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Art Review : Whacha Doin', Lennie? Just Horsing Around . . .

January 23, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

SAN FRANCISCO — Two popular exhibitions at the Legion of Honor Museum resurrect the question of the Einstein's Birdcage Syndrome (EBS). This effect is well known to anyone who has ever asked himself if everything a genius does is a work of genius. If Albert Einstein were loafing around one Saturday and decided to nail together some scrap wood from the shed so the sparrows would have a place to nest, would the result be a work of genius, like the theory of relativity?

The answer seems absurdly obvious: It is either obviously "Yes" or obviously "No." The choice appears to be based on the degree to which the chooser is in the grip of another well-known effect, the Cultural Reverence Syndrome (CRS). Exhibitions at hand provide particularly telling examples of the workings of CRS, because they concern the artistic genius whose very name evokes Pavlovian salivations of CRS, Leonardo da Vinci.

One exhibition presents the Codex Hammer, a 36-page scientific treatise written by Leonardo around 1508 and purchased by Armand Hammer in 1980. According to Leonardo experts, it is a bona-fide work of genius. Since it concerns the action of water and is rendered largely unreadable by its foreign language and mirror writing, one is obliged to accept expert judgment on faith, even though one knows that specialists can have virulent CRS.

The other presentation is more accessible to artniks. Titled "Leonardo da Vinci: Drawings of Horses From the Royal Library at Windsor," it includes some 50 representations of mammals of the equine persuasion. If one were to attempt to evaluate the works by looking at the people looking at them, one would conclude that the drawings are the spawn of genius--men cross one one arm and press their right index fingers to pursed lips; women tilt their heads back and examine the works as if using their noses as rifle sights, while cocking one foot at a stylish angle. Everyone is exceedingly quiet and looks haughtily at anyone vulgar enough to make such a comment as, "I think that was the nag that lost me 10 bucks at Hollywood Park last week."

These are unmistakable symptoms of people either enraptured by genius or completely beclouded by a case of CRS activated by the triple pedigree of a famous artist, a royal collection and a sure-fire subject.

Everybody loves horses.

With the possible exception of Leonardo. If you pretend to not know who made these drawings so the CRS won't getcha, they appear to have been fashioned by someone bored speechless by horses. He drew them as if he were thinking, "Well, it's part of the job. You just can't get work these days without designing those corny equestrian monuments. Since they got to be the fashion, every upscale Duke from Mantua to Padua wants one. Buncha duppies trying to outdo one another. Sforza wants one 24 feet tall. They all think that if they have themselves done up like Marcus Aurelius, they'll be transformed from scruffy mercenaries to noble Romans. Trendy ninnies want to be Renaissance Men. The whole style is just neo-Greek and nobody will remember it in 10 years."

This is not to say there are not fine drawings, even great drawings on hand. It is to say that Leonardo needed some inspiration besides the mere idea of "horse" to get his juices flowing, and sometimes even that didn't work.

Everybody knows Lennie was crazy about proportions and was forever calculating the precise interrelationships of measure that made for the ideal man, woman or whatnot. When he does horse-proportion studies, however, the drawings have all the character of a Detroit design for a subcompact car.

One thing that did get him excited was compression. There are several sheets where horses are rendered scarcely larger than a commemorative postage stamp and each is brilliant, especially one where the animal seems to be looking back at his furious rider.

Another trick that piqued the great man's interest in horses was pretending they were something else. A blue-and-white close-up of a flank is heroic and tender, but the subject could be anything. Occasionally he also pretended that horses' heads were people's faces and imbued them with the same gritty personality as his human physiognomy studies.

If you wish, however, to know how badly Leonardo was bored by horses in general, just consult him on another subject. A page of cats somehow stalked stealthily into this rodeo, and they are riveting. Nobody ever saw a cat as less cute than these. Leonardo cuts through every kitty cliche there ever was and presents them as slithery, slinking, shrewd descendants of tigers and leopards.

Leonardo's genius is redeemed, but how, generally, are we to know if we suffer from Cultural Reverence Syndrome, which leads to a dangerously positive response to the Einstein's Birdcage Syndrome? If you are inclined to think that a rock star's novel or a movie luminary's paintings are bound to be good, you probably have it. If a few paragraphs back you were slightly offended when the greatest genius of the Italian Renaissance was called Lennie, you've got it for sure.

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