To be clear: there is no actual art by Leonardo at Da Vinci — The Genius, currently on view at the Museum of Science, Boston. The show consists of models of inventions handcrafted from Leonardo’s designs, replicas of his best known paintings, a short video on the “Last Supper” (1495-1498) and a series of very large photographs of the “Mona Lisa” (1503-1506).
A product of the curatorial company Grande Exhibitions, the show is also sponsored by Pascal Cotte, a French engineer who claims to have discovered, through close examination with a high-definition, multi-spectral camera, two portraits hidden in paint layers beneath the “Mona Lisa.”
Leonardo’s remarkable abilities encompassed both science and art, a dual mastery which the exhibition seeks to express. For Leonardo, these two interests fed each other — a point most obviously demonstrated by the role that drawing took in his scientific observations and inventions. In this exhibition, however, art and science sit together uncomfortably.
This is due to the differing gestalt of the museums dedicated to them. The science museum, for the most part, operates as a kind of Plato’s cave: what one experiences there is not so much science, but a representation of it in order to make natural phenomena comprehensible, viz., the Planetarium. The art museum, while it also offers an abstraction of reality — an exhibition, after all, is curated, stripped of the extraneous and interpreted for the viewer — its special offering is proximity to originals, to the actual substance of its subject.
This contradiction in agenda doesn’t mean that any exhibition like this is doomed to fail, but it does here, at least in part. One half of the show succeeds, the display of the numerous models of machines made from Leonardo’s designs. Leonardo never saw a problem he didn’t think he could solve with some clever machine, such as our inability to fly or breathe underwater.
Leonardo drew his imagined solutions, explicated by cryptic, mirror-image written notes, in dense brown ink strokes. The models materialize these drawings, built either to functional scale or some reasonable percentage of it. Borrowing the drawings’ color scheme, the models are constructed in dark wood and the metal fittings are a burnished, gunmetal gray. They feel appropriately old, yet new, like a successful product line from Restoration Hardware.
Leonardo’s solutions to problems were naturally conceptualized through the technology and materials available to him at the time. The resulting machines on display feel like an IRL menu of steampunk Apps, such as a device for measuring distances whose ratcheting gears release pebbles, stored in a cup, at every revolution of a wheel. The models are executed with considerable skill and obvious affection, and it is easy to imagine that Leonardo, if he saw them, would want to immediately try the adorable submarine, like a cupola’d raviolo, in the Charles River.
These objects are supported with explanatory texts dealing with technical concepts about things like camshafts and g-forces, but their aura is not that of scientific instruments. This is due in part to their wooden construction, but also to the way they are presented. Compared to the lighting conventions found in the rest of the museum, which uses general daylight like a well-illuminated schoolroom, or bright, focused lights that evoke a scientist’s laboratory at night, the curators chose black walls and a dark carpet for the exhibition hall, with the objects dramatically spotlit.
This moody setting is adorned with pithy quotes by Leonardo inscribed along the tops of walls — a motif borrowed wholesale from art museum exhibitions. With such visual prompts creating the expectation of precious originality, the models fare reasonably well. The faux art, however, does not. Some of it is clearly intended as set dressing, such as a series of forgettable, hand-painted enlargements of drawings from the Codices, which look more suited for the décor of a Leonardo-themed restaurant. With no frames and no wall labels, these canvases broadcast no ambitions beyond serving as a backdrop.
In contrast to these are the actual-sized, wall-labeled, and elaborately framed reproductions of Leonardo’s paintings. The paintings, all very high quality prints, actually look dandy from the distance of about four feet, but as you approach them, their surface — some sort of plastic — has a subtle, synthetic sparkle, like the twinkle at the edge of your eye in that tells you that you are in the Matrix.
They raise the question: are we to pretend that we are experiencing real art when we look at these, as the mise-en-scène suggests? Or are we to take our cue from the context of the science museum and approach them like we do the taxidermied beavers downstairs in the New England wildlife dioramas — as a semblance but not a reality? The frames around the simulated paintings, contrary to their usual function as a quasi-halo around an original, then serve the same function as the painted marsh, fake cattails, and Plexiglas water in the beaver display, as a signal to accept the “beaver” as a beaver while knowing all the while that it is but a stuffed fur.
