chris wise engineer

Review of V+A’s exhibition: Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design

This is an exhibition at V+A of 62 pages from Leonardo’s notebooks. So far, so conventional. But there is enough here for a lifetime’s study, and for a career’s inspiration. In designing a setting for it, Stanton Williams have pared the stage down to its monochrome essentials. Leonardo expert Martin Kemp has chosen to arrange the work in four themes, rather than chronologically. These are The Mind’s Eye; The Lesser and Greater Worlds; Force; and Making Things. The themes appeal to me greatly as an engineer. They are uncompromising, unify the worlds of nature and man, and they place inquiry and purpose at the heart of the experience.

Standing in the exhibition, Alan Stanton said to me: “It’s really just a lot of drawings”. His remark deserves just a little interrogation, and is well addressed by Martin Kemp in his excellent companion book. As Kemp says: “For Leonardo and his colleagues, disegno was the fundamental discipline of draughtsmanship that signalled a mastery of design in its principles and practice”. He goes on to say that disegno can be translated as “design” or “drawing”, and Leonardo believed in the ultimate reach of disegno as a tool of investigation and exposition. The Design Council please take note and broaden your vision.

The 62 exhibits themselves often begin with a question. They are more than notes, more like essays or letters to himself. And as Leonardo gets older, they become more and more confident….in my fondest imaginings I’d hope to occasionally be able to doodle a simple 2D engineering sketch in the style of Leonardo 1488….but by the time he was exploring “An exploding mountain, 1515” or “Deluge over a wooded landscape, 1516” he throws his ideas onto the paper with such force, such intensity, and such control of movement, that he would trounce even a technologically gifted Turner. He appears to be trying to work in 4D at least. And of course to Leonardo each sketch, each disegno, each of his 30,000 sketchbook pages contains the full weight of a lifetime’s thinking and experience.

Like any handwritten document the exhibition drawings have a tremendous physicality. When you realise you are looking from exactly the spot in which he sat, your brain in exactly the same place that Leonardo’s was, your eyes in the same place as those that painted the Last Supper, it’s really unnerving.

Many pages contain engineering sketches. I can’t read his mirror writing, but I can translate the sketches straight away. His sketches are drawn in what has become our code, understood by engineers the world over, with an arrow for gravity, a line for a timber beam, all shorthand for the physical world as seen through Leonardo’s Mind’s Eye.

Cosgrove Hall Films have animated some of the key pieces. One or two of these are especially successful…I particularly liked the computer exploration of light rays falling on the face of Leonardo’s old man, animated from his 1488 study.  And I chuckled at the famous “tank” which assembles itself and eventually hand-cranks its way off the screen amid puffs of smoke from its integral musketry. The animations are huge compared to Leonardo’s pages, so they draw at least as much attention as the original drawings, and they are much much easier to digest. Because you need to get up close to scrutinise Leonardo’s original pages to draw out their secrets, the animations give you a cartoon shortcut, but sacrifice much of the subtlety of the originals in a shower of digital technology. Somehow, they jarred.

A couple of weeks ago I was able to spend a couple of hours with the V and A’s priceless Forster Codices loose, on a table. The experience had a profound effect on me. Although the exhibition contains Melzi’s portrait of Leonardo from 1508, I know very little of Leonardo’s physical appearance or his character. But after my close encounter with his drawings, I could picture him, and I could easily imagine talking with him. He was too interested in everything for me to feel apprehensive.  Probably because of his tiny script, I saw him as a slight man, reflective, a little distracted and very curious about everything…a bit of shuffler…one of those people who don’t say much but who absorb everything. I imagine he had a bit of a temper on him…he might even have been just a little bit precious. When I got back to work, he pottered about looking at the computers and models until he moved away, still pondering. No wonder he never finished anything….he was addicted to curiosity. The exhibition gives you a glimpse of it, and I’d hope that Leonardo would be glad that  its effect is to make you leave more curious than you went in.

This is an exhibition for those enjoy the pleasure of delayed gratification.

As one lady said at the opening: “My God, you have to concentrate, don’t you!”.

To which I almost replied “and please don’t fake it if you want to be truly satisfied, madam”.

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