Leonardo Live

Last weekend, I flew to London to see the once-in-a-lifetime National Gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. I was invited by the irrepressible Tim Marlow and the charming Mariella Frostrup, both well known to British art critics. I found it impossible to refuse their extraordinary invitation.

They escorted me around the gallery, spoke eloquently and enthusiastically about each of the Leonardo paintings and introduced me to several knowledgeable art historians who in one way or another participated in the creation of this exhibition.

As a novice in the world of art appreciation, I was blown over by all that I learned--the history of each painting, Leonardo’s life in Florence and Milan, his patrons and students, and the difficult business of restoring his works, as well as authenticating them.

The truth must be told. I did not fly to London last weekend. I do not know Marlow or Frostrup. And it has been over 30 years since I last stepped foot in the National Gallery.

But I did attend and indeed relish going to the theater to view a live video broadcast of the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition that has been presented as a one-time only showing in cinemas across the United Kingdom and in several cities in this country.

However, everything I said about the on-screen presentation is true. For me, sitting quietly in the theater, being informed by these learned scholars and listening to the breezy English television hosts, Marlow and Frostrup, describe in detail each painting was a student’s delight.

I imagine anyone with knowledge of Leonardo’s paintings might have plenty of reasons to discourse on the weaknesses of the presentation. That was definitely true of Roberta Smith’s critique in the Times.

She notes that “Leonardo Live” was perhaps the first instance of the digital format applied to an art exhibition. However, “Thankful as I am to have an inkling of what the Leonardo show was like, I can’t say that it is entirely a promising debut.”

Smith finds fault with the notion that viewing a painting on film “is as good as, if not better than seeing it in the flesh, even in the context of a crowded exhibition, is bizarre.” Her claim must be taken seriously. Yet, for me the experience was far more revealing than it would have been in person. I might note the background music, keyed to each painting, didn’t hurt either.

I was also far more engaged in the works than I usually am at museum exhibition. The commentaries of the hosts and various scholars were largely responsible, as were the detailed close-ups and background historical scenes made possible by the video presentation. I was able to see the gradual evolution of the restored paintings explained by the hosts and the experts they were interviewing.

I suspect that variations on how one experiences such a presentation are largely a function of their prior knowledge of art history. Since my background in this area is practically nil, I found the movie much more immediate and enlightening than I surely would have had by viewing the paintings in-person.

Here is a short preview of the exhibition.