“Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece,” commissioned & produced by the National Gallery and created by 59 Productions; photo: Justin Sutcliffe

What exactly is Leonardo for?

To provide interminable work, it seems, for those bent on probing the nature of universal genius. Had he not existed, some other would have needed to exist in his stead. Also by the name of Leonardo, doubtless.

In celebration of his 500th birthday, two great European museums have been shuffling with their Leonardos to maximum effect. London’s National Gallery has sent one of its two great Leonardos off on holiday to the Louvre; that leaves it with just the one, the second version of a painting called “Virgin of the Rocks” with which L. tinkered on and off for years, beginning around 1491 and stopping in 1508. He could never quite get it right — by his searing lights.

The show is called Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece, and it is what is now described as an experiment in VR or virtual reality. We all want a bit of that these days because reality is a little too humdrum, a little too flat-earthish, for contemporary tastes. The world, above all things else, needs to be revealed as a heightened experience. None of the old joys — like falling in love with a stranger at a bus stop when it’s beginning to rain — are quite good enough any more.

The show consists of four rooms, opening off a polygonal space. We know that we are going to be feeling a lot in due course even before we start really feeling anything at all because the sound of angelic chorusing is suffusing the air, as if out of nowhere. That smacks more than a little of oncoming religious awe, and it is a bit of an appetite-whetter. Yes, a bit of one.

“Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece,” commissioned & produced by the National Gallery and created by 59 Productions; photo: Justin Sutcliffe (all images courtesy of the National Gallery London)

The first room we find ourselves in consists of two separate, half-amphitheater-shaped stackings of small Plexiglas boxes, on the curve. Behind these boxes there is a mural-size rocky landscape of the kind that we will eventually see in “Virgin of the Rocks.” We can look through one or another of these Plexiglas boxes to see it. There are bits of Leonardo mirror-writing on display here and there, whose incomprehensibility, whether mirrored or not, we have all agreed to enjoy and marvel at long ago. This room has to do with Leonardo’s multifarious mind.

When I reach that central polygonal space, I see that there are various options available to me, rooms opening off to the left and right or directly ahead. Being impatient, I ask where the great painting is to be found, and I am told that it is two rooms away, just beyond the one directly to the right of where I am standing. Our bated breath needs to stay bated for a while yet.

The title of these two rooms, picked out in gold against a heavenly grey ground, is “An Imagined Chapel.” The painting that we are about to see was made as an altarpiece for a church in a Milan which was demolished long ago (hence the “Imagined Chapel”). Before we actually see it, we enter a larger room, which offers up tastings of 16th-century Milan — in a kind of cityscape frieze around the walls, and in the floor plan and other images of the imaginary chapel, projected onto a ghostly sheet of translucent scrim. Those chapel images take flight all of a sudden, wing down to earth, and then disappear.

“Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece,” commissioned & produced by the National Gallery and created by 59 Productions; photo: Justin Sutcliffe

And now for the EXPERIENCE… Staring straight ahead as we enter, we encounter a shoutily well-lit sign on the far wall which reads SHOP & EXIT. And then, having taken a half-swivel of the heel to the left, there she is, the Virgin herself, in the shadow of all those mightily uprearing rocks, attended upon by an angel and two obese babes called John the Baptist and the Christ Child.

Nothing is left of the great architectural setting that would have framed the work, so the virtual realists have had to sketch it all in for us. It comes and goes like magic, one detail after another. It is difficult not to wonder at the sheer brilliance of this work by Leonardo. It is also quite difficult really to feel much about it because it is too calculated by half.

There is another room that is all about Leonardo’s fascination with optics, and how the artistic decisions he made were guided by his knowledge of the differing effects of light and shadow upon surfaces.

This room is futility writ large. It consists of groupings of objects in small, lit niches. Various three-dimensional forms — a spire, a dome, a cube — are plonked down behind glass. Six dimmer switches invite us to light these shapes with varying degrees of intensity and from different angles, which certainly provokes different emotional responses from the onlooker. We are encouraged to play with a portrait bust in exactly the same way. All this is simpleminded in the extreme.

“Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece,” commissioned & produced by the National Gallery and created by 59 Productions; photo: Justin Sutcliffe

The final room is the Studio experience. Whose studio though? Leonardo’s or the conservator’s or any old artist’s? It feels a little like all three. Some of the studio furniture feels oldish, some newish. There are flasks here, brushes there, rags, trolleys on wheels, latex gloves — and also an Anglepoise lamp and metal filing cabinets. An image of the Leonardo from which we have just walked away is projected onto a virtual easel. A voiceover talks about paint layers, how he built them up, and how he kept changing his mind. In all, we seem to be learning surprisingly little.

“How much does the catalogue cost?” I ask a very obliging lady in a floral-print dress who is hugging a clipboard tightly at the exit. “We are giving this to you,” she tells me — I thank her from the bottom of my heart — “but to the general public, I think that the cost is 10 pounds, but do not quote me on that because I am merely an events person ticking names off a list.” In the window of the shop I spy a Leonardo poster in a gilded frame. “How much would it cost if I were to buy that one in the gilded frame?” I ask. “We don’t do framing here,” I am told at the cash register.

Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross, London) through January 12, 2020.

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Michael Glover

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times,...