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UNIVERSAL LEONARDO
by Ana Finel Honigman
 
Included in the magnificent Royal Collection at Windsor Castle is a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci of a dissected human heart, with this inscription underneath: "O writer! What words can you find to describe the whole arrangement of the heart as perfectly as is done in this drawing? My advice is not to trouble yourself with words unless you are speaking to the blind."

Yet, ever since Vasari first documented and mythologized Leonardo's life, authors have not hesitated to engage Leonardo and his work by writing about it. And, in the midst of the plenitude of scholarly material on Leonardo (and the more popular worldwide interest in him generated by Dan Brown's best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code), Martin Kemp has established himself as one of the leading authorities of our time on art history's most compelling figure.

In 2004, Oxford University Press published Kemp's Leonardo. Adam Gopnick described the book in the New Yorker as "Leonardo seen from the inside out," and Peter Ackroyd summed it up as "illuminating" in London's The Times. Kemp had written many earlier books on Leonardo, as well as critiques addressing the relationship between art and science and a regular column for the journal Nature. For Leonardo he went a step further, combining a straightforward biography with a study of his own relationship with Leonardo and what he considers the "Leonardo industry." The result is an inspiring double portrait. By addressing his personal, heartfelt fascination with Leonardo, Kemp humanized his great and imposing subject.

Kemp's intellectual background is remarkably diverse. He received his bachelors degree from Cambridge University in Natural Sciences and the History of Art. He has been a lecturer in art history at Cambridge and the University of Glasgow, as well as a visiting professor at NYU and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Since 1995, he has been the professor of the history of art at Oxford University, a position formerly held by Frances Haskell and Edgar Wind.

Along with his scholarly work, Kemp has also curated international exhibitions on Leonardo and several science-related shows, including "Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now," which he co-organized with art historian Marina Wallace in 2000. Held at London's Hayward gallery, the exhibition included anatomical drawings by Leonardo as well as by Courbet, Degas, Dürer, Frith, Géricault, Michelangelo, Stubbs and Rembrandt -- plus contemporary works by Marc Quinn, Tony Oursler and Bill Viola.

With Wallace, Kemp is currently co-curating "Intimate Relations: Images of Sex," a survey exhibition of erotica slated to be held at Hayward gallery in October 2006, and "Universal Leonardo," a Europe-wide series of exhibitions including "Experience, Experiment and Design," a show of Leonardo's sketches and inventions that Kemp has assembled in collaboration with art historian Thereza Wells and that opens in September 2006 at the V&A in London.

Ana Finel Honigman: What is the thinking behind "Universal Leonardo"?

Martin Kemp: "Universal Leonardo" is a project that has been continuing for almost five years now. It came about because I had been involved in exhibitions where we would trawl everything into the central exhibition space and I felt it would be more interesting to handle one of these great figures with a dispersed venue, so that the venue is Europe. The idea is that we are not involved in acts of curatorial virility, where everything is pulled into one space, but where the holders of material cluster other works around what they have in local centers, like Munich, Florence, Milan, London or Oxford. These spaces would then be linked to a travel program and an internet exhibition, thereby creating an exhibition using new technology and new styles of travel instead of focusing on a single venue and single identifiable location. It was conceived as a way of breaking down the blockbuster show.

AFH: Are you usually critical of blockbuster shows as a means of educating and informing the general public about iconic historical figures, like Leonardo?

MK: Blockbuster shows can create enormous enlightenment and they are obviously part of the business of museums, but I think they have become too much geared into how museums measure themselves. They do them for the sake of them. They want these big shows and they have become major drivers of visitor numbers therefore they have assumed an impetus of their own, which is not always desirable because a lot of fragile things are moved around now for not very good purposes.

AFH: Why do you think Leonardo still has such immense appeal?

