Scoop Review of Books


Leonardo da Vinci: The Graphic Work
by Frank Zöllner & Johannes Nathan (Published by Taschen and distributed in NZ by New Holland. $39:99)
Reviewed by Nikki Slade Robinson

Leonardo_sidewaysIt is enough to merely say his first name, Leonardo, for most people to know who you are talking about. One of the greats in the art world is celebrated in this release from Taschen. Academics Johannes Nathan and Frank Zöllner have gathered together an impressive array of Leonardo da Vinci’s works in this publication. In fact, there are over 600 full colour reproductions here.

The breadth of da Vinci’s work is incredible: from animals to weaponry, architecture to fabric, maps to botany. The works have been divided into themes such as Proportion Drawings, Anatomical Drawings and Drawings of Maps and Plans. Each section begins with a short essay. These essays give background, context and insight into each group of work. The writing is fairly academic but accessible enough for non-art historians like me … however I must admit, I do not want to see the word ‘oeuvre’ again for a long time! Following the essays are a plentiful number of images, and the accompanying captions give title, media used, size and details as to the collection the work belongs to.

Leonardo da Vinci must have been a fascinating person. There is the obvious extreme artistic talent – his drawings are fantastic. But he also had an insatiable and wide-reaching curiosity. He produced a prolific amount of work. You get the feeling he was overflowing with ideas. Many papers have a jumbled mismatch of themes and studies competing for attention and space, which must have made classifying sheets into categories a very difficult process. He combined sciences – physics and biology – with art. “Perhaps it was precisely the contrast between cool scientific analysis and emotional emphasis that spurred Leonardo on to execute these drawings,” Nathan writes. Da Vinci was a problem solver, an investigator. He thought mechanically, scientifically, visually. Within this book there is much to discover about who he was as an artist. This is not a biography, its aim is not to delve into his daily domestic life. It focuses on his career.

The copious annotations da Vinci made on his works are in mirror writing. He was left-handed so this allowed him to write freely without his hand subsequently moving over wet ink. The annotations almost look Tolkienesque and are fascinating in their own right. I also love the compositional working drawings for his larger works – where you can see the underlying perspective grid, the ghosting of figures overlaid, the implied lines … all so rich and fresh it is as if the work has been handed to the viewer straight off the drawing board, ink still glistening.

We are reminded of where the scientific knowledge of the day was at. For example, some of da Vinci’s human anatomical drawings of internal organs were based on his knowledge of animal anatomy, so he showed a human as having two stomachs. As Thomas Mann put it, “art and scientific genius came together in Leonardo’s spirit”.

Studies of the muscles and anatomy of the shoulder, arm and foot. From "Leonardo da Vinci: The Graphic Work".

Studies of the muscles and anatomy of the shoulder, arm and foot. From “Leonardo da Vinci: The Graphic Work”.

Many of his detail drawings form what appears to be his own ‘stockshot’ resource for later use in larger compositions. Once he has perfected a face, limb, or pose to his satisfaction, you can see him re-use it again and again, much as a writer would use favourite words, phrases or structures. It is interesting to see a series of working studies that lead up to one of his final selections, as he does with the ‘Head of Leda’ series.

From an artist’s perspective, especially given da Vinci didn’t have the luxury of being able to use photography to freeze a movement in time to subsequently refer to, his action works are impressive. It’s one thing to accurately capture a human pose, especially when drawing from an actual posing model, but it’s another level altogether to be able to realistically capture the pose of a horse mid-stride. You need an in-depth understanding of the physiology of the hors to know how the muscles and joints move and shape the outer form:

He who does not know which muscles cause what movements will draw the muscles of figures in motion and action in a poor fashion – Leonardo da Vinci.

There were fewer mechanical drawings than I’d expected, but still enough to satisfy. Interestingly there are even cartographic drawings, representing some of the best examples from his era.

Birds-eye view of the landscape showing the Tuscan cities of Arezzo, Perugia, Chiusi and Siena, c. 1502. From "Leonardo da Vinci: The Graphic Work"

Birds-eye view of the landscape showing the Tuscan cities of Arezzo, Perugia, Chiusi and Siena, c. 1502. From “Leonardo da Vinci: The Graphic Work”

Some of these have a military purpose, others are for civil works such as draining marshes. He even suggested a two-tier roading system with pedestrians on an upper level and traffic/drains on a lower. In the military section there are designs for an ‘exploding bomb for foot soldier’, a ‘shrapnel mortar’ and an ‘armoured car’. I wonder what da Vinci would think of today’s weaponry.

So – a book packed with visual examples and information. The book measures only 195mm by 140mm (roughly half-A4), so is a small format for such a visual topic. While it would have been nice to be able to see the images at a larger size, they are still big enough to be studied. And this format is easier to fit on the bookshelf! Despite the size of the book, I still feel this is an excellent resource and comes at a surprisingly reasonable price.