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Falling In Love with Leonardo

Well! Yesterday was a pivotal moment. Two things were revealed. I appear, despite evidence to the contrary, to have a heart/soul/emotional pulse AND can appreciate art in some form. Neither things were particularly noticeable about me before.

I visited the Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition at the National Gallery. I’m not particularly interested in art – old, predominantly portrait or religiously-based oil paintings and much of modern contemporary art leaves me completely cold. Complex structures fashioned from bog-moss and pre-sucked Polos hold little appeal for me, and why on earth would I want to look at some medieval popsy in full drag that I’ve never heard of?

But da Vinci intrigues me. I have never been able to decide if he was an artist, a physician, inventor or a scientist. So I was curious to go along and see this exhibition from a period when he was an “official” court painter in the hope of making up my mind.

The exhibition is simply amazing. AMAZING!

Consider this man, over 600 years ago, imagining the inside of the human brain and putting his ideas down on paper.

Imagine a man who studied and sketched, in intricate detail, literally hundreds of models to fashion his vision of the perfect divine hand of Christ. Envision a man who could take a human skull and, from that, shape and craft a human face hundreds of years before any facial reconstruction techniques. A man who continued to explore his theories of what lay inside that skull and other body structures – bone placement, muscle and arterial networks – incredibly accurate, as it turns out, and all in the days before X-rays were a twinkle in anyone’s eye.

Walking into the salon where the unfinished study of Saint Jerome faces you as you enter, I was instantly moved by this painting.

This little picture cannot do it justice. You have to see it in the flesh. Even incomplete, there is such beauty in this picture despite depicting religious suffering. The straining muscles, the eyes raised to Heaven. The sheer thought that he was about to pound his own chest with a rock in penitance. Unexpected and astounding. I wanted to hold him in his moment of pain.

The study of Ludovico Sforza’s wife (above) with her expression of almost scowling distaste and imperiousness was actually quite creepy, in a way. As I walked towards her position on the wall, she became very real and almost 3D – advancing towards me from the canvas. I expected her at any moment to speak to me angrily with a flash of her incredible olive eyes. Da Vinci believed the human eyes to be the windows to our souls. So compelling is their hypnotic power in the faces of angels; cherubs and saints that I defy anyone not to see them and be thrilled.

The final embarrassment for me came in the presence of the two The Virgin of the Rocks paintings. Created some years apart, they face each other on opposing walls in the National Gallery for the first time in 500 years, the “younger” one more usually on permanent exhibition at the Louvre. I have no words to describe the unbelievable skill and attention to detail present in both paintings – completely mind-blowing. But it was the older painting that finally sent me over the emotional edge. The Virgin’s face, so perfectly angelic and peaceful; the infant St John the Baptist so beautiful and yes – holy – there’s no other word for it. All too much for my out-of-practice heart. Tears rolled down my face and I can honestly say no work of art has ever affected me like that before. I couldn’t be any less interested in religion yet seeing this painting made me, for a moment, believe it all. I was not alone, thank goodness. Two young Italian girls stood nearby and we all self-consciously shook with silent sobs and wet faces. Such is the power of this painting, the room itself, though packed with visitors, was virtually silent save for the sniffles of those who had forgotten to pack tissues. Awe-inspiring. It was at that moment I officially fell in love forever more with Leonardo.

The final part of the exhibition is the vast work of The Last Supper. Badly damaged from years as a church fresco, it is still impossibly sad: Judas with his purse of filthy blood money; St Peter and his thrusting broodiness; the beatific, sad and eerily calming (to me) Christ. Absolutely incredible.

If you do nothing else this year, go and see this exhibition. Some of these paintings and drawings are so fragile they will never be displayed again after this. You might not be as uncharacteristically mushy about it all as I was/am, but you cannot fail to be impressed by this man and his craft, by the pure love and devotion pored into every sketch and paint stroke, by his ability to inspire his students and followers whose works are also displayed. Pre-book tickets on the National Gallery website first though – yesterday’s “on-the-door” queue was around a two and a half hour wait!

So Leonardo? A Painter? Scientist? Anatomist? What did I decide?

Simple. He is all of the above. A true genius. Go and meet him.