MK: Firstly I think Leonardo, in his drawings and manuscripts, is able to represent almost every facet of the visual world in a way no one else has ever managed. The material is just extraordinary. The universality and sheer visual punch of the material is unmatched. Most people, whatever their interests, can find their way into Leonardo, yet at the end of the day, the phenomenon is not explicable. Why should the Mona Lisa be the world’s most famous painting? I am asked that a lot and it is in a sense an unanswerable question. Why should the portrait of a fairly boring Florentine bourgeois lady be the most known work of art in the world’s history?

AFH: Not to put the Mona Lisa in the same category as Paris Hilton, but couldn’t part of her fame be that she’s famous for being famous? After all, isn’t the Mona Lisa almost shorthand for "art"?

MK: Fame is incestuous and things become famous for being famous but they don’t stay that way forever. To have that sustained quality for centuries is exceptional. Even people who did not know the portrait in earlier centuries were still aware of it as a kind of point of reference. But ultimately, I have never seen a picture that has the same sort of spine-tingling sense of personal engagement. I have seen it out of its frame, and that is a nerve-racking business, as you think, "Is this going to be a grave let-down?" -- but it is just extraordinarily compelling. The ambiguous frisson between the observer and the object is remarkable. I think over the ages, even in reproduction, people still react to the sheer uncanny strangeness of the image.

AFH: Do you think contemporary interest in Leonardo’s biography is detrimental to serious engagement with his work or his historical reputation?

MK: I think with Leonardo, like any artist, the relationship between the biography and the work is problematic. Obviously the biography ties in because it explains the background to the work, in so far as where he was and why he was doing them but once you start to do a kind of Freudian reading, it becomes very problematic. For me, the enormous interest in Leonardo as a man is a bonus because I can then ride on that to get to what I consider important, which is getting inside the work and seeing the thought patterns behind the work. I consider biography as a tool for creating human interest, which then serves what I hope is a rather deeper end.

AFH: In particular, do you think debate on Leonardo’s sexual orientation is a key into understanding his work, or do you consider it just a fashionable distraction?

MK: There is a natural interest in the sexual identity of subjects like Leonardo, and it is clear that Leonardo, whether he was active or not, was homosexual. But the question is, then, what do we do with that information? Is this profoundly expressed in his art? Is this a major explanatory mode? Over years of looking at Leonardo, I am not resistant to thinking of sexuality as a key but I have not found it particularly helpful.

AFH: Do you, as the acknowledged lead scholar on Leonardo, think your interest in Leonardo is as interesting to the reader as what you have to say about him?

MK: I was not deliberately trying to develop a persona in the obvious sense but I am now deliberately and consciously writing in a more personal, relaxed way. I feel there is more historical honesty in that approach because writing about the great historical figures in the arts or sciences is an engaged business. I increasingly feel it is more honest to talk about my late engagement rather than give an impression of Olympian distant objectivity, which is not to say that the historical rigor is less, but I am giving more transparency to how and why I am reaching my conclusions. I think the audience likes that. The new book is selling heavily. It is going into a dozen foreign languages. Clearly alongside The Da Vinci Code is also interest in serious investigation into Leonardo.

AFH: Do you think contemporary interdisciplinary practice could be seen as a resurgence of Leonardo-like methods?

MK: First of all, it is important to remember there is a Leonardo for every generation. What I am seeing in the areas of art and science is that there is an instinctive feeling that compartmentalization which hedges science off as some remote, strange, technical thing is deeply unsatisfactory. I think people sense that and therefore even without knowing how Leonardo covers these areas we call art, science and technology, I think we can instinctually feel that he is an example that gets around this extraordinarily constipated division we have between areas of intellectual territory.

AFH: On the whole, do you think contemporary art addressing science, as an intellectual issue or applying science as part of their practice is interesting, or ignorant?

MK: I think there is no proper way, or wrong way, to do the art/science thing. You can have somebody who adopts scientific iconography in a quite superficial manner but could still produce very good works of art, but a lot of it is only superficial and doesn’t work very well. And there are other people who relate very well to the science, "tunneling in" and handle it in a very profound way. There are still others who use scientific process, like using the computer or charting processes. It is a terrifically wide spectrum. This is very popular subject in Britain at the moment, perhaps less so in America or other countries.

