Leonardo and the value of real art

Leonardo and the value of real art

by Charles Harris
article from Tuesday 16, January, 2018

DEAR READERS, a Happy New Year to all, and I would like to begin this year with a complaint I received whilst I was away during the festive period. Namely a sense of outrage regarding the cost of $450.3 million that was paid for the newly discovered Leonardo painting. It was considered outrageous that anybody should pay that much money for a work of art. However, while we can all understand this annoyance, I thought it honestly reflected the true value of real art from the World's best painter and artist.

It puts those inflated prices of between £2-15 million pounds regularly paid for by the nation for modern conceptual art displays into true perspective. For poor modern art, despite massive modern media hype, has never realised anything like this price.

I have always said Leonardo was the world's best painter since my time studying at the Royal Academy. I visited the National Gallery every lunch hour and always looked at his 'Virgin On The Rocks' painting or his 'Cartoon' drawing. For it was blatantly and visually evident, that nothing else completely and practically reached those same high traditional classical standards and values in art. Yet throughout the 20th century we heard supposed famous modern art critics on television talking of traditional art and foolishly dismissing it all by saying," Of course this was all before avant-garde art arrived." 

For anybody willing to trust their eyesight, those constant trendy television film-style statements were nothing but a poor joke and it appeared sadly obvious it was just vested interest talking. While blinding some people, particularly in the media, or in those supposed contemporary art centres throughout the nation, sadly those weird ideas were also usually funded with the public purse.

Then one day several years ago, along with others, I happily discovered a true view of our silent majority of art lovers, as we all stood in a long queue for three-and-a-half hours in the middle of Winter in London, to see the exhibition of Leonardo's work at the National Gallery. The exhibition was overwhelmed daily with queues four deep who waited patiently along Trafalgar Square, stretching left up the hill past the National Portrait Gallery and right up to the West End theatres beyond. Nobody complained and everybody was just excited and thrilled with this lifetime opportunity to see that wonderful collection of Leonardo's work.

The television reports mentioned the queues and how cold it was for everybody, but again was hopelessly unable to talk realistically about the qualities of those great works after years of obsession with modern art. So I thought I would begin the year and share some of the lost knowledge that makes these works so wonderful; revealing some of the reasons why why this art is so fantastic, why it has never been equaled and hope you will take the opportunity yourselves to see several of these great works; that are on show daily, free for everybody at the National Gallery in London. I have chosen the Leonardo Cartoon and hope the following will help replace some of those many lost steps in understanding today.

‘The Cartoon’ by Leonardo da Vinci

Leaving aside for a moment the religious historical subject matter in the ‘Cartoon’ by Leonardo, let us immediately begin by examining this masterpiece of rich and luminous drawing. First look at the head of the central figure. Look at how marvelously round and three-dimensional her head appears. This vision of a real heads occurs regularly in the great tradition of painting and we can see it repeated much later with the Impressionists Cézanne and Seurat.

Looking now at the ‘Cartoon’ itself, this is where the vision originated. This is a high watermark in three-dimensional drawing. It is also the measure of tonality in the ‘Language of Painting’ that Leonardo helped create. The technique was called ‘chiaroscuro’ – ‘light and dark’ and Leonardo is considered to be the pioneer who completely developed and introduced this into the ‘Language of Painting’.

In terms of form and solidity the figures are shown as three-dimensional. They are almost real and tangible with a physical presence, appearing alive, solid, almost more than they would seem if they were sculptured in stone. Also look at the lines and the tension in these lines between any part of any figure and any other part. Look at the space created between the arms and the legs, the shoulders, around the back of the heads and under the arms, that this wonderful drawing reveals.

Now look at Leonardo’s tonal values, for they are unequaled. We see a light value on the forehead, the cheeks, the upper chest and the shoulders of this central figure. It appears again on the knees, on the arm and the face of the Christ child. Then we see it once more on the forehead of the second adult figure, again on her face and on the back of the leaning child.

