The centerpiece of the stunning new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin, is “Head of a Young Woman,” which Bernard Berenson, the renowned authority on Italian Renaissance art, called “one of the finest achievements of all draughtsmanship.”
Kenneth Clark, the British art historian, went his mentor Berenson one better, declaring it “one of the most beautiful, I dare say, in the world.”
It’s easy to build up resistance to an image as endlessly reproduced as “Head of a Young Woman” — its ubiquity makes it feel tiresome and tapped out — but a few moments in front of it quickly belies such assumptions. Berenson and Clark weren’t bluffing. It’s one of those rare works of art that you can drink in forever.
The drawing was made in the 1480s with metalpoint, a notoriously exacting medium, on buff prepared paper. As explained by Per Rumberg, Associate Curator of Drawings at the Morgan and principal curator of the show, metalpoint leaves no trace on untreated paper, but when a surface is coated with glue or gesso, the stylus tip (which could be gold, silver or lead) physically incises the surface, leaving no opportunity for erasure.
The metalpoint in “Head of a Young Woman” is both delicate and grating, which will startle anyone expecting the work to be an exercise in Renaissance finesse. Several lines repeatedly plane down the width of the nose until it achieves a polished, classical angularity, while others tumble down the left side of the face, cutting through the forehead, eye and cheek, as if they were trial runs for where the edge of the head might end. They can be read as stray strands of hair, but there is something distracting and off-target about them. There are similar hesitations and revisions along the throat and shoulders, and the two bold, diagonal strokes denoting creases in the skin of her neck as she turns to gaze at the viewer appear hasty and misplaced.
In other words, the drawing is imperfect, which is essential to its probing, critical, transporting beauty. Leonardo’s inquisitive hand never settles on a single way of seeing or doing: the cheek on the right is molded with an exquisite caress, with the artist’s distinctive left-to-right hatch marks cascading like sheets of water, while the shadow across the woman’s back feels bluntly swiped in, as if he saw no reason to spend time on it. The dancelike curls delineating the locks of hair trailing down her spine are rendered minimally, almost abstractly, even as the minute strokes of white gracing her nose, cheeks and eyelid return the drawing to a moist, porous realism.
The disjunction among the various parts, however, ultimately coheres around the eyes, which are absolutely mesmerizing — liquid orbs that seem to glow from within. The magic is again in the imperfection: the iris of the right eye (on our left) is circular while the other, which drifts a little to the right, is an ovoid, as if it were compressed beneath the weight of the eyelid. But its unusual shape, which is more directional and relational than a circle could be, allows it to commune with the small, untouched patch of paper on its immediate right, creating a raccoon-like band that’s perpendicular to the angle of the nose. That band then leaps across the bridge of the nose to terminate in the pupil of the self-contained, circular eye. The angled T formed by this convergence creates a focal point that unites the variegated sections of the young woman’s head.
Such a formal breakdown does little justice to the drawing’s breathtaking gestalt, the aching beauty sewn by light and shadow as they sweep across a surface that remains predominantly blank. The emptiness is key: the drawing’s unearthly splendor materializes out of nothing and dissipates before our eyes. We are riveted by its extreme pleasures, but at the same time we are acutely aware that such intensity can exist only in its presence, an understanding that suspends us in an irresolvable state of elation and grief — a sensation, like love, that we never want to come to an end.
Single Point Perspective is an occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend that features texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.
Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through February 2, 2014.