AFH: Why is that? Is there a greater general mistrust for science in the U.K.?

MK: I don’t know why it is such a vigorous topic here at the moment. The superficial answer is that currently lots of public funds are being offered in this area.

AFH: Can you name a few artists working in this area who you think are doing a good job?

MK: I’ve written about a number of artists in my regular column on "Science and Culture" in the science journal Nature. They’re as diverse as Jim Turrell and Cornelia Parker, or Andy Goldsworthy and Susumu Shingu. One nice instance was when I wrote about a "Dust Landscape" by Jonathan Callan, which triggered responses from astronomers and mathematicians.

AFH: Do you tend to prefer the work of contemporary artists, who you respect intellectually, as conversationalists, thinkers or scholars, or do an artist’s conceptual interests not matter to you when looking at their work?

MK: I have a natural interest in artists whom one might call "researching artists," who decide on a territory they want to do work in and go on to investigate it and lift every stone they encounter as they read, think and explore the topic. I have a strong relationship with artists who proceed like that. But equally, there are artists I would regard as intellectuals who do not write or research.

AFH: You’ve mentioned before that you like Tracey Emin’s work. Is she an example for you of the latter category?

MK: I found the exhibition she held at Modern Art Oxford very affecting. I always liked her drawings, but seeing the work together it had a cumulative power as a kind of autobiography that speaks of wide emotional truths. She’s not a researching artist in the sense that I meant, but there is clearly a deep, sustained kind of excavation going on. There are many kinds of high intelligence that are not measurable in academic terms.

AFH: What do you think of all the writing generated by the art world?

MK: There is a lot of writing generated that is redundant. When I was a graduate student, I used to review exhibitions and I found that sitting on the train heading in to London to see the show, I would be writing the review before I arrived. At one point when I was working in Glasgow, I did a review for the Guardian of a nonexistent exhibition, which consisted of all the popular words and apparatus. It was a critical account that stood independently and I then dropped in a spurious artist in to the framework. You see a lot of writing like that allows the machinery to go on by just dropping a name into the mix along the way.

AFH: Do you think this kind of writing is destructive to art or artists?

MK: One thing that has happened very dramatically is that artists in the educational system have to produce more written work as part of their degrees. That has had an effect on artists and artistic production. I think many artists are automatically thinking about how the work will be written about when they are making it. It is not necessarily that they plan, but they can’t stop doing it. That hyper-sensitivity to the written word and what artists need to say about their own work, knowing they will be interviewed, often goes alongside a very self-consciousness about how work will look in reproduction, how it will be discussed, how artists need to justify their own work in the media. The issue is how to corral the artists and the critics into one arena that represents the work well.

AFH: Are you annoyed by questions about the Da Vinci Code?

MK: No

AFH: All right then, assuming it is all fiction, do you think Dan Brown’s book would have been as compelling to readers if another "Priory of Sion" historical figure like Newton had been the focal point?

MK: I often ask myself whether the book would have been as popular if it had been The Michelangelo Code or The Shakespeare Code. Would it have had the same sales? And I think the answer probably is "no." There is an element of strangeness and something almost magical about Leonardo, both in terms of his work and personality. He served Dan Brown’s needs incredibly well.

AFH: Do you think popular belief in Dan Brown’s conspiracy theory will affect Leonardo scholarship in any way?

MK: I am not too worried about that. The book is irresponsible in places because it's not just saying, "I am a novel," but it is setting itself out as having a certain factual basis, which is not honest. I am on the other hand happy that people are engaging with the historical character and I am keen to build on that interest. Leonardo is not damaged by that. If you do a crappy production of Shakespeare in a bowl of jelly, or something, it will not harm Shakespeare. He is still there and Leonardo is still there despite whatever misleading ideas people might have. I would rather people have some engagement than no engagement at all.


ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.



 



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