PARIS — How can a huge show in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, a man widely spoken of as a universal genius, be so disappointing in so many respects? And yet, this is the case with a new exhibition at the Louvre – in spite of the fact that it contains many masterpieces by the man himself.
It is also offers an opportunity to show off a new, seven-minute, virtual-reality experience, which will enable the world to examine the “Mona Lisa” (which remains in its gallery upstairs) as never before. Yes, you can access this VR experience from anywhere in the world! We encounter this marvel of technological modernity before we enter the exhibition itself. Positioned in this way, it feels as if it ought to be an appetite-whetter for the main event.
Not at all. It is a banal, trivial, relatively uninformative thing, with lame visual trickery, concluding with a ride on Leonardo’s flying machine across the painting’s landscape, which has miraculously opened out at La Gioconda’s back. This concluding half-minute up in the virtual air at least induces the gulp of a little vertigo. Seriousness and silliness have linked hands.
What exactly is the matter with this exhibition then? In part it is to do with the problem of exhibition-making in these shapeless, characterless, gray-walled subterranean galleries, lit by artificial light. (Yes, these miserable rooms are even worse than the wretched ones in the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery in London.)
How different they are from the handsome galleries upstairs! While some of these spaces hold their own, others feel like over-wide, under-lit corridors across which we wash back and forth. They feel like utility vehicles. Their heights are disconcertingly inconsistent with each other. Some are almost bunker-low; others rise high. The experience is dulling, perplexing, unsettling. There is a sense of aimless drift.
The choice of colors does not help either: our point of entry is a space with black walls and vertical gray dividers. Everything about it feels rather dark and pent, and there isn’t much relief as we we proceed through the show. How we crave a little light!
The exhibition itself opens with a whimper. A huge sculpture by Andrea del Verrocchio — Leonardo’s first master — dominates the center of the space. A curving wall runs behind it. The bronze depicts Doubting Thomas as he extends his hand to touch Christ’s wound, desperately seeking out proof that Jesus is the Risen Lord. But the encounter is bluntly splashed — bucket-flung — with light, casting a huge shadow against the wall at its back, giving us nothing but crude shadow-puppetry. The significance of that touch is wholly lost.
Around the same curving wall behind the Verrocchio hang a number of drapery studies articulating the shapes that fabric makes when it falls away from, and settles around, the human body. Many of these are said to be by either Leonardo or Verrocchio. Either/or? No one quite knows which.
This is a little disappointing, if not bathetic. What is more, they are all rather similar to each other. Do we really need to see so many? And they look small, too small to be of much significance (and it is true, they are not of too much significance).
Leonardo or not? Leonardo or not? The words of enquiry clang on. We had expected to be excited from the start, but we are not. It is rather dark here, too. Darkness can add drama, but why drama here? Because of these hugely dominating figures by Verrocchio in the center of the room? But does it deserve so much attention? Is this not supposed to be a show by Leonardo?
That question — why not by Leonardo? — we seem to ask ourselves a lot in this show. There are many works by Leonardo here, but there are also many works by other artists too, Flemish or Italian, for example. We often simply do not know why there are so many of them, and why they have been arranged in the way they have, and quite what their purpose is. Scholars would know, of course – the two who spoke at the press conference, for example, in French, for an entire half hour, with such awe-inspiring speed and intensity, about the importance of this show — but we are not scholars, not yet, not quite, and so we find ourselves longing for a bit more interpretation — or even gentle steerage — as we move through this vast assemblage.
It’s all a bit baffling. What is this work by Memling doing just here? Why is there an entire wall of fairly mediocre Milanese portraits? The flesh of one portrait attributed to Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (1490-92), who has been credited by several art historians as the actual artist behind “Salvator Mundi” (c.1500), the half-billion-dollar Leonardo, seems to have been painted in some primitive, 16th-century version of plasticine. Impossible, of course.
And then, one by one, we do come upon them at last — at bloody, bloody last! — the great works by Leonardo that we had been thirsting to see, including La Belle Ferronnière (1490-97), with that spell-binding gaze askance. Five paintings from an output of just 15! Not a bad cull after all. But again, their positioning seems a bit haphazard, as if no one had really thought about how important it is to get a good flow-through from first to last, to pace, surprise, and delight the visitor. The lighting of one of them seems cack-handed in the extreme — the glare of a spot bounces off the surface of the canvas. Ouch! “Am I not too old for such treatment?” it seems to be asking. Is this an elementary technical error on someone’s part?
And what about all this infrared reflectography business? Why are we being shown so many examples of reflectography, often several bunched together for solidarity’s sake, without any explanation? Yes, of course, it enables us to see through the layers of paint and into the mystery of making. But what if the original painting is not here for comparison’s sake at all, or at least not close by? Why not tell us a bit about the meanings that this one or that one actually reveals? Oh dear. Oh dear.
The magnificent catalogue, heavy as a rock from St Jerome’s wilderness, will explain much, of course.
It is available only in French.
Leonardo da Vinci continues at Hall Napoléon, Louvre Museum (Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris) through February 24, 2020.
Funds for train travel between London and Paris were provided by HTC Vive Arts in partnership with the Louvre.