Leonardo da Vinci: Philosopher and scientist? #2, People in landscapes

What does ‘philosophy’ mean when we look at paintings? Perhaps it’s a way of making sense of our place in the world – I’m thinking about places and worlds as painters might, specifically as landscapes. I’ve assumed painters see (literally) the world in a more thoughtful way than the rest of us – how is this the same as or different from scientific thinking? Ever conscious of media, I’ve written about how seeing is different from writing, and put some beautiful images in a sequence to make my points …

Leonardo writes as well as paints. In one of his anatomy notebooks he notes his drawings are more communicative than writing. One of his sketches of the heart has this rapturous commentary alongside:

O writer, with what words will you write with such perfections of the complete configuration which this drawing here composes? This you describe confusedly having no knowledge, and you leave little conception of the true shapes of things which you, deceiving yourself, make yourself believe capable of fully satisfying your auditors when you have to speak of the configuration of any corporeal thing surrounded by surfaces. But I advise you not to involve yourself in words unless you are speaking to the blind …

My points about media and sensory modalities communicate better if we can see this the way Leonardo did. Here’s the picture he was writing about, with his mirror-Italian words magically turned into English. The typeface (Myriad) is not as beautiful as Leonardo’s handwriting (understatement!) , but it is readable. It changes the notebook page from ‘art’ to something more functional, but this is perhaps closer to the integrity of Leonardo’s conception of what he really thought and felt:

From the wonderful Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist app by Touch Press, with the translation simulating the position of the original handwriting in mirror-Italian. (In the app you can see the ur-text if you prefer.) Leonardo here is talking to himself – these notes are records of dissections or reminders/drafts/tryouts for what to put in his anatomy textbook. This book was never finished and was not to be published in any form – even as copies of these sketches – for 400 years. Notice how the multimodal iPad brings us close to Leonardo’s worldview. At a very general level, in Marshall McLuhan-speak, will all the king's horses and men of digital media put together again – after Enlightenment literary and scientific fragmentation – the Humpty Dumpty gestalt of the integrated subject and object worlds?

From the wonderful Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist app by Touch Press. In the app you can switch to see the mirror-Italian if you prefer. Leonardo here is talking to himself – these notes are records of dissections or reminders/drafts/tryouts for what to put in his anatomy textbook. This book was never finished and was not to be published in any form – even as copies of these sketches – for 400 years. Notice how the multimodal iPad brings us close to Leonardo’s worldview. At a very general level, in Marshall McLuhan-speak, will all the king’s horses and men of digital media put together again – after Enlightenment literary and scientific fragmentation – the Humpty Dumpty gestalt of the integrated subject and object worlds?

Bearing in mind an artist necessarily believes the fullest representations/re-presentations of reality steer clear of language, this is how Leonardo wrote (c. 1492 – no app image available, I’m sorry to say) about some of the underlying principles of his philosophy of the relation of the mind to what the mind perceives:

Man has been called by the ancients a lesser world, and certainly the award of this name is well deserved, because, in as much as man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, the body of the earth is similar; if man has in himself bones, the supports and armature for the flesh, the world has the rocks, the supports of the earth; if man has in himself the lake of the blood, in which the lungs increase and decrease in breathing, the body of the earth has its oceanic sea, which likewise increases and decreases every six hours with the breathing of the world; if, from the said lake veins arise, which proceed to ramify throughout the human body, the oceanic sea fills the body of the earth with infinite veins of water; the nerves are lacking in the body of the earth – they are not there because nerves are made for the purpose of movement, and the world, being perpetually immobile, does not need movement, and, not needing movement, the nerves are not necessary. But in all other respects they are very similar. (MS. A, Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France, f. 55 recto)


See my previous post for more commentary on this point, originally made by Martin Kemp.

Note that Leonardo’s worldview helps him to conceive of human veins and the path of a river in the same frame of reference. This was hardly his invention – the ‘as above, so below’ system of correspondences and homomorphisms dates back at least to the ancient Greeks and indeed continues in the recursive analytical methodology of Stafford Beer’s impressive cybernetic viable systems model. But Leonardo’s unique achievement was to embed this view in a beautifully visualized, life-affirming and communicative body of work.

Leonardo’s orthodox mediaeval Aristotelianism here might present rather a soft target, though, to gung-ho contemporary atomistic materialists such as Richard Dawkins. Leonardo’s comparisons of the earth and the human body is definitely unconventional (‘bad’?) science, but surely his easily falsifiable conjectures (to use Karl Popper’s terminology) are intermediate hypotheses that help us see an extended, complex and interrelating reality we otherwise could not even start to imagine. In other words, to borrow a metaphor from Vygotsky, all theory and methodology is a kind of scaffolding – what is important is what we have built when we take it down. Militantly secular scientists’ claims their work is ipso facto ‘objective’ are no less a prioristic and idealist than the positions of those they seek to attack; the absence of self-reflexivity thereby paradoxically refutes the contingency of a human consciousness in a materialist universe and is thus oblivious to the possibility/impossibility of awareness of awareness. Such things, as Samuel Beckett knew well, are surely better maps of the glories and disasters – the fullest dignity as well as the grossest absurdity – of the human condition than we can ever reach via Dawkins and the school of scientific methodological bureaucracy.