And then there is the Mona Lisa section. In this part of the show, Grande Exhibitions yields the floor to the discoveries of Pascal Cotte, whom the Louvre allowed to photograph “Mona Lisa” without its frame, using a very high definition “multispectral camera” of his own invention. This camera can capture and separate the entire range of colors in the painting, “from ultra violet to infra red,” according to the wall text.
Cotte claims a number of findings based on his photograph, including evidence of two earlier portraits, also by Leonardo, under the current Mona Lisa; that she once had eyelashes and eyebrows; and that the painting has mysteriously shrunk since it was painted. I make no pretense to expertise on any of these matters, and I celebrate the possibility that the “Mona Lisa” once had eyebrows. It would be a huge improvement.
However, I see no reasonable way for the painting to have shrunk as much as he claims (nearly two centimeters) without considerable alterations of the paint film, and I agree with art historian Martin Kemp that it seems truly difficult to tell from his photographs whether the alleged traces of paintings below the painting are complete earlier versions rather than just an image that evolved as the artist worked.
Photographs are Cotte’s chief evidence for his claims in the exhibition. Yet they are presented in a manner that again, in a conceptual sleight of hand, borrows more from artistic than scientific display. Enlarged photographs of la Gioconda’s eyes, all in different tints, are displayed next to each other in a grid that evokes the icon worship of Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Diptych” (1962).
When you turn around, you are presented with the entire “Mona Lisa,” enlarged from its native dimensions (77 by 53 cm) to about four times that size, like a portrait of a dictator. Next to it on the wall is a wholly speculative “recreation” of one of the “earlier versions” of the painting. Just because an image can be made and then enlarged to the same size as the “Mona Lisa,” however, does not endow it with any artistic value or scientific authority. Yet the rhetoric of the installation is to admire and accept rather to inquire and test.
The presentation of Cotte’s research raises the question of the status of exhibitions in the Museum of Science. One assumes that a concept or discovery presented by the museum has attained its position through the process of real science: peer review, outside testing of the findings, and finally general acceptance. I see no sign in the art historical literature of this process having unfolded for Cotte’s assertions. (While both a book and a documentary have been issued on his work, I have been unable to locate any reviews in art history journals. Cotte has also published articles in scientific journals on the less controversial results of his findings.)
The exhibition makes no mention of dissenting opinions on Cotte’s theories. This raises more questions. Perhaps it does it not matter because the topic is art, and therefore doesn’t rate the scientific method? Or does it not matter because the exhibition is for the general public rather than for scientists or scholars? Both possibilities are damning. Surely, in this age of fake news and climate change denial, we should be seeking to educate the public on scientific method rather than promulgating faulty science in the name of infotainment.
A number of promotional images for the show are popping up around town — Redditor-style mashups inserting a present-day ancestor of one of Leonardo’s inventions into a Renaissance or Baroque painting: a passenger jet coasting into for a landing in a classical landscape; a military destroyer docking in a Venetian lagoon; a bicyclist riding through a Renaissance cityscape (in the background, Jesus, caught up in some parable or another, is completely oblivious); and a tank riding herd behind a charging cavalry in a battle scene. These images have a cheeky, prankish quality, suggesting an unstuffy, even iconoclastic lark ahead.
If this tone were in fact continued in the show, the experience would have been more satisfying. What about putting a conceptual pin in that bloated icon of the “Mona Lisa” — and all its purported secrets — instead of pumping it up with even more hot air? What if, instead of pretending that the replicas on display are real, the curators focused on the psychology of aura or the neuroscience of looking? Or, along with the recreated models of Leonardo’s inventions, they focused on the act of drawing as a form of learning, and encouraged visitors to grasp the power of observation through making sketches or taking notes? Someone might learn something.
P.S. It’s “Leonardo,” not “da Vinci.” Calling him “da Vinci,” which tells us he was born in the town of Vinci, is like calling Beyoncé “from Houston.”
Da Vinci — The Genius continues at the Boston Museum of Science (1 Science Park, Boston, Massachusetts) through February 26.