I applaud the reasoning behind the National Gallery’s exhibition Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece. People often spend just seconds in front of a great painting; here is an opportunity to spend some serious time. The National Gallery is celebrating the 700th anniversary of Leonardo’s death by focusing on its version of the Virgin of the Rocks, which it has owned for nearly 140 years, in a one-painting “immersive exhibition”. It’s a bold move – but it doesn’t come off.
Four rooms lead off a central atrium. The first, “The mind of Leonardo”, has a mountain view behind small mirrored boxes, which contain quotations from Leonardo in his backwards writing; you have to squint sideways to read them in a mirror. It’s a fun idea for a single display – but for a quarter of the exhibition?
Another, “The light and shadow experiment”, has four interactive displays which show the huge difference that light from different angles has not just on creating shadows, but in revealing detail. But three of them are just small display cases showing geometric forms, a rock and a man’s head, with sliding levers to adjust the lighting. The fourth is a large modern version of the Virgin of the Rocks where you can change its appearance markedly by changing the lighting. Again, interesting, but not worth a whole room.
The other two rooms are dramatically different. “The studio” is set up partly as an artist’s studio, but it also includes workbenches on recent conservation and analytical techniques. The main display is a video projection of the Virgin of the Rocks showing how Leonardo changed the composition as he was painting it.
The fourth room is the culmination of the exhibition, “The imagined chapel”; the chapel where the Virgin of the Rocks originally existed is long destroyed.
The painting – the only painting in the exhibition, remember – is set in a virtual altarpiece in a virtual chapel, digitally projected in monochrome, then colour, and then fading away leaving just the painting itself over a seven-minute loop, while Josquin des Prez’s Pater Noster – Ave Maria plays evocatively through speakers. It’s powerful and beautiful (except that the projector lights glint off the glass over the painting).
But as with the rest of the exhibition, there is almost no context or explanation, and nothing on the subject of the painting; you’re just left to, well, be immersed.
The Virgin of the Rocks is a stunning painting, and certainly you should spend more than a few seconds looking at it. But you can usually see it for free in the National Gallery. Are the digital bells and whistles worth the £18 entry fee? I suspect most visitors will be saying “Is that it?” as they leave.
Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece is at the National Gallery, London, until January 12