Next, look at the grey tonal values in the hair, in some of the costumes, on the wall and on the floor. Like the other values within this composition, it appears everywhere but is often separated by temperature values, making the grey become tinged with brown and also the grey becoming tinged with blue.

Then, with almost a sound of crashing cymbals and the clamour of heavenly trumpets, the dark values come leaping out at you from the shadows they have created. These tonal values, especially the darks, are also a part of the three-dimensional drawing which allows this fantastic sense of space to work.

With the simple tools of white chalk and charcoal, Leonardo thus moved this monochrome drawing into the convention of basic temperature values contained within a painting. To explain, temperature can be achieved with the use of charcoal. It can be achieved through the practical uses of differing thicknesses of the charcoal itself. Thin sticks of charcoal tend towards a density of black and thick sticks can offer more of a warm brown-black colour. White chalk over a previously worked surface can also achieve a cold blue-grey.

For Leonardo, this use of temperature with these tacitly strong tonal values and superb form drawing allows a mood to be shown which we can appreciate in the illumination of the face of the central figure. Her flesh seems to be so beautifully soft, her expression so serene and delicate. And all of this is achieved in a drawing.

Leonardo da Vinci said ‘Draw from Life everyday.’ Philosophically he may be saying ‘Draw from our experiences and learn from them’ however, he also meant this literally. This was definitely meant as a double entendre. Intellectually he is saying draw from our experiences and learn from them, but clearly he also meant this practically. Evidence for this can be seen from the number of anatomical drawings he completed which are still available to us today. Interestingly, these drawings continued to be used in Gray's Anatomy (used by doctors because of their accuracy into the late 20th Century) and a large collection of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings is still held in Windsor Castle.

It is therefore relevant to remind ourselves exactly what was traditionally meant by ‘good drawing’. In Drawing there is a ‘rightness’ that conveys itself immediately to the eye and shows everything where it is. This in turn affects our overall judgement of the work. As we look at any drawing, we must ask ourselves, is it convincing three-dimensionally? Is the image crisp and clear? Or, is it over-worked with heavy outlines or unnecessary detail?

Great Art was never the overworked graphic detail with every leaf painted upon the tree just simply designed to impress.

There must always be a harmony that creates the magic and the poetry.

Within a good drawing there exists a tension in the lines that has a practical ring to it. A ‘ring of truth’ that informs you if the lines drawn or the relationships made between different marks are real, genuine and not imagined. A good drawing is a series of good marks. When you work from life, a good drawing is a record of the good attempts to record that life. For example, if a drawing is constructed of ten lines or marks, each line or mark must be attempted with the same level of accuracy and intent.  

Any failed attempt must immediately be erased. Therefore, within a drawing of ten lines or marks, each line or mark must be of the same standard, working directly from Life as it appears. If there are any skeptics among you, then I suggest you try drawing from Life for a couple of years. I guarantee that after you have studied life and creation, doubts will occur to you regarding the ideas of repetition, style or chance or any other modernist theory.

After you have attempted to convey the complexity of Nature, it is difficult to imagine anything occurring by luck or good fortune. You certainly cannot make a good reproduction of life using a formula or relying on luck. If this worked, it would be best to destroy it, for you would never be able to repeat the process again.

If you are content to just guess and you do not desire to make the engagement with life then it is practically impossible to create the three-dimensional experience we see in all great paintings from the Great Tradition.

These works allow you, through their use of this engagement with life and reality, to quite literally put your hands through the surface of the canvas and experience the three-dimensional space and solidity of the objects painted there. A photograph cannot do this.

The artistic qualities and the standards of his work displayed in this ‘Cartoon’ are the product of four and a half years but they seem effortless. To understand why, it may help to recall the many late nights he spent in a morgue completing those anatomical masterpieces currently held at Windsor Castle.

In keeping with the ‘chiaroscuro’ which he helped create, the ‘Cartoon’ remains one of the best examples of tonal drawing we may ever see.

© Charles Harris – Trust Your Eye an Illustrated History Of Painting 2013.)

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