“Reality is merely an illusion, although a very persistent one” - Albert Einstein
On Saturday we enjoyed a special showing of the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery of London, at one of our cinemas here in Melbourne. This was an interesting experiment, based on the November 2011 opening of the exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” which was screened at cinemas across the globe, making it the first art exhibition opening to receive simultaneous global transmission. Beginning on Thursday 16 February, “Leonardo Live” will be screened at 650 cinemas across Argentina, Australia, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, UK and USA.
The live coverage and subsequent documentary transmission, was able offers art lovers worldwide an unprecedented opportunity to experience the work of Leonardo da Vinci. This was definitely the next best thing to actually being there in what turned out to be a sold out exhibition as soon as it opened. The coverage was presented by art historian Tim Marlow and journalist Mariella Frostrup. “Leonardo Live” explored the exhibition on its opening night and featured detailed examinations of the paintings and drawings on show with some insights into the genius of Leonardo. The film featured interviews with special guests and experts, including exhibition curator Luke Syson. The paintings were shown in the context of Leonardo’s life and oeuvre and as well as offering the opportunity to look at each painting in its entirety, close-up footage revealed the astonishing detail of the works.
We enjoyed the presentation overall, although the two presenters did seem like over-eager puppies at some points, trying desperately to make the “show” a bit like a cross between a grand final football coverage and a sensational coverage of an election evening broadcast. The interviews were of limited interest with some of the “VIPs” interviewed being more enthusiastic to self-promote rather than knowledgeable about the topic at hand. Fiona Shaw’s interview about the “Salvator Mundi” painting was particularly fuzzy. I would have preferred more time spent on the paintings, examining the details, the technique, the history, the relationship of Leonardo’s art with other artists of his time, etc.
The concept of this exhibition at the National Gallery being transmitted in this manner was innovative and served an important purpose – bringing art to the masses worldwide. As such, the presentation was sensationalised in order to appeal to the masses. I would personally have preferred a non-live event (even though what we saw last Saturday was canned) that was more studious and carefully prepared, with real experts on Leonardo’s art providing insights into his life and work, rather than a hyped up, “gee-whiz” presentation like an Oscars ceremony with “VIPs” of token value.
The genius of the art of Leonardo is remarkable – that is indisputable. However, the way that we have made art a commodity and the way that we market the art of the masters of the past is something that can be debated at great length. The “Mona Lisa” on T-shirts and mugs, the copies of Rembrandt that we hang on our walls, the reproduction of each and every masterpiece in books, DVDs, other forms of visual media, and now of course the internet, may give the viewer a false impression of what the art actually looks like and rob somewhat from the impact the art work has on one when it is viewed in reality. This type of broadcast attempted to make art more accessible and may provide the only opportunity for some people to see a Leonardo painting “close-up and personal”. However, it is a different experience viewing the work with ones own eyes.
When I visited the National Gallery of London several years ago I was astounded by Leonardo’s drawing of the “The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist”, sometimes called “The Burlington House Cartoon” (see detail above – view whole here) Its immense size (141.5 cm × 104.6 cm) and its wonderful luminosity was something that I was not prepared for. I had seen this work before reproduced in art books, on the net, in magazines. Seeing it in reality was a revelation. I spent over half an hour looking at it, drinking it in, reveling in its wonderful detail and depth. Once again watching the “Leonardo Live” presentation, this work was highlighted. However, the impact was quite different. Yes, one appreciated the drawing in the broadcast, but the sheer gob-smacking reality of the original was lost. I had to go away and attempt a copy of this magnificent drawing and I did several (good) drawings of details of the work, which only increased my admiration of the genius of Leonardo that I clearly lacked…
No doubt the future will bring us even more “perfect” reproductions of original art works. Maybe a near-perfect Picasso could be hung on walls of every home. Maybe flawless copies of Monet can be made with the aid of technology and we can populate our museums with these ersatz works. That may prove to be a wonderful experience insofar as making these works more accessible by as many people as possible, but perhaps we should rethink how we view great art. Travelling great distances in order to be able to view an original hanging in one gallery in one part of the world was one of the highlights of my various travels.
Thinking about it, I once again question “what is art?”, how do we appreciate it? Is an original superior to a “perfect reproduction” (if such a thing exists…), is the creation of something new even possible or is every original work dependent on all previous works that have come before it? Is a Leonardo somehow more “superior” to a scribble by Picasso that he tossed off while he said with wonderful insight: “If I spit, they will take my spit and frame it as great art.” Interesting ideas, interesting discussion one may have…