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da Vinci Daydreams: Visiting Leonardo 500

Hi everyone! I hope you're having a good month now that spring has (very nearly) sprung! As you can see from my latest vlog, I recently got the chance to visit not one but two travelling exhibitions at Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery - Dippy on Tour, getting up close with a famous face from the Natural History Museum, and Leonardo 500, a Royal Collection exhibition to mark 500 years since Leonardo da Vinci's death.

As an enthusiastic art historian as well as an artist myself, I relished the opportunity to encounter some original Leonardo drawings. Most of us are very visually familiar with his most famous paintings (I'm looking at you, Mona Lisa!), but the intimacy of a drawing provides quite a different insight into how this original Renaissance man worked. Twelve museums and galleries around the UK have each received a selection of drawings to display - if you get the chance, I'd highly recommend a visit to Glasgow's collection!

'The Bust of the Madonna', c. 1500, is the first drawing you encounter at Kelvingrove if you follow the exhibition clockwise - although it was so busy on the day I visited, I actually ended up going backwards! This artwork immediately stands out as one of only two in Glasgow that were created on coloured ground: in this case, using metalpoint and red chalk on pale red prepared paper. I was intrigued to find out more about exactly what materials da Vinci used: according to the exhibition catalogue, metalpoint was a form of very fine drawing that used a silver stylus on paper coated with (eek) ground bone! Details like that highlight how much time has passed in the 500 years since these works were conceived - making it all the more incredible how sophisticated, realistic and refined the da Vinci drawing technique still feels.​

'A star-of-Bethlehem and other plants,' c. 1506-12, is another work that truly showcases the accuracy - yet also the delicacy - of da Vinci's style. I think the composition of this piece, with a swirling storm of flowers giving way to subtle single studies, is incredibly dynamic for an artwork created so long ago. It's also important to note how small the drawings are in real life - this artwork, for instance, is only 19.8 x 16cm. As Glasgow Gallerina fans know, I love to work on a small-scale myself, and I'll never again complain about struggling to get in the details!

And now for something completely different ... 'Designs for chariots and weapons' c. 1485, anyone?! Again, this work is an incredibly neat size to encompass such convincing detail, and I felt like its inclusion gives a nod to the dazzling variety of subjects that interested da Vinci. Half military drawing, half boys-and-their-toys fantasy, this work actually reminded me of a piece we once showed at the Gallery of Modern Art - Eduardo Paolozzi's 'Blueprints for a Museum'. Although that dates from 1980-81, I feel both artists were inspired by a similar spirit - investigating the interplay between mechanical structures and art, and imagining future innovation in a way that lets their imaginations run wild! Precision combined with creativity - sadly, I tend to have more of one than the other!

And while we're very accustomed to seeing da Vinci's anatomical drawings, who knew that he also explored animal anatomy? 'The anatomy of a bear's foot,' c. 1488-90, is the only blue artwork in the exhibition and one of my favourites. Apparently, bears walk with their feet flat on the ground in a similar way to humans (the plantigrade gait, don't cha know?!), so perhaps that's why da Vinci was particularly keen to study this mighty pawprint. Up close, I could hardly believe how detailed the sketch is, but equally how soft and delicate its lines appear. My own work tends to focus on deer hooves and otter paws, but if I ever branch out into illustrating bears in the woods then I know exactly where to turn! Of course, the exhibition also includes the human form: specifically 'the vertebral column', c. 1510-11, an incredible depiction of a human spine complete with screeds of the artist's handwriting. The catalogue actually says that, being left-handed, Leonardo often preferred to use a mirror for his writing. Does anyone remember my blog about making use of mirrors in art? Check it out right here!

And finally, displayed right in the centre of the space, we find my favourite da Vinci drawing of all! 'Designs for an equestrian monument,' c. 1517-18, is held in a glass display panel, allowing visitors to view the drawings that exist on both the front and back of the paper (as I mentioned in my video, I was once told to stop doing this in an art class back when I was a tree-saving teenage eco warrior!) The sketch lines here are simple and the shading of the horses' muscular forms totally convincing, without ever looking overworked. I particularly loved this style of display for allowing us to literally see through the paper. The drawings on the other side are just visible, ethereal and almost like an echo, which adds to the sense of natural movement and of incredibly contemporary content.

Leonardo 500 is a remarkable opportunity to spend time with these incredible sketches. I hope there's a collection on show near you - and if you're really lucky, you might meet a certain Diplodocus on the way!

Small Print, Big Shout-Out!

Now, you all know that we're not about money here at Glasgow Gallerina, but I wanted to highlight how fantastic it is that the Leonardo 500 exhibition is free for visitors. From my own experience, professionally and academically, it certainly won't be 'cheap' to organise a nationwide exhibition like Leonardo, but it's wonderful to know that any child in the city (or any adult, for that matter) could simply walk inside and see original work by one of the world's greatest artists. So much of creation comes from inspiration, and most artists in history were far from rich. There are hard trade-offs to be made, but with gift shops and catalogues and press packages (oh my!) I would really rather see museums make their money in ways that don't restrict access to art for the more vulnerable in society - who might just need it most.

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