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Thoughts made visible

21 September 2006

9:41 AM

21 September 2006

9:41 AM

It’s very pleasant to be able to greet a small show at the V&A after the relentless stream of blockbusters we’ve seen in Brompton Road in recent years. Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design is confined to one gallery and consists of 60 drawings displayed in two banks of angled cabinets down the length of the room. Above the display cases animations of the drawings are projected, bringing Leonardo’s static designs to life in the manner of a computer screen saver. Is this necessary? The show itself is so low-key I presume the organisers felt it advisable to include a bit of technological back-up to amuse the punters. Admittance is £7 (£5 for concessions), and, although Leonardo is one of those names which automatically creates box-office queues, it’s not a spectacular display. Leonardo’s drawings are truly marvellous (if cold and unemotional), but looking at ink scratched on to paper is more of a scholarly than a popular pursuit. I wonder what percentage of visitors will be disappointed?

There are various models dotted around the museum (not inside the actual exhibition) which are familiar from previous Leonardo shows, and which are easy to miss. There’s a large square parachute suspended from the ceiling of the vestibule, and a flying machine in the main hall. There’s also a giant crossbow and a tank. They are actual, the rest of the exhibition is exploratory, as Leonardo set his mind to work analysing the wonders of the physical world, and then applying his imagination to what might be created that doesn’t already exist. The scientific drawings are exceptional. Look, for instance, at ‘Irrigation systems of the Female Body â” respiratory, vascular and urino-genital’. Perhaps not an inspiring title, but an amazing piece of draughtsmanship and inquiry. There are exquisite landscapes in black chalk, such as ‘An exploding mountain’ (Leonardo seems to have been drawn to disasters) or ‘Deluge with rocks, floods and trees’. There are staircase designs and proportional drawings, studying a man’s arm, torso and legs. Or a helmet-like head of martial aspect which is actually a sectional drawing of the head and eye.

There are studies for a water clock on nicely shaped and cut-about paper, but how interesting are they? More visually exciting is the next drawing to the right for the release mechanism with its ring-shaped floats. Others have writing on them and look rather dry, for instance ‘Studies of centres of gravity and compound balances’, or a number square of multiples. By contrast, some of the drawings on prepared paper are very attractive: a lovely sketch of a temple in pen and ink over silverpoint on blue paper; an intricate battle scene chaotic with tiny figures and elephants on blood-red paper; studies of an ox heart on blue paper. Leonardo was obsessed by the movement of water, but drew it as if it were solid: like plaited straw or hair, or as if carved. Here are his thoughts made visible.

Leonardo is accompanied by one of the most luxurious exhibition catalogues I have seen recently, but costing only £35 in hardback and £24.99 in paperback. It’s really a beautifully illustrated book by Martin Kemp, which deserves a review to itself. Kemp is our leading Leonardo scholar who curated the 1989 Leonardo show at the Hayward as well as this one, and is the co-originator of the Universal Leonardo Project, which is orchestrating related events and exhibitions across Europe in 2006. At the Ashmolean in Oxford (until 5 November) is a group of drawings exploring the way Leonardo’s work has been seen and interpreted by artists and collectors over the centuries. It forms the hub of a city-wide show which traces Leonardo through the various collections in, for instance, Christ Church Picture Gallery and Magdalen College Chapel.

Drawings also form the core of an excellent new show at the Imperial War Museum. This focuses on the work of Henry Moore between 1938 and 1954, and before you groan and cast this magazine aside with the cry of ‘Oh, no, not more Moore’, read a little further. This is an enjoyable and unpretentious exhibition. It’s undeniable that Moore’s work was overexposed during his lifetime, and that familiarity with his larger and later sculptures, which adorn many a piazza all over the world, has led to a certain amount of contempt. We feel we know his work all too well, though this is, in fact, rarely the case. The fine selection of drawings and sculpture currently gracing one of the suites of upstairs galleries at the IWM is proof of this.

The museum is a good setting for such a show, though to site the limestone ‘Harlow Family Group’ in among the vast and beautiful metal engines of war on the ground floor was perhaps a mistake. (I subsequently discovered the sculpture was just too heavy to manoeuvre upstairs to its planned position.) On the second floor, a small group of sculptures, including ‘Helmet Head’ and ‘Warrior with Shield’, introduce the show proper, which numbers over 160 works. Originally shown at the Henry Moore Foundation in Hertfordshire, the exhibition draws heavily upon the Foundation’s superb collections. The famous shelter drawings form a useful focus for our attention, particularly if for a moment you disregard the emotive subject and look instead at their mastery of technique. Moore used wax crayon and coloured wash, developing a highly effective way of manipulating line and watercolour into convincing volume. Predictably, his modelling of form is expert, but the poignant use of colour â”greens, reds, blues, yellows â” is perhaps not what you would immediately associate with this artist.

There are some unusual exhibits: ‘Drawing for Spanish Prisoners’ Appeal’ of 1939 is not familiar, and it makes a particularly striking juxtaposition with the better-known Spanish prisoner lithograph image, green-tinged behind barbed wire. There are some lovely maquettes, and my eye was much taken by the little 1952 rough-edged bronze of a mother and child. There are also examples of Moore’s textile designs for Ascher, especially a length of rayon with (again) a barbed-wire motif on it. The catalogue is a handsome publication (£12.99 in paperback) slightly marred by a handful of self-consciously arty photographs of some of Moore’s sculptures. This is taking interpretation too far â” to the point of obscuring the original art.

On a completely different tack, the museum is also hosting a delightful and often moving exhibition entitled The Animals’ War (until 22 April 2007), which explores the role of animals in modern warfare. Dealing with named and loved individuals, whether mascots or active participants, this show tells countless stories of animal derring-do. Photographs and sculptures predominate, but there are some fine paintings and drawings as well by the likes of Eric Ravilious and Ronald Searle. There’s also the splendid sequence of small oils by Carel Weight of a zebra escaping from the zoo. Whether your favourite’s a giant pouched rat sniffing out landmines, or parachuting puppies, this is a show for all the family, with a useful social subtext. It’s all in the training, you know.

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