Marja-Leena Rathje
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Leonardo da Vinci Drawings


This is a week late but I cannot let it go by without expressing my excitement, astonishment and feelings of being newly inspired by the greatest Renaissance man.

Days before the exhibition was to end, my husband and I made it to the Vancouver Art Gallery to see the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man. We thought we were avoiding the crowds during the Olympics but we were surprised to be standing in a long line snaking quite a ways outside, for this was the 'by donation' night, always popular but even more so with this exhibition!

From the VAG's website, in case this page should go down soon:

One of the most important of Leonardo da Vinci's artistic and scientific investigations of the human body was conducted for a planned treatise on anatomy. To accomplish this, Leonardo appears to have worked with a scientist from the University of Pavia to participate in dissections of corpses, which were rarely performed at the time. These direct observations by Leonardo resulted in an exceptional body of work that remains, to this day, one of the greatest triumphs of drawing and scientific inquiry.

Leonardo's group of drawings, referred to as the Anatomical Manuscript A, concentrates on the structures of the body and the movements of musculature. Shown for the first time as a complete group in this exhibition, Manuscript A encompasses thirty-four of Leonardo's pen and ink anatomical drawings on eighteen sheets of paper, rendered during the winter of 1510-1511. Included are the first known accurate depictions of the spinal column and two magisterial sheets depicting the musculature of the lower legs and feet. The works are graciously loaned by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II from The Royal Collection, Windsor.

Leonardo's ink drawings are small, incredibly fine and detailed with even tinier handwriting in mirror image on letter sized paper. Many viewers had magnifying glasses! Some of the studies had been enlarged onto wall posters with translations from Italian to English and with commentary to add to our understanding. A woman, standing next to me as we studied one of the originals, said that she was a medical worker and had studied anatomy and dissection and expressed awe at the incredible accuracy of most of the drawings.

We were incredulous to learn that not long after these drawings had been finished, they were virtually locked up for centuries instead of benefitting the medical students they had been intended for. They were not published until the end of the 19th century. I'm not sure how they ended up in England's royal collection.

I was completely in thrall of these fine drawings, as I have always loved drawings the most of all media, and Leonardo da Vinci's are right at the top of my favourites! I'll never forget the drawings by him which I saw in the Uffici Gallery in Florence many years ago, coming on them quite by accident on my way out, like the icing on the cake! Of course, I just had to buy the excellent hard cover book accompanying this exhibition! The above image is a scanned detail from the cover overleaf, since no photos were allowed in the gallery.

Here are links to some articles which also have a few images:

Leonardo da Vinci Drawings Coming to the Vancouver Art Gallery

Leonardo da Vinci gets under the skin in Vancouver exhibit (Click on "story" then "photos")

In conjunction with this exhibition was another called Visceral Bodies (still on until the 16th of May), consisting of works by a number of contemporary artists from different parts of the world. Again, from the VAG site:

Many of the works in Visceral Bodies comment on issues of identity, pathology and normality. Refuting the modernist image of science as an unquestioned source of progress, Visceral Bodies presents a variety of reflections on how the human form can be understood and represented, especially given the ambiguities and provocations of the genetic age.

Most of these were fascinating, some a bit too gruesome but I could identify with the issues. I wish VAG's website listed all the artists names, for I can't remember them all and did not wish to buy another catalogue. This exhibition seems to have been overshadowed by Leonardo's work even in the media, but here is one excellent review of both these exhibitions, with some images as well, written far better than I could do.

Marja-Leena | 04/05/2010 | 8 comments
themes: Art Exhibitions, Being an Artist, Drawings, Other artists


Irving Stone's biography of Leonardo has the story how he had a deal with the guard that kept the bodies before the funerals, that he could go and draw them.

That caused a lot of rumors around that he's a witch or a devil or something, but the picture you show there, proves that he was truly studying anatomy.

All in all, I've of the opinion that young artists should before all learn to draw first. Drawing is at the basis of catching images, even if one later would make them with the camera, for instance.

Oh my gosh Marja-Leena that show sounds fantastic. I'd love to see it.

Hi Ripsa! I haven't had time to read the book that accompanied the exhibition and whether there is information about Leonardo's difficulties getting access to the cadavers, but I think I read somewhere that the Church might have prevented the publication of his anatomical drawings - but don't quote me on that!

And I absolutely agree that art students need to learn to draw! I've felt very fortunate to have had three years (out of four in art school) of many hours a week of drawing, especially life drawing, with an excellent teacher and well-known Canadian artist. I've seen from my own daughters' and other young artists' education that it isn't so rigorous anymore.

Pica, I hope this exhibition does travel to other cities, maybe near you! It really is worth seeing and I know you'd love it.

That really does sound like an amazing show and his skill at drawing obviously did start from the inside out. Well, actually he probably drew quite a bit before he got around to the anatomical ones but he was certainly an incredible artist (and a number of other things as well). I envy you having been able to see the drawings and hope you had one or two decent conversations while you waited in line.

Marja-Leena, LdaV drawings always pack a punch for me too. Here is a link to the Royal Collection

and another link to the British Library

I agree that there is nothing quite like seeing them for real, however.

Thank you for the link to Visceral Bodies - I really wish I could see that exhibition. I love the look of the Kiki Smith piece in the review.

Susan, you have made me recall a fabulous exhibition about a decade ago at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria showing many of Leonardo's wide range of skills, especially working models built according to his engineering drawings along with a few reproductions of his drawings, and paintings like the Mona Lisa.

Olga, thank you so much for the excellent links! Now why did I not think of searching for those? I'm going to need lots of time to peruse all these wonderful pages but I had a quick browse through. The Royal Collection's pages from about #18 to 23 seem to cover the drawings that were in the exhibition.... so readers, go have a look!

sounds like a very interesting exhibit.

Taina, yes indeed. I hope there will be an opportunity for you to see this somewhere.