Film & TV Muse

500 years of Da Vinci, on screen

James Hudson discusses how cinema is evolving and making art more accessible

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Image Credit: Courtesy of Exhibition on Screen

Leonardo: The Works is an on-screen, documentary exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings, with a mixture of biography, commentary and exhibition. Tracing the polymath’s artistic development and focussing on his paintings, Leonardo: The Works includes commentary and analysis from art historians, curators, and academics, blending a mixture of talking heads style documentary with an exhibition in which the camera slowly pans in on the canvas and the subsequent detail of a painting as if you were actually there. The film traces Leonardo’s life from birth to death, noting the key historical and personal developments.

Being someone with a limited knowledge of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings, and painting in general, I was curious to see whether this on-screen exhibition, with its “hand holding commentary for the uncultured peasant” approach, would be compelling enough to turn me into someone who, finally “got” classical art, so to speak.

I have never really understood why the Mona Lisa is considered a masterpiece, or why everyone seems to think it is, though I’m not an art historian and I’ve never actually seen it eye-to-canvas so what do I know. The metric I decided to use to judge the level of accessibility, quality, and intrigue of this exhibition-documentary would be whether it could explain, and perhaps convince me of the Mona Lisa’s apparent brilliance that has so far eluded me.

I realise this might seem quite an arbitrary and probably irrational way of judging an on-screen exhibition; “What about his other great works?", you may ask. “How dare you forget The Last Supper”, you may protest. The Mona Lisa is, I believe, the key to unlocking a door to a world I perceive as stuffy, easy-to-mock, bourgeois mutterings – it is the summit of a misunderstood hidden-world that I must conquer before I can be allowed to judge a painting which I don’t know without the stabilisers of expert commentary to guide me. If it could do this then it really must be something.

I say it has achieved this to a limited degree. I have not been converted into a classical art fanatic, I don’t wear a scarf unless the situation completely warrants it, but my interest and engagement has improved somewhat considerably. I think this is some achievement considering my insular and prejudicial nature when it comes to the world of painting – usually I’m more interested in watching people look at paintings than the paintings themselves.

What I most appreciated about the exhibition was its biographical exposition of Leonardo’s life entwined with his artwork. I found it particularly interesting that there seemed to be no clear distinction between science and art when it comes to Leonardo’s work; they seemed to inform and permeate each other. For example, his study of the anatomy of the shoulder in Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, is interesting because it is both a scientific study of a human and an artistic one. I found this to be alien and attractive, especially in mind of the fierce subject wars found at universities amongst students, particularly the silly narrative of “art vs science”. If Leonardo were here today witnessing the baseless peacocking and solipsistic declarations of one subject’s importance over another that takes place on UK university campuses I would like to imagine he would look around with a grave - and confused - expression of disapproval.

Also, instead of being a hinderance, the fact that it was on-screen, was a huge benefit in the case of my new-media fried brain – leaving the digital-media-matrix of Snapchat, YouTube and Spotify for just five minutes causes me to dissociate from my body and induces a vague sense of paranoia. The camera introduced each painting with an establishing shot of the gallery, the city, the space around the painting etc., coupled with extremely dramatic classical music, I presume from Leonardo’s lifetime, which made it very clear that what we were seeing was very important.

It worked well because it forced me to engage with the details of a painting which, admittedly, I doubt I’ve ever done properly before. As many of Leonardo’s paintings have either faded with time – The Last Supper the clearest example of this - or were left unfinished, it was fascinating to see the scientific possibilities that now exist for uncovering and examining the development or “story” of a painting.

Although I don’t think the Mona Lisa is some divine painting which I am now fiendishly drooling to see at the Louvre, I do think I have gained a dignified and respectful understanding of its significance as the clearest representation of Leonardo’s genius. If you are like me, wanting to break free from your vague-minded cultural purgatory, or you are a seasoned art dope wanting another hit, then I fully recommend Leonardo: The Works, and checking out the other films made by Exhibition On Screen which are coming out in the new year. These include Lucian Freud, screening from the 14th January; Easter in Art, screening from 7th April, Frida Kahlo, screening from 6th July, and many more which can be found on their website.

Very briefly, I wanted to raise a couple of thoughts that have been provoked from the concept of an on-screen exhibition at a cinema.  Depending on your fondness for art galleries - and of course, art itself - and their status as the best place to consume art, will determine your view of whether an exhibition-documentary at a cinema really matches up to seeing a painting with your own eyes.

Maybe there is something to be said about being in the physical space of a painting; maybe it’s a “you had to be there” thing if you are to squeeze the experience dry. Though I am not qualified to compare it to a gallery. That said, I do believe an on-screen exhibition does have distinct merits which a gallery does not necessarily offer. Firstly, geography: it offers the possibility of bringing classical art to people who may not know much about it but are curious though do not have the means of travelling far. In the case of Leonardo: The Works I saw most of his paintings close-up, which I otherwise would have had to travel thousands of miles to galleries all over the world to see.

Secondly, the cinema as a physical place, big screen, dark room etc., is currently going through some interesting changes. With the growth of subscription streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, it is no longer the case that we are drawn to the cinema for a new release, perhaps except for cinephiles and marvel fans. The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s new film is only getting an extremely limited cinema release before being unveiled on Netflix. Not many people will see a film in a cinema which previously would have been a huge box office draw.

What will become of the cinema and what kind of films will be shown there if there is a diminishing incentive from films themselves to go to the cinema? I think the exhibition on-screen offers a new kind of cinema, ‘event cinema’, which has the potential to draw more people back into what I believe is an unrivalled way of experiencing a film.

Le**onardo: The Works was released to mark the 500th anniversary of his death; it is also a film which has been branded as a cinematic experience – seeing the paintings on a TV doesn’t compare to a cinema. Perhaps people now need a special excuse to go to the cinema to see something; a memorial, special occasion, anniversary etc. – an event. Whatever that ‘event’ may be, I hope it will support cinema going and reaffirm the cinematic experience, which is also an experience shared.

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