(This is a subject I readily admit I don’t understand, but I can’t believe quantum/sub-atomic physicists or cosmologists investigating the Singularity would get far using Dawkins’ polemical paradigm – reality is too exciting. On the principle that any critique of anything should never perpetuate the same mistakes, in my opposing of reductionism I must add that Dawkins himself is a courageous, complex and interesting man who has gone on record that he would take J. S. Bach’s devotional St Matthew Passion to his imaginary desert island. In a very different spirit to his polemics, though, as Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Scientific Enquiry suggests, let science freely, daringly and self-awarely extend our curiosity and wonder about the world.)

Back again in the world of art practice, what do Leonardo’s insights lead him to? What can we see? Here’s a detail from the Louvre version of The Virgin of the Rocks:

Detail from The Virgin of the Rocks (15??), in the Louvre, Paris. I have heavily cropped the picture to show the rocks. Image from Wikipedia

Detail from The Virgin of the Rocks (1483–86), in the Louvre, Paris, showing the rocks. I am persuaded by the argument at http://www.leonardosgeology.com – by a geologist – that the accuracy of the details of the rock formations here is indisputably from the hand of the author of the geological studies in the Codex Leicester. The careful choice of different types of plant for different microclimates is also deeply characteristic of Leonardo. By contrast, the National Gallery version in London has prettier colours but the rocks and plants look like stage scenery. Image from Wikipedia

The full version.

The full version.

None of this is translatable into language, of course – but here goes … What’s going on here? The rock formations are weird, implausibly alive and threatening. Remember from the quote above, ‘if man has in himself bones, the supports and armature for the flesh, the world has the rocks, the supports of the earth’. On first view, there are two timeframes: the inconceivable scales of geological time and change, and four people oddly meeting in a damp cave. But the people – posed as formally as the theology – are immobile compared with the extraordinary chthonic and chaotic vaultings of the rocks, which threaten but also protect. We sense these opposites – figures and rocks – belong together and complete each other. There is psychological intensity here, drama, a palpable representation perhaps of the dangerous and generative energies of what Freud termed das Es (the It, in natural English), or which the ancient Greeks mythologized as the first gods before the dawn of civilization: the Titans.

We feel the power and drama of Leonardo’s painting more clearly by comparison with Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews:

Gainsborough Mr and Mrs Andrews

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88), Mr and Mrs Andrews (1748), in the National Gallery, London. Image from Wikipedia

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing gives us two contrasting philosophical interpretations. The first quotes art-history academic Lawrence Gowing: ‘the explicit theme of a contemporary and precisely analogous design by … Francis Hayman suggests that the people in such pictures were engaged in philosophic enjoyment of “the great Principle … the genuine Light of uncorrupted and unperverted Nature”.’ Berger draws our attention to the pinched and proprietorial expressions on the couple’s faces; he notes a little cruelly but with the voice of common sense that ‘among the pleasures their portrait gave to Mr and Mrs Andrews was the pleasure of seeing themselves depicted as landowners’ (London: BBC and Penguin Books, 1972, pp. 107–8; my emphasis). Neither interpretation is the only meaning: for example, left of the tree the clouds and Mr Andrews are dark and monochrome, whereas to the right there are colours and sunshine; the spectacular expanse of Mrs Andrews’ dress teeters on the brink of rapport with the sky and clouds. There seems to be some kind of investigation of the different worlds of this man and this woman.

Going back to Leonardo, here is some more scene-stealing geology, this time from The Virgin, St Anne and John:

Virgin, Infant Jesus, St Anne

Detail from The Virgin, Infant Jesus and St Anne (1508) in the Louvre, Paris. Image from Wikipedia

Virgin, Infant Jesus, St Anne

The full version. The restoration in 2011 by removal of later discoloured varnish has been controversial. I don’t know why the edges have been left darker.

The landscaping is very different from The Virgin of the Rocks – open, expansive, certainly not threatening. The colour temperatures move from blue/cool in the sky to grey/neutral in the background to warm earth tones/russets in the foreground. The figures again have Leonardo’s sfumato and characteristically blissed-out/gentle if rather bland expressions, whereas the craggy rock formations reveal the massive forces leading to the distortion of the strata, twisted near-vertically in contrast to the calmly horizontal laminae under the feet of St Anne. Note that Leonardo’s insistence on accurate observation of the subjectivities of perception requires him to blur the customary precision of his observation of the mountains.

