Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist (exhibition review) #2

This excellent exhibition (in the Queen’s Gallery, London) has some fascinatingly different stories to tell of Leonardo’s extraordinary anatomical sketches. We can have our interpretations on the surface or we can dig for them, depending on whether we like our versions official or subversive. For me the subversive ones are pulsing with life and interest. Three main ones (of both kinds) I noted are:

1 Leonardo as information designer – in my previous post I was trying to see Leonardo’s sketches as experiments in how to communicate complex information. I think this connects deeply to all of us, particularly those of us in the communication industries in the complexly communicative twenty-first century. I will be looking at this Leonardo again in a bit more detail.

2 Leonardo as commercial packager/publishing entrepreneur of a potentially bestselling anatomy textbook. The exhibition clearly identifies the sketches as studies for a publishing project but does not attempt any serious analysis of what this means. I wondered for a while if I was wrong to think of Leonardo’s concerns as anything like my own, but as reality check I am confident it really is an objective fact that art exhibitions rarely discuss of art as commerce. This is a missed opportunity for empathic/communicative connection, because doesn’t art mean much more if we can understand that artists are real people, just like us, and have to earn a living too?

An official trope from the exhibition: science meets art. This is a little dreary because it assumes the models are ipso facto true – i.e. Leonardo is unreliable. But they do give a depth of visual field, which is stimulating to look at after all the 2D drawings. Image from http://chloenelkin.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/models.jpg

3 Leonardo as anatomist. This is, as the exhibition title indeed says, the ‘official’ story. The displays counterpose his sketches to a few rather odd-looking brightly coloured plastic educational anatomical models by Adam,Rouilly. The overt intention is to show the contemporary scientific rigour of Leonardo’s observations – OK, this is a bit predictable. More subversively – this is probably intentional in the exhibition design, and fun too – his sketches show up the deadness of the models’ (and the twenty-first century’s?) reductively scientistic conception of the human body as machine. By close analysis of some of the drawings I shall try to argue that Leonardo sees the world as a kind of unified field, part of which – in Leonardo’s convergent phenomenology – reveals what William Blake called ‘the human form divine’. I’m trying to understand precisely what it is about Leonardo’s way of looking that helps him see things both in their uniqueness and in connection with each other. In other words, is there a communicable formula for thinking Leonardo-type thoughts? We need Leonardo’s drawings to help us with this; words on their own just don’t work.

Meanwhile, here are three more stories the exhibition does not talk about:

Leonardo as artist. The anatomical sketches are fiercely observant of their subjects but they’re not deliberately or outward-facingly ‘artistic’. This helps keep the exhibition fresh and free of art-jargon/hyperbole.

5 Leonardo as failure. Leonardo never got anywhere near publishing his research. Outside the bounds of this exhibition, Leonardo’s planned massive (70-tonne) bronze of Ludovico Sforza on horseback reached the intermediate clay model stage (at finished size) of the horse, but this was used in 1499 by occupying troops for target practice. Time has destroyed (or has it?) his unfinished Battle of Anghiari and many of his other paintings; for all his scientific investigations the paint/ground medium he used for his masterpiece The Last Supper in Milan has been disastrous. He died in a kind of exile in France, materially comfortable and enjoying royal patronage, but how can his failure to complete his ambitious projects not have left him bitterly regretful? But I don’t think his failures diminish his achievements for us. I believe they help us get an emotionally complete and more moving sense of him as a human being, perhaps just a bit more like you and me.

6 Leonardo #5 is also the opposite of the unhelpful idea of Leonardo as genius. ‘Genius’ is a weary word, definitely not a word of power. It only works if you’re convinced already, so it’s not really a word that communicates at all. It doesn’t, to use Claude Shannon’s definition, count as information because it doesn’t change the state of the recipient; it has already given up on the effort of trying to understand in order to explain. The avoidance of #4 framing also helps the exhibition – to its benefit – steer well clear of the genius story.

So, let’s look at the first three stories in detail.

1 Leonardo as information designer

I was stunned by this sequence of drawings, on facing pages of Leonardo’s notebook, from the late period (in the red room in the gallery) of his researches:

Rotated views of the musculature of the right arm and shoulder #1 (b/w image). The inset image top right is a unrelated sketch of the throat.

Rotated views of the musculature of the neck, right arm and shoulder #2 (b/w image). The eight-pointed inset (bottom right) describes the schema for the eight drawings.

Leaving aside their elegance, human dignity, careful shading and (as the captions claim) scientific accuracy, I think we can see something else: a beautifully original investigation of a way to communicate complex information. The exhibition’s explanatory caption brilliantly claims they are a study in 3D imaging. Alongside there’s a video of a professor of surgery talking about these images, saying that contemporary computer-based 3D renderings of complex anatomical features are invaluable in improving the techniques of trainee surgeons. Just as contemporary airplane pilots safely learn about trial and error using 3D representations of reality, and computer gamers might have a sandbox level to help them learn the controls, Leonardo’s information design here enters wholly and empathically into the teaching and learning needs of those most likely to want to use (and buy! – see story #2) his work.

