Leonardo da Vinci is universally revered. The 15th-Century Italian made himself the prototype of the Renaissance Man. He was, among other things, a pictorial genius, a scientific seer, a perceptive naturalist and an innovative engineer. He could even write backward. It is universally believed that all that genius is the source of his fame. It may just be, however, that our affection for Leonardo is founded on something more human.
It may just be that we identify with him because, even as you and I, he had a terrible time finishing what he started. He designed a great sculptural memorial in bronze, but the metal was used to make cannonry instead. He planned grand fortifications, submarines and flying machines that were too advanced for their time to be given form. Although famous for paintings such as the "Mona Lisa," he actually started relatively few and then ruined or abandoned more than he finished.
All of which is by way of saying, first, that Leonardo is the unofficial patron saint of procrastinators. Every time Saturday morning's brilliant project turns to Sunday afternoon's pile of scrap, think: "Well, Leonardo blew a few and he was still a genius." It's very comforting.
Then realize that we know his towering talent mainly through extraordinary, probing drawings--often fragmentary sketches. There are three of these justly hallowed icons in an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that opened Oct. 10. If they were the whole show, standing in a queue would be justified. As it happens, they are but the most obvious masterworks among about 100 sheets that form the most superb group of drawings to have visited the Southland in middle-aged memory.
The exhibition is "Leonardo to Van Gogh: Master Drawings From Budapest," on view through Dec. 8. The Leonardos include a dynamic study of horses' legs for the monument to Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan (the art transformed to artillery). Even more dramatic are two studies of warriors' heads for the Renaissance's leading legendary non-existent painting, "The Battle of Anghiari."
The city of Florence commissioned the work from Leonardo in 1503 to commemorate a victory over Milan. His restless need to experiment produced a fresco technique that failed, and three years later, the big composition in the Palazzo Vecchio remained unfinished. The great man left town, presumably as the better part of valor.
His tracks were soon covered by Giorgio Vasari, who painted over the botched masterpiece. But Renaissance artists had the stature of today's film directors. Every project was watched by admirer and competitor alike. Even a failed work could be famous. Leonardo's "Anghiari" was so innovative in its knotted, dynamic composition that it became an inspiration for the baroque style and was later copied by no less a master than Peter Paul Rubens.
Rubens' study locates Leonardo's two drawings of warriors' heads as parts of the work-up for "Anghiari." Both are powerful studies of physiognomy, but the one in full profile is so beautifully distilled in design as well that it sits on the page with the drama of an exclamation point.
The exhibition, sponsored by Dr. Armand Hammer and Occidental Petroleum, is extrinsically important and unusual on several counts. It represents a rare collaboration between the United States and an Eastern-Bloc museum, the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, the largest public museum of European art in Hungary. The rarity of the loan can be gauged by the fact that it simply is the first that the BMFA has ever made to American museums. (The exhibit also appeared at the National Gallery and The Art Institute, Chicago, to delirious critical acclaim.)
It's as though the museum loaned us a museum. The works' chronological range actually predates Leonardo with an early 15th-Century drawing by an anonymous Bolognese master and carries on to the brink of the 20th. At this end, the heart-stoppers are George Seurat's rich, sooty, 1883 "Vagabond" and Vincent van Gogh's 1883 "Winter Garden at Nuenen." Its bare tree branches speak of bleak agony. A skein of hatched lines seems to hold the limbs as in a monstrous spider web.
In between, the exhibition-as-museum does an excellent job of tracing the history of art in Italy, Germany, the Low Countries and France. It's natural to expect that such an encyclopedic survey caparisoned with so many master artists--from Correggio to Cezanne to Duerer and Delacroix--must be one of those venerable royal collections amassed by a connoisseur king.
Wrong. Historically poor Hungary was so bedeviled by terrible Turks, horrendous Hapsburgs and struggles for independence that there was precious little time for the luxury of collecting. Instead, the museum's artistic patrimony was gathered largely by the Esterhazy family, an ancient princely Hungarian dynasty, best-known in cultural circles for their patronage of composer Franz Joseph Haydn in the 18th Century.