Leonardo da Vinci. A Life in Notebooks

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Study of Fetus in the Womb circa 1511

 

Part artist, part scientist, Da Vinci embodies the Renaissance man par excellence.

Luckily for us, the workings of his inner mind in painting, sculpture, anatomy, military engineering and cartography have all been recorded in the notebooks he kept throughout his life.

One of these notebooks made it into the Queen’s Royal Collection during Charles II’s reign. For hundreds of years following, the 550 drawings were carefully preserved in the Print room at Windsor castle.

To mark the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death, 200 of these drawings have travelled up to London for a show entitled Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at the Queen’s Gallery, London.

Leonardo began his career as an apprentice artist, a garzone, aged 14, working for the eminent Florentine painter and sculptor Verrocchio. Under his inspirational master’s wing, he was exposed to both theoretical training and a wide range of technical skills, including drafting, chemistry, metal work, plaster casting, leather work, mechanics, woodwork, as well as drawing, painting and modelling. 

To complement their education in the human body, Verrochio’s pupils were sent down to the local hospital to perform dissections. For Da Vinci it was a revelation, setting him along the path of scientific observation.  

At the show the anatomical section is the most fascinating. Da Vinci’s documentation of muscles, nerves and vessels demonstrate the artist’s investigation into the  mechanics of movement. 

The act of procreation also preoccupies the polymath as you would expect. His artistic representation of coitus is both intriguing and poetic. Man’s ‘material’ is seen to enter the female uterus, and in Da Vinci’s drawing, it is the man’s brain which baptises it with an ‘animal element’ or soul. Meanwhile woman, the receptacle of the man’s offering, gives her soul to the child via her spinal cord.

Further on in the show, da Vinci’s dissection of a uterus reveals a mature foetus  (see heading). Beautifully drafted, it is unsettling to think of the circumstances in which Da Vinci captured nature’s best kept secret. Burying its head in its hands, its placenta snaking around its back and thigh, the baby is both immaculate and lifeless.

Other highlights were Da Vinci’s outstanding botany drawings, the map of the Tuscan valley he drew up as a military engineer and cartographer, and finally a sculptural project for the Duke of Milan.

Da Vinci was commissioned to make a bronze equestrian statue to honour one of the Duke’s forebears. Unfortunately only the clay version survived until it was destroyed by French soldiers when they invaded Milan. As for the bronze required for the colossal equine cast totalling 75 tons, it was used instead for the production of cannon balls.

The theme of unfinished works is a reoccurring one with da Vinci. Personal procrastination and  destruction seem to have blighted da Vinci’s existence. It is really poignant to think that though Leonardo was revered in his day as a painter, he was only able to complete 20 paintings.

The exhibition does give us the opportunity to view the preparatory sketches for several of the most famous works, The Last Supper for instance. The relatively unknown (The) Head of Leda was the main attraction at the show however.

Da Vinci’s charming sketches of a beautiful young woman with Renaissance hair, plaited, rolled and trained and seen from all angles, is enchanting. Da Vinci worked on the painting for the last 15 years of his life. It entered the French Royal Collection but had to be destroyed due to its ruinous state.

 

The head of Leda

Head of Leda 1504-1505

 

For me, The Head of Leda’s studies are a precious record of what could have been da Vinci’s greatest painting of all.

All in all, I found this an inspiring show and one which leaves you wanting more.

KH

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing runs until October 2019 at the Queen’s Gallery, London.

Stepping inside Stanley Kubrick’s Mind

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Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick on the ‘Paths of Glory’ set.

 

There are many talented people in this world but there are few creatives who are really able to produce magic, whether we be talking literature, film, art or music. 

The ‘magic’ I am talking about is the tingling experience one gets when presented with a masterpiece. Of course people do not always agree on what constitutes a work of genius. In my case, it is a Rothko painting, Glen Gould’s interpretation of J.S Bach, Brendel’s Mozart Piano Sonatas and Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Imagine my joy when I saw that The Design Museum were putting on a show to mark the 20th anniversary of his death!

