A regular complaint levelled against some of the world’s greatest artworks is that they are too small. Visitors to the Louvre expect the Mona Lisa to tower over them, and despite the Little Mermaid’s name, observers are disappointed by her lack of stature. This is certainly the case with the collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings currently on display in A Life in Drawing at Millennium Gallery. So teeny tiny are these monochrome sketches and notes, visitors are invited to examine them using a magnifying glass.
However, this is not a complaint; the delicate pages reveal in exquisite detail the workings of da Vinci’s mind. After all, these drawings are essentially pages from da Vinci’s notebook – if indeed notebooks had been invented at the time. These jottings on paper made from pulped rags were never meant for gallery walls, rather they offer insight into the genius’s working method and his reliance on note making in developing ideas.
Much of the work is not art for art’s sake. Da Vinci’s careful sketches are looking for answers, he wants to know: how does it work? He is looking to expose the secrets of the world in exploring the anatomy of the body, the workings of a fountain, the direction of rushing water, the movement of animals – the list could go on and on. Every drawing features minute details, formulated first in chalk and later confirmed in pen and ink. Da Vinci the scientist is meticulous, documenting the world as accurately as possible.
His fascination with the world and also his superior artistic skill ensures that these sketches are not mere notes. His talent as an artist shines out of every drawing, even if it is just a costume design for King Francis I. Towards the end of his life he became consumed with ideas of death and destruction. He ponders on these disturbing thoughts in A Deluge, a sketch of wind and rain lashing down on a village. Composed in black chalk, the drawing appears to be a swirling mass, until small dwellings and a fortress rise out of the clouds. It is unsettling and wild but reveals a great deal about da Vinci’s perspective at the time.