Sometimes it’s hard for Leonardo to impress

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

The reputation of Leonardo da Vinci is like an inverted pyramid — a massive, impressive structure that can draw a vast audience, but stands on an extremely narrow base. Although regarded as one of the “Big Three” artists of the Renaissance — along with Michelangelo and Raphael — the paintings on which this reputation is based are remarkably few.

These simple facts — big reputation plus extremely small body of work — mean that Leonardo exhibitions tend to be disappointing. They can’t present more than one or two of his finished paintings, and are therefore forced to eke out the rest of the show with works by connected artists or pages from his notebooks, which are more plentiful.

Naturally this is what the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition now at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art does. Even within such unavoidable constraints, it is still possible for a Leonardo show to succeed, but it depends on two main factors: First, the quality of whichever Leonardo painting or paintings that the organizers can get their hands on; and, second, the quality of the works by the associated artists.

Back in 2002, a previous exhibition centered on a work by Da Vinci faced a similar challenge. This was “Leonardo da Vinci — Lady with an Ermine: Treasures from the Princes Czartoryski Museum.” In that case, the organizers managed to bring Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine” (c. 1490), a work that was full of interest, and invited comparisons with his famous “Mona Lisa.” But this time we are not so lucky.

The exhibition’s centerpiece is one of Leonardo’s least interesting paintings, namely “Portrait of a Musician” (1485), a simple portrait of a mystery musician in a three-quarter-view pose.

Although the face is skillfully modeled, the fact that the clothes and hat are painted in a much cruder fashion tells us that it was finished by a much less skilled hand than Leonardo’s. Like so many things he was involved with, this painting, too, was left unfinished by the artist. It is a beautiful and charming work, but not suitable to serve as a centerpiece for a major exhibition on Leonardo.

The associated artists include contemporaries, those who studied with or under Leonardo, and those influenced by him. To the exhibition’s credit, it includes works by quite a few big names, including works by Albrecht Dürer, Paolo Veronese, and Caravaggio. But the best among these are some lovely paintings by Bernardino Luini, a painter who was much influenced by Leonardo, and yet has his own style.

The center of interest in this show, however, is the collection of pages from Leonardo’s notebooks. These are from the Codex Atlanticus, a set of volumes comprising more than 1,000 manuscript pages, owned, along with “Portrait of a Musician,” by the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. There are more than 20 sheets covered in fine writing, sketches, and geometric designs — effectively the mental blotting paper of the Renaissance’s most famous genius.

‘Leonardo da Vinci: Biblioteca Pinacoteca Ambrosiana’ at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum runs till June 30; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., (Fri. till 8 p.m.) ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.tobikan.jp