I am not going to claim that something from the past is ipso facto validated by its precursion of its contemporary incarnation. Time’s arrow doesn’t work like that. I hope it seems sensible enough, though, to suggest that insightful practitioners of information design will always tend to use techniques that match or reflect transhistorical human faculties of perception and understanding. Throughout history, people have tended to respond to the same things in the same way – there is such a thing as human nature. Leonardo seems already to have imagined, from first principles, communication techniques that have taken some 500 years to develop and prove their worth.

A schema for showing gradations of musculature and bone profiles in the leg, c. 1485–90. This is a study rather than the finished article; to make usable sense each ‘cut’ would have to have its own section alongside. Image from http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/912627/recto-miscellaneous-anatomical-studies-verso-the-leg-sectioned

Other graphics techniques he either created (according to the captions) or used with great fluency include an exploded diagram of the cortex, multiple sections of the leg – the principle of sampling/MRI scans – and cutaways/cross-sections. A particularly elegant double-sectioned skull reminds me that virtuoso handling of cross-sections alone was compelling enough to the minds of the book-buying public in the 1990s to generate million-plus sales for publisher Dorling Kindersley and artist Stephen Biesty, in the form of his Incredible Cross-Sections series.

The skull sectioned, 1489. Exceptionally elegant chiaroscuro effects from different thicknesses of diagonal hatching. Note the left-handed Leonardo’s cross-hatching goes from left to right. Note too an implicit philosophical conception of objects-in-the-world: the hatching delicately extends to the background. Even the context is enlivened by the perception of the artist. Image from http://www.artfinder.com/work/a-skull-sectioned-leonardo-da-vinci/in/artist.leonardo-da-vinci/

From Stephen Beisty’s Man of War. A very different aesthetic, but at least the information design (cutaway) technique is comparable. To make good enough sense you have to click to see it larger. Image from http://www.subsim.com/books/index_images/manofwar2.jpg

2 Leonardo as commercial packager/publishing entrepreneur

I discussed this point fully enough in my previous post. In a move sideways towards some of the e-book, publishing and media issues I discuss elsewhere in my blog, I would like to draw your attention to a very impressive iPad app, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy, for iPad. Touch Press have been given full access to the high-resolution images under the care of the Royal Collection, which is the commercial wing of the Queen’s collection of pictures. The Royal Collection also curate and run this exhibition.

I went to a future-of-the-book debate in Cambridge earlier this year. One of the speakers, Jacky Colliss Harvey, Publisher at Royal Collection Enterprises, claimed (to my annoyance at the time) that the quality of the app’s images was ‘better than a book’. I now have to admit I agree with her.

Detailed study of these small-ish sketches is difficult in a gallery space – it seems rude to look at them for a long time and block off other people. Lighting levels are quite low, and the drawings are behind glass. This is good because they are well protected; we can go right up to them without worrying if breathing on them damages them. But the glass is reflective – curiously the images look as if they are on a screen anyway. On the iPad, at our own speed in our preferred location we can resize any part of an image to be as large as we want without any noticeable loss of image resolution. Scholars may wish to look at the original Renaissance Italian mirror-writing using a software mirror/looking-glass metaphor to flip the selected area left-right. Most impressively, by pressing a key we can see a translation into English of Leonardo’s backwards Italian that is fully readable and in the correct position. The sense of immediacy and human connection with this man’s thoughts and searching is – I am choosing my words carefully – a revelation.

A screenshot from the app showing the English translation in situ. Click on the image to enlarge. On the iPad the lettering is bigger, completely clear and much easier to read. Image from http://applenapps.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/da_vinci_anatomy1.jpg

It is also impressive that the app does not strain to turn the sketches into something they are not. I don’t see why an Alice in Wonderland app (for example) is better than a book because the pictures move. Is an e-book only a bad kind of movie? Is the iPad the very best kind of medium for communication because it is so fluidly interactive and multimodal? I don’t think so. Its main problem is it is too flexible. Our minds and our imaginations – not just our senses – decide what is a ‘great’ media experience. ‘Great’ art (for example) kicks against the limitations of the medium – the limitations are not a game or a pretence, they are real. Is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot any less memorable or intense because there is no scenery or changes of location? I (and the rest of my family) enjoyed the recent Doctor Who series but I can’t really enjoy the game of imagining what is going to happen next when the Doctor can simply transport himself to any point in space or time.

This app, by contrast, is notably restrained in its dignified use of only some of the possibilities of the medium; in sum it is admirably and maturely respectful of its subject matter. Because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should.

I will continue the final parts of this series of posts – the unofficial story in the exhibition about Leonardo as anatomist, that helps us see what I think of as the true and most interesting spirit of Leonardo – shortly.

About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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