Monday, July 19, 2004

July 17, Saturday

We went to Milan today.
DaVinci's Last Supper 
I was surprised to learn how quickly the painting deteriorated after it was done.  Apparently someone commented already around 1517 or so that the painting was deteriorating, and by Vasari's time he said it was "nothing but a blurred stain" on the wall.  Given that, and the before and after pictures of the recent restorations, I didn't know how much of what I was looking at was actually Leonardo's work.  I think restorers very often change the spirit of a work without realizing it.  They do a lot that affects the subtlety of an artist's brushwork, value, and color, and seem to think, half of the time, that they only need to bring out the flat shapes more clearly and brightly.  This seems to be the case in the extreme with the Sistine Chapel, based on the before and after pictures I have seen of that restoration. 
Some of the most beautiful drawing in the painting was in the three heads to the right (from the viewer's perspective) of Christ.  The face of Philip, the apostle leaning over James the Greater, is particularly beautiful, and shows that incredibly fine softness of modelling that Leonardo was capable of.  The painting, as much of it as there is, is simply an incredibly fine work. 
The funny thing about Leonardo for me is that his paintings inspire me less for the works themselves, somehow, than for the man you sense behind the works.  In his painting and drawing, I always feel Leonardo looking intensely at beauty itself, studying.  As if all his paintings, in a way, had that same subject matter--beauty itself.  The Last Supper seems to be incredibly thought out.  Apparently, the geometry of the composition reflects the metaphysical and physical philosophy explicated in his notes and journal at that time.  The painting is like an explosion of force emanating from Christ.  In the movements and grouping of the figures, I see compression of waves of force moving outward from Christ and rebounding to him, and the perspective lines vanishing at Christ's head add to the sense that he is radiating the space around him.  All this is interesting, but I more feel the idea in the work than I feel the work itself as an idea.  In other words, Leonardo's painting seems to be a vehicle for his mind and passions, whereas with Raphael or Michelangelo, I feel that their work is the driver more than the vehicle. 
The highlight of our trip to Milan was completely unexpected--the huge cartoon by Raphael of his School of Athens painting.  I can't put my excitement about seeing this cartoon into words!  The size and visibility of the great artist's drawing process thrilled me.  I loved seeing the grossness of the line.  At the same time I saw the simplicity of the shapes and felt a relevance for my own big paintings.  I really want to go back to Milan and draw parts of these cartoons extensively at life size.  The experience gave me a new inspiration to try to solve complex problems with multiple figures in life-sized and larger compositions.


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