ARTYFACTS: Leonardo - big mind, small room

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Leonardo - big mind, small room

What are the V&A playing at? The V&A is a HUGE building yet they charge £10 for 60 small drawings in a tiny room that clearly can't cope with the traffic - and I was there on a mid-week afternoon at 3.30 pm! Even within this room there could have been central pillars for display giving more lines of sight to all of the drawings. The curators need some basic lessons in geometry.

Unquestionably a genius?
Leonardo is unquestionably a genius - but that's the problem, we've stopped being critical. I watched a newsnight review of this exhibition that was pure hagiography. He's become an untouchable. But it wasn't always like this. He has been criticised for lacking perseverance and depth and this selection of drawings reflect this tension between art and science.

Art V science
The drawings show a constant tension between art and science. His drawings are seen as a form of inquiry, yet he is so absorbed in the detail of his drawing that deep thinking is often cut short and abandoned. What we get is faithful appearance, not deep thought.

For example, his anatomical drawings of the eye are meticulous and beautiful (2) but he failed to see that the inverted image hit the retina. His cross sections of the skull are wonderful (5) but he saw the ventricles as the seats of perception, memory etc and not the brain itself. In other words he was stuck in the ancient paradigms of Galen and others, unable to use reason to move his observations on to new conclusions. The anatomical heart drawings 21/27/28/29 are stunning, yet he didn't really understand much about the circulatory system or the way the heart operated. It was Vesalius (1514-1564), a lesser artist but better scientist than Leonardo, who was to move medicine and anatomy away from Galen. Vesalius truly understood the nature of the four (not two-chambered) heart unlike Leonardo who saw the heart as sucking the blood using votices (the accepted view of the day). It was William Harvey in 1616 who really laid out the principles of the circulatory system. Leonardo's drawings are fabulous but in terms of medical sciene they were ineffective. Aethetics shines a bright light on these anatomical drawings, yet Leonardo made not one lasting contribution to mainstream medicine.

Obsessed with light many of the drawings show light reflected in hemisperical mirrors, yet no real deep theory of light emerges. It took the greater intellect of Isaac Newton (1643-1727) to do this through solid experiementation, deep inquiry and mathematics. Leonardo lacked all three. He drew innumerable drawings of waterflow (45/46), yet made no real contributions to the science of hydraulics. It was Benedetto Castelli (1678-1743) who was to lay the foundations of fluid mechanics and lift hydraulics above the level of novel devices. Leonardo made not one lasting contribution to mainstream physics or hydraulics.

His famed mechanics remained in the realm of novelty, distracted by making toys, stage designs and other novelties and fanciful (usually impractical) war machines (40). His chariots with scythes and flails are beautifully drawn, but laughably impractical.

Can you name one famous building by Leonardo? His architectural designs are lame (51,52), a slave to symmetry and carbuncled with simplistic, platonic, geometrical forms. they are repetitive and ill-proportioned. The one excetion is the lovely spiral tsaircase design, where the rails are built into the central column and grooved for right and left handed ascents and descents. he had nowhere near the talent of his adversary Michelangelo on this front.

Art triumphs
Ultimately his reputation must rest on two things - the few drawings that speculated on flight, anticipating the parachute, helicopter and glider. Even here his adherence to copying the birds wing meant he would never give the true principles needed to understand fixed wing flight. It is his art that triumphs, not his science. It is the artistry of the drawings not their scientific revelations that count.


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