The Virgin’s mother is not noticeably a different generation from her daughter, although she is manifestly larger; rather oddly, Mary is seated on her knee. This device sets up a composition where the gaze-lines of all four figures (including lamb) run along a strong diagonal axis, emphasizing bonds of affection between generations and – importantly for the ethically vegetarian Leonardo – species. The unusual hand-on-hip gesture of St Anne starts off the counter-diagonal running down to her right foot. In between is the (unfinished) grey mass of Mary’s robe, giving a strong-enough directional emphasis that Sigmund Freud (1910) famously interpreted the shape as a vulture – it is flying to the bottom left (with no visible head).

Like the dress in the Gainsborough, the grey of Mary’s robe connects the figures with the background, linking a brief moment of tenderness with the inconceivable passage of geomorphic time.

Here is a further enlargement of some delicious background:

Leonardo Virgin, Infant Jesus, St Anne – background

Detail, The Virgin, Infant Jesus and St Anne, on our left of St Anne’s head

Pollock, Lavender Blue

Jackson Pollock (1912–56), Number 1, 1950 (against the artist’s wishes sometimes known as ‘Lavender Mist’). National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Image from http://www.nga.gov/feature/pollock/lm1024.jpg

My would-be jump cut here forces correspondences onto two radically dissimilar artworks – see if you can position them on your screen so you can see both of them at the same time. I thought it might be revealing to see what happens when we look for parallels and contrasts. In Pollock’s paintings, his quest for an ever-purer non-representationality imposes an absolute schism between object and subject, as if there can be no being-in-the-world, only being; the world in itself is painfully invasive and compromises the authenticity and integrity of his existential/artistic worldview and has to be excluded or obliterated – even from the painting’s title. (I am not criticizing him, I am paying tribute to his honesty.)

Leonardo’s position is the reverse: the energy of his obsessive and enraptured explorations of the massive complexity of the ‘natural’ world – notice that the contemporary concept of nature ipso facto and crassly assumes we human beings are not part of it – takes him close to a kind of emotional communion even with geology. (I am not saying this is necessarily ‘good’ – does Leonardo have much engagement and empathy with the people?)

Jackson Pollock. Photographs of cigarette smoke (I regret!) often seems to counterpoint beautifully

Jackson Pollock. Cigarette smoke (I regret to say!), solidified in photography, often seems to make a beautiful and evocative counterpoint to shapes and music. The uplighting from the white canvas subliminally suggests otherworldliness/sainthood … Photo by Martha Holmes, 1949. Image from http://yalebooks.wordpress.com/ 2012/01/20/the-discovery-of-an-american-icon-extract-from-jackson-pollock-by-evelyn-toynton/

Pollock’s psychical and philosophical redistribution of Affekt in his paintings abolishes ‘the natural world’ and projects it as the act of the non-referential (‘abstract’) expression of subjectivity. He thereby paradoxically creates in his paintings a complexity that reminds us of randomness/design or chance/necessity in natural objects. In the characteristic trope of modernism, therefore, the conception of meaning here becomes the responsibility of the viewer or perceiver – us. We may choose to see them as wonderful, beautiful and full of meaning or as empty, dead. Some people see them as pretentious. The worst get into a rage about how much money they sell for at auction.

Here I think we get close to the divisiveness that is typical of modern art. In what they see, some people are not prepared to be open to see themselves. Those of us on the ‘inside’ of modern art might wonder if these people might be afraid of the life of their own mind. So when people say of a Pollock painting that ‘a child could have painted it’, we should notice the overt disparagement of children’s perceptions – yet I hope we can all agree that one of the lasting rewards of being a parent is to learn from and be changed by our children. I fear that comments such as these about Pollock diminish the possibilities for fullness of life for the present and future generations.

Instead of emptiness and deadness, Leonardo offers us life, profusion, connection, meaning – although the evidence of his paintings is that direct human empathy seems to have been difficult for him. Pollock does the same kind of thing, but differently. He is fiercer, apparently not caring; people who are easily hurt don’t want to seem vulnerable. His paintings are existentially alone. If you were ever in any doubt that public reception does not complete the meaning of a work of art, their widespread popular acclaim bears witness this is something, paradoxically, we can all share.

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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3 Responses to Leonardo da Vinci: Philosopher and scientist? #2, People in landscapes

  1. From Leonardo to Pollock….this is an interesting look at “ways of seeing”. Recommend looking at Walter Benjamin’s views on the art object – and also remembering that artists are not all peas in a pod. Some spend little time looking, others look to much and are poor at making and communicating. Some make work for wide audience – others for no-one but themselves.

    • Propagandum says:

      Thanks! I get scared I write much too much, so I’m grateful for a further chance to say I love Benjamin’s ‘OtWoAitAoMR’. I’m also very familiar with making work ‘for no-one but themselves’ and am very interested in what happens between that and ‘wide audience’ – if never ‘under control’, is it influenced by something over which we have choice?

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