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Leonardo da Vinci's 'Angel' lands in Westwood

December 9, 2009 | 10:20 am

Leonardo It is said that Queen Victoria got rid of Leonardo da Vinci's drawing "Angel in the Flesh" as part of a 19th century effort to purge pornographic -- or at least erotic -- images from the British Royal Collection. Now that Leonardo's modest slip of blue paper is on view (for barely more than a week) at the Italian Cultural Institute in Westwood, its first U.S. visit, another possible explanation emerges.

"Angel in the Flesh" is one ugly drawing. Maybe Vickie was just acting on an opinion of aesthetic dismay.

Drawn late in Leonardo's life, probably between circa 1513 and circa 1515 when he was living at the Vatican in Rome (he died in France in 1519 at age 67), the black chalk or charcoal rendering shows an angelic adolescent with deep-set doe eyes, pouty collagen lips and a cascade of fluffy hair. The feminine boy, vaguely tipsy, looks like he might have just rolled out of bed -- which, given the crude rendering of an erect phallus in the torso's sketchier lower extremities, is entirely possible. (Leonardo's student and reputed boyfriend, Salai, may have been the drawing's model.) A poorly foreshortened -- and unfinished -- right arm is raised to point toward heaven, a gesture that adds a funny homoerotic twist to Leonardo's lascivious depiction.

Ugly or not, the drawing is of historical interest simply because it is by a linchpin of Italy's High Renaissance. "Angel in the Flesh" has been connected to paintings of the annunciation of the Virgin Mary in the Uffizi and St. John the Baptist prefiguring Christ's martyrdom in the Louvre. Given Leonardo's homosexuality, the drawing's bleary fusion of the sacred and the profane within a distinct Catholic context is of considerable note.

To beef up the spare presentation at the ICI, Bill Viola's 2002 video, "The Last Angel," also plays on a flat-screen monitor in the gallery. To a swelling rumble on the soundtrack, a diver's body breaks the shivering surface of water and suddenly vanishes, as if transitioning between states of being (birth? death? consciousness?). But the work's solemn, dramatic mystery doesn't hit quite the right note for "Angel in the Flesh" nearby. Instead, the ICI would have done better to borrow from the Broad Art Foundation Jeff Koons' life-size porcelain sculpture of John the Baptist clutching a penguin and pig, a cheerfully atrocious knickknack derived from the Louvre's Leonardo. Queen Victoria would certainly have understood.

The drawing is accompanied by a second sheet, cut up in the 16th century but its parts reunited here, which shows a clever mechanical apparatus for a theatrical production about Orpheus. The presentation is on view until Saturday.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: Leonardo da Vinci 's "Angel in the Flesh." Credit: Italian Cultural Institute