Da Vinci’s lifelong output, Leonardo: The Works is thus also a powerful example of how art and cinema might combine to breathe new life into the artworks we’re all familiar with.
Exhibition on Screen have further upcoming exhibitions: Lucian Freud, Frida Kahlo, and Easter in Art. For more information visit: exhibitiononscreen.com
Images courtesy of Exhibition on Screen. The Annunciation, c. 1472 and The Lady with an Ermine, c. 1489-1490 by Leonardo da Vinci.