The exhibition, taking up the ground floor of the Design Museum, has several themed rooms dedicated to Barry Lyndon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut, and Dr Stangelove. 

‘If you want to step inside the mind of one of the greatest film directors of all time, this exhibition will take you there,’ says Alan Yentob.

The first port of call was the film Napoleon. Napoleon you say? But I haven’t heard of that one! Well you’d be right because it was never made! 

I stare at Stanley Kubrick’s library, old bookshelves, containing rows of leather-bound biographies on the little French General himself, his good wife Josephine, the famous politician Paul Barras, who Napoleon deposed in his Coup d’Etat, and military literature, lots on Waterloo!

Evidently Kubrick not only read these hefty volumes but developed his own personal colour coding system for ease of research. Napoleon books with green stripes, Josephine, orange if my memory serves me well. All this points to a meticulous approach which Stanley needed in  a pre-Google era. 

With Napoleon he hoped to make the ‘best movie every made’. Jack Nicholson or Oscar Werner were being considered for the role, Audrey Hepburn for Josephine. I peered into a class case containing an enigmatic letter to a Mrs Kubrick. In it Hepburn says she is in Switzerland and that at the moment she isn’t free and that she didn’t know when she would be available in the future! I take it the actress wasn’t interested!

Kubrick had gone as far as to negotiate with the Romanian army: 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry soldiers! Was he trying to emulate Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace – a Russian masterpiece of 8 hours duration! I say it’s a masterpiece – Kubrick however wasn’t overly keen on it!

Kubrick’s fascination with war, with the psychology of the soldier as being both victim and perpetrator, had already been seen in his Paths of Glory, a black and white film he made in 1957 starring Kirk Douglas. Also in Full Metal Jacket filmed thirty years later, set during the Vietnam War.

 In the screening room for Paths of Glory (1957) I watch an incredible scene, where Kirk Douglas, playing the part of a WW1 French Officer, makes his way through a long trench, lined with soldiers, packed in like sardines. Deafening explosions made me cower like the poor soldiers in their trench. I stayed on to watch a later scene. French soldiers, considered traitors, are lined up before a firing squad. In amongst the building tension, Kubrick injects some unexpected humour.  A dead man, strapped in a stretcher is propped up vertically to face his killers. This shouldn’t be funny but it was. This anti-war film was banned in France for many years.

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Trench scene in ‘Paths of Glory’ at exhibition

Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket also takes on the plight of soldiers, this time focussing on a marine outfit fighting in Vietnam. Dark humour abounds and the picture is made all the more atmospheric with pop tracks from the era. Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Were Made for Walking are used ironically as we see a young Vietnamese woman strutting her stuff in cheap shoes. The song is also a foreshadowing of what is going to happen subsequently, when young women who have survived as prostitutes, join the North Vietnamese soldiers. 

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At the exhibition a large, black and white photograph by Don McCullin’s Shell-shocked Marine Vietnam Hue 1968’ reminds us that Kubrick used McCullin’s photography for research. In a display cabinet we see Private Joker’s helmet (played by Matthew Modine) with its mixed messages; ‘Born to Kill’ and the CND symbol of peace.

In Clockwork Orange (1971) violence and sexual exploitation has become the norm in a futuristic society. I learnt that Kubrick had to work closely with the American Censorship board to tone down sexual content. The film was still criticised for glorifying violence. Taken from the Anthony Burgess book, it was Kubrick’s first screenplay.  When Kubrick received death threats against his family, Stanley pulled the film from UK distribution.  

At the show naked female mannikins bend over backwards and use their bodies as tables to serve ‘milk plus’ to their male clients. Overtly sexual and immensely provocative! We also see the locations Kubrick used for the bleak movie. Concrete tunnels, concrete everything. The brutalist architecture of the 1960s is the perfect backdrop to the cold, alien world he is depicting of marauding gangs. 

