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Art review: 'Leonardo da Vinci and the Art of Sculpture: Inspiration and Invention' at the Getty Museum

March 26, 2010 |  3:30 pm

Gm_313934EX2 What more can be said about Leonardo da Vinci? Surely his work has been studied more intensely than just about any artist in history. But a new exhibition at the Getty Center, “Leonardo da Vinci and the Art of Sculpture: Inspiration and Invention,” suggests there is at least one area left to explore: the works he didn’t do. The tightly focused show features plans and drawings for commissions never completed and sculptures that have not survived. It also presents statues created around da Vinci by his role models, teachers and colleagues.

Although there is plenty of evidence — in historical accounts and the artist’s letters and notebooks — that da Vinci made sculpture and received several monumental commissions, there are no surviving works that can be definitively attributed to him. This exhibition about non-existent art therefore feels a bit trumped up, but it nevertheless conjures a tantalizing mental picture of the artist’s thinking in three dimensions.

A collaboration between the Getty and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, where it opened last fall, the show is the first da Vinci exhibition to appear in L.A. in nearly three decades. It is also a rare opportunity to see a selection of the artist’s drawings (many borrowed from the collection of Queen Elizabeth II) as well as one of his paintings, of which there are fewer than a dozen in the world. But the show was inspired by the recent restoration of three monumental bronze statues from 1511 by da Vinci’s younger colleague, Giovan Francesco Rustici. Removed from the façade of the Baptistery in Florence a few years ago for conservation, they had never before been seen outside of the city.

The statues, depicting John the Baptist, a Pharisee and a Levite, are marvelous. All three figures are supple, expressive and clad in exquisitely detailed drapery. Da Vinci is said to have worked on them with Rustici or at least consulted on their modeling. They certainly exhibit qualities found in the elder artist’s drawings — close anatomical observation, dramatic facial expressions and a fascination with the folds and creases of cloth — but their inclusion here is a kind of wishful thinking.

For the exhibition encourages us to look not for Rustici’s genius but for traces of da Vinci’s. Although this framing is a disservice to the lesser-known artist, it is oddly one of the exhibition’s strengths. By comparing unrelated sculptures and drawings (usually seen as apples and oranges), one becomes aware of the slipperiness of art historical attribution. By allowing for doubt as to the sculptures’ creator, the curators ask us not only to acknowledge the collaborative context in which da Vinci operated but also to evaluate his influence on a younger artist for ourselves.

In this sense, the show ventures a fresh look at da Vinci’s work, reconsidering his drawings as a kind of mental sculpture. Whether they were intended as studies for statuary, paintings or mechanical creations, the sketches make it clear that da Vinci thought in three dimensions. He often sculpted wax models to get a better sense of how drapery or a body should look. In one image, he drew a horse’s raised leg from four angles as if turning it around in his mind. In another, he depicted a front view of a muscled Hercules on one side of the paper and a rear view, within the same outline, on the other. This page from his notebooks is mounted in a two-sided frame that one can walk around like a sculpture; the paper becomes a membrane from which the figure appears to emerge in both directions.

Myriad small experiments like these attest to the machinations of a continually curious and probing mind. But the exhibition’s main thesis — that da Vinci was at heart a sculptor — comes together chiefly through the viewer’s own powers of visualization. Like da Vinci’s sculptures, it exists only in one’s head.

-- Sharon Mizota

J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Dr.ive L.A. through June 20. Closed Mondays. Admission is free. (310) 440-7300, www.getty.edu

Above: Leonardo da Vinci's Study for the Sforza Monument, about 148 -1489

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