Photos all courtesy of Google images

What about ME?

I’m including here today a couple of the beautiful paintings created by my friend, Pippa. She moved to France a few years ago, and we got to talking on email one day about life, the universe and everything, as you do.  Turns out that, while France has been great and renovating a lovely little farmhouse, raising three gorgeous boys and learning an entirely new language has been fun, frustrating and immensely challenging in equal measure, she was struck by the same sense of something not quite right that affects all of us mums at some point.

Another friend wants to start a business, buying and renovating old furniture. Using craft skills she has, but cannot use in her day to day life.

Yet another wants to learn to water-ski. Whatever floats your boat, I say, pardon the pun.

The fact is the “What about Me?” moment comes to us all – even if you don’t, can’t or won’t admit it.  Something about motherhood, and in my case working motherhood, takes us over and we become like an escalator, constantly pushing and carrying other people forward to their destination, but somehow always ending up behind them, back at the bottom again, and wondering when is it our turn to get off?!  And don’t say you haven’t thought it, because you have. Even if you then felt guilty for thinking it, like I have.

In truth, thinking it is nothing to feel guilty about. Thinking that there is something you would like to do – just for you – is not saying that we are not grateful for and enjoying the lives we have. Being wives, partners, lovers, mothers, workers, businesswomen and all of the other important elements of our lives does not preclude doing or wanting something that no-one else in the family does. 

We most certainly do enjoy our lives. Even when its difficult. Even when the 3am high-temperatured and vomiting child is upon us and we have to get up for work at 6am the next day! Even then, we are not unhappy with our lot necessarily.  It’s just that somewhere along the way, at least in my case and that of some of my friends, something got forgotten. Put on the back burner. Left until later.  But just when is later in this busy life?

So one day Pippa, like me and so many others will before and after this blog, woke up and decided to start painting again – something she enjoyed and trained for in her past that had got buried in the mists of time passing. And as you can see, the results are amazing! Although I am not sure about the chicken theme, but peck – what would I know? The best part of all is that it appears to have brought a sense of fulfillment to my dear friend, and it does not at all detract from the rest of her life and achievements, which continue along their path in much the same way.

In my case, I took off on a madcap sailing adventure – learning to sail from scratch and then undertaking a 6,000 nautical mile journey across the Atlantic in a racing yacht. Six weeks away from home, and a million miles from the day job. I’m not alone – roughly 400 people do it every two years, and frankly, I thoroughly recommend it.  I did not realise it at the time, but it was the first time since I was a teenager that I was a) by myself, and b) able to spend the time thinking about my life and more importantly, me.  A little mid-life health-check , if you will.

I discovered, much to my great happiness, that there is not a lot wrong with either. Yes, I yearn to live by the sea (the subject of another blog which I will reveal to you shortly) and yes, I would like to stop commuting 3 hours a day to work that can sometimes not be as fulfilling a job as I would like it to be. But in general, despite niggles that arise and problems that have to be overcome, I am happy with my relationships, friendships, lifestyle and enormously proud of my children. Pretty pleased with the direction in which everything is moving. Without being horribly smug, I hope!

BUT, there was something which had bugged me for a long time. The thought that arose while administering Calpol at 3am in the morning. The wish that crept up on me while throwing a roast dinner together. Long ago, when I was a young girl (!) I had always thought I would go to university and study English literature and learn to write; had perhaps even toyed with the idea of a degree in journalism or similar. Circumstances conspired to make that impossible, but still I have always wanted to do something with writing and have never quite found the time. Now I am doing something about that, and like Pippa, I feel good about it. It’s not selfish to take a little time for yourself in this crazy merry-go-round we call life. And I am convinced it will make me a better person – broaden my horizons, give me an outlet etc.

So watch this space. Because that novel wants to be written (and Pippa will provide the jacket cover and illustrations although she doesn’t know it yet) and I want to do it. Lasagna will still get made, kids will still be cared for, the dog will get walked and sadly, work will still have to be a priority – but that bit, that little bit of satisfaction in a page written one day soon, a start made – that bit will be just for me. 

If you would like to know more about Pippa’s pictures, just comment and let me know! Thanks!