It was astonishing to see all these iconic films under one roof. It was necessary however to fully emphasise the huge amount of preparation work, of research, of man hours spent filming and editing each epic movie. I was particularly interested in Kubrick’s record of scenes, of actors, all written down by hand. His attention to detail in the lighting in Barry Lyndon for example. He insisted on natural lighting to give the film a more authentic feel. And the locations, photographic stills and index cards abounded.

At the end of the show, you just wonder how Kubrick managed to turn his hand to so many different film genres and to pull them off. Some films were maddeningly slow at first. But with Kubrick – patient pays off!

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Barry Lyndon

In 2001: A Space Odyssey there are moments of silence, of stillness. The depiction of space, of its terrifying beauty and strangeness (made all the more so by György Ligeti’s unnerving avant-garde musical score) is never forgotten. It is quite extraordinary to think that Kubrick made the film a year before the astronauts landed on the moon.

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In one of the final scenes, the astronaut, floating in what resembles the insides of a glowing-red toaster, is filmed from above. From this angle, he seems to have lost his head and we see him morph into robotic insect. De-humanising, unnerving and quite brilliant!

I often wonder what it was like growing up with an obsessive genius like Kubrick. After all, Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, was made to walk through a door 92 times until he provided the look Kubrick was searching for! What a hard task-master he was! Cruise’s marriage to Nicole Kidman broke down after the film. I doubt however that Kubrick was to blame!

 

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Masks from ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

On the press day I attended, Kubrick’s daughter speaking of her parents said: ‘It was like living with impressive over-achievers. Home was a combination of art college and art studio.’ 

Good or bad I ask myself? Hard to tell. The fact that she and her artist mother Christiane turned up at the show to honour papa Kubrick’s films, leans mostly towards the good methinks.

Not to be missed if you are a Kubrick fan!

 

KH

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition is on until 15 September 2019

Don McCullin

Don McCullin, who has a fair claim to the title of the UK’s greatest living photographer, was born in 1935 in Finsbury Park – a bloody tough area of London before the war, and even more so after, when much of it had been bombed flat. The first photograph McCullin was paid for, in 1958, and almost the first exhibit in the Tate’s monumental and unmissable retrospective of his work, was of a neighbourhood gang, peacocking within the exposed rooms of a bombed-out house. This particular gang had been implicated in the stabbing of a local bobby, which gives you two of the most significant themes in McCullin’s photography right there: first, that the more things change, the more they stay the same; and second, that his photographs so often deal with those in uniform confronted by those who are not. Another early shot shows a woman-protestor in late middle-age being carried away from one of the Aldermaston marches by two policeman, both young enough to be her sons, with all three protagonists in the scene registering the ridiculousness of it; and so is the photographer. McCullin’s upbringing was also bloody tough, which could affect you in one of two ways: it could mean you joined one of those knifed-up gangs (in the Finsbury Park of the 1950s, white), or it could foster in you a sense of humour, and of empathy and respect for those around you, whoever they may be. McCullin operates ‘not as a photographer but as a human being,’ he tells us, in the praiseworthily intelligent wall-text to the show. He calls his task ‘being there’, and there is much in his work to make you think of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Cartier-Bresson’s maxim of ‘the decisive moment.’ But McCullin leaves his subjects with a dignity even in death that is, perhaps, unique to him.

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The Guvnors in their Sunday Suits, Finsbury Park, London, 1958

McCullin credits his experiences photographing the Turkish invasion of Cyprus with the development of his sense of empathy with his subjects, but really it’s there from the first, from his early morning image of sheep being driven down the Caledonian Road to a slaughterhouse (McCullin is a terrific photographer of animals, too) to his record of the Berlin Wall going up – the workers toiling away, digging its foundations while being bossed by soldiers in greatcoats (what resonance that combination in that place has, in particular), and the weight of sorrow on the faces of women in the crowd in West Berlin, watching the Wall rise. It’s there too in his photographs of the conflict in the Congo in the early 1960s, especially a sequence of four teenage boys, one already wounded and bandaged, being tormented by soldiers as a prelude to being shot. Everything in the bandaged boy’s face speaks of his determination to rise above the soldier’s behavior.

