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Leonardo da Vinci gets his first museum show of paintings

November 19, 2011 |  2:33 pm

Leonardo ermine Lewis Whyld EPA
It might seem odd to suggest, but Leonardo da Vinci's reputation as a painter has suffered from a lack of museum exposure. Yes, it's impossible to get anywhere near the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, thanks to clamoring crowds of curious tourists, but I'm talking about something else. I'm talking about museum exhibitions, the periodic curatorial undertakings in which evolving scholarship and viewpoints are laid out for the public with the art as primary evidence. They help to focus the mind.

Leonardo's paintings, thanks to a combination of rarity and fragility, have never been the subject of a museum exhibition -- until now. In Sunday's Times, I review "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan," the unprecedented exhibition newly opened at London's National Gallery, which qualifies as a major international event.

Read the review of "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan" here.

But it's also worth noting that just across the Thames at Tate Modern there's a fine retrospective of German painter Gerhard Richter -- and it's that important artist's second full-scale museum survey in less than 10 years.

What has this past exhibition vacuum meant for Leonardo? When an artist's paintings are out of sight, they're also out of mind. I'd guess the absence helps fuel the periodic waves of nutty theories about why Mona is smiling (She's secretly pregnant! It's a sly self-portrait of Leonardo in drag!), the undue emphasis given to the Renaissance polymath's scientific explorations at the expense of his hugely influential art and the junk fantasies peddled in potboilers such as Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Lost Symbol."

The National Gallery show puts Leonardo back where he belongs -- first and foremost as a painter. The conversation is focused on his paintings. If the exhibition had accomplished nothing more, that would have counted as a considerable service.

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The lost Leonardo

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-- Christopher Knight

twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photo: A visitor to London's National Gallery peruses Leonardo da Vinci's "Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine)." Credit: Lewis Whyld / EPA

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