Exhibition Review: Leonardo 500 (Birmingham)

During half-term I went to see the ‘Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing‘ exhibition at BMAG (Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery) with my seven-year-old son. February marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, so 12 of his drawings from the Royal Collection are on display at BMAG, and 11 other venues across the UK. I love the idea of making this collection accessible to people across the country, and was keen for my son to see the beautiful, detailed drawings which are so significant in art history, though I worried it might not engage him. I was wrong, though; he loved it, and the exhibition, though crowded, was very child-friendly. What hadn’t really occurred to me is how Leonardo’s guiding principle is to explore how things work – the mechanics of the hand, for example, or machines; exploring how people might fly, or looking at the detail of an oak tree. Children do this too, of course: they look closely, with a sense of wonder, and want to understand the underlying structure or machinery. Perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to say that this seems to be how Leonardo saw the world, with a child-like curiosity and fascination for everything around him, fuelled by his own imagination.

The exhibition at BMAG occupies the Print Room, so it’s quite small, and with a good family-friendly guide which we enjoyed. It’s possible to get quite close to the works in order to appreciate their small-scale detail, especially as some sheets have several images on them (as my son commented, ‘He didn’t waste paper, did he?!’) I quite like the sense of an artist experimenting in his sketch book which you get from a page which contains a tree, a machine and a head, for instance, demonstrating the remarkable breadth of Leonardo’s interests, and as the guide says, resembles a visual diary. Works such as ‘A Deluge’ take up the whole page with images of turbulent water, which almost resembles leaves and, as the guide told us, is indicative of the ageing artist’s preoccupation with destruction.

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Leonardo da Vinci’s A Deluge, c1517-18. Photograph: Royal Collection Trust

Many of the works are executed in the red chalk which has come to be seen as typical of Leonardo, along with the wonderful realism of trees, heads, and the anatomical drawings of hands (other anatomical images are on display elsewhere). There is also a wonderful allegorical drawing containing a dog and an eagle, considered to be a respectful nod to the King of France; this serves as a great reminder that he is not only a painter of realistic detail but also of enormous imagination.

The opportunity to see the works of a Renaissance master close up can’t be missed, and the exhibition, though small, clearly indicates the polymath he was. These drawings have never been seen in Birmingham before, and it offers a wonderful introduction to drawing for children, too, prompting my son to tell me about his art classes at school and what he’s learned about using light and shade (I had no idea he had done this!)

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As a lovely final touch, outside the Print Room are two designs for wallpaper by William Morris. After examining the fine work of Leonardo for a while, it was a pleasure to also consider a later beautiful example of drawing.

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