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Sheep going to the slaughter house, early morning, near Caledonian Road, London 1953

Congo in the early 1960s was the political background to Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible. You sense the presence of McCullin’s images behind her writing just as you can see their influence on the 2015 movie Beasts of No Nation. It is astonishing how many of our most iconic images of conflict and human suffering this one man has caught for the rest of us – the shell-shocked GI in Vietnam, the stampeding British soldiers in a Londonderry street; but then McCullin himself talks of his debt to the 18th-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya, and Goya’s images of the Spanish Peninsular War. Conflict, and its costs, and the type of people who end up bearing most of those costs, change very little from age to age, and there is at present a particularly awful relevance to these images: in the headlines this morning the perilous consequences for all of us in reinstating a hard border in Ireland; and Trump, sabre-rattling over sending troops into Venezuela

McCullin is now 83 years old, but to say he would reach his eighties would at many moments in his career have sounded ridiculous. One of the very few non-photographic exhibits in the Tate show is the camera that stopped the bullet meant for McCullin at Prey Veng, east of Phnom Penh, in 1968. Like one of those fabled cigarette cases or bibles from the Great War, it’s an artifact that meant one thing and registers now on an altogether different scale. Another series of photographs, from Cambodia, records the last moments of the young man who had been standing in front of McCullin when a shell exploded near enough to pelt them both with shrapnel. Evacuated together by truck from the scene of the shell-strike, McCullin knew when the man had died by the inert rhythm of his feet, bouncing against the floor of the truck. ‘That could have been my corpse rattling there,’ reflects McCullin, who has as resonant a way with words as he has with a camera.

You wonder how McCullin survived not shells and bullets but the emotional cost of a life spent behind enemy lines. There is a case to be made, looking at his photographs, that he didn’t, that for so painfully engaged a photographer, each photograph he took became as much one of his demons as it was his attempt to defend himself against them. This is not an easy show to view by any means; it’s very long, with a room per chapter of the life, pretty much, and it includes photographs no newspaper would publish then or now. But those images are there because the people in them deserve, as the photographer says, a life beyond his archive.

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The Theatre in the Roman city of Palmyra, partly destroyed by Islamic State fighters, 2017

Aside from all its other qualities, the Tate show demonstrates what a master-technician MCullin is. All the prints are silver-gelatin, printed by the photographer himself, and you have never seen blacks so deep, midtones so lambent or brights so dazzling. There is one view in particular, down the valley of a stream near McCullin’s house, the banks starred with snowdrops, the branches nearest to the photographer as black as veins of blood, that is stand-out wonderful. But even now, when landscape has become one of his major subjects, in shots of Hadrian’s Wall or of Glencoe, there is still the memory of conflict, with enormous, gleaming clouds doing battle above the Somerset wetlands and the fields themselves as dark as those of the Somme. McCullin is a hell of a photographer simply of dirt: the banks of that stream, for example; a mud-spattered infantryman; a grimy, starving child; or decades earlier the dirt surrounding a homeless man sleeping on the ground in Spitalfields, surrounded by derelict Georgian buildings that are now, no doubt, million-pound homes. The man’s body seems to be sinking into the dirt, or it is already rising up mercifully to cover him. The late, late still-lifes, of mushrooms or plums from McCullin’s own garden, tiny good things, seem a part of this homage to the earth, to a world that carries on regardless. The show ends with McCullin’s images of what has been left of battered, shattered Palmyra, since ISIS left the city in its wake. These are the photographs an older man might take, of a conflict that has passed on. ‘I can’t explain why I must turn everything into a somber dark image,’ McCullin says, of his own late work, but thank goodness he can’t. If he could, maybe he would have stopped making these images long ago.  JCH

Don McCullin, Tate Britain, until 6 May 2019

Top: Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam, 1968

All images courtesy of Don McCullin