Sunday, November 27, 2011

Leonardo - hype or heaven

Unusually, we booked tickets for the National Gallery's Leonardo show as soon as they were available. Yesterday was the day. The plaudits are justified, despite the huge amount of hype. To accumulate a relatively large proportion of his paintings under one roof was an amazing feat by the curators, but be prepared for their small size in general, and that some are unfinished. It is important to focus on the paintings themselves, because we have seen them in so many papers, TV programmes and books, that you have to remember now you are seeing the real thing. It is brilliantly hung, but very crowded, in fact just as bad as any other blockbuster in the basement exhibition space of the National Gallery. (Such huge stairways, such small rooms.) So, be patient, and you will spot the chance to stand as long as you like in front of the iconic, dainty Lady with an Ermine.

The girl, mistress of Leonardo's patron in Milan, Cecilia Gallerani, is holding the ermine (don't let's call it a ferret - Eddy Grundy never had anything like this). It is supposedly a symbol of purity.  These equisite drawings are thought to be sources for the ermine's head and paws. But they are small and very difficult to view. Get the catalogue first and this won't be a problem as the illustrations of drawings are lifesize.

This painting is an extraordinary portrayal of a personality, who was very young but looks quite assured in her position. Apparently and unsurprisingly, she was unloved by Ludivico's intended. But he went on to marry Beatrice and gave Cecilia, or rather his son by her, a grand house. She lived there, married and became something of a poet.

So, the show is a mixture of heaven, hell and hype. But it is an opportunity that will not arise again, so take the time to be patient in the queues waiting to look at drawings not much larger than a postage stamp (the bear) or extraordinary portraits and scenes by a great master.

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