Can The National Gallery Justify An Entire Exhibition Dedicated To One Painting?

Leonardo, The National Gallery ★★★☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 20 months ago

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Can The National Gallery Justify An Entire Exhibition Dedicated To One Painting? Leonardo, The National Gallery 3
The altar recreated using digital projectors. Photo by Justin Sutcliffe

You know the drill for your standard major exhibition — pricey tickets and lots of artworks. But what if there’s just one artwork? That’s the premise behind a wildly ambitious new exhibition at The National Gallery, asking us to spend a good length of time (and decent chunk of money) considering just one artwork, with the help of some technical wizardry.

The piece in question is Leonardo Da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks, a highlight of The National Gallery’s permanent collection. It takes centre stage to mark 500 years since the Renaissance artist's death.

Inside the artist's studio. Photo by Justin Sutcliffe

The work was originally hung at an altar in a now-destroyed church. Projectors show us what the church would have look liked and how the Da Vinci painting would sit within the altar. As beautiful as the work is when hung normally in the gallery, it loses that sense of religious awe that is was designed to evoke in parishioners. Placing it in a simulated altar in this exhibition, complete with choral soundtrack and church bells, goes some way to recreating the spiritual experience of an Italian church.

We can also peek inside a recreation of Leonardo's studio, where the painting is projected onto a canvas and built up layer by layer over time. It's cleverly compared to Le Louvre’s version of the same painting, with a roving square revealing the key differences between the two versions.

Further innovative touches in the studio include lit-up paintbrushes showing how the painting was created, and x-ray imaging of the painting itself.

Play with angels of light in the show. Photo by Justin Sutcliffe

Most experimental is a room where you can use different light sources to light up shapes. A modern version of the Madonna shows how Da Vinci would’ve painted her if the light was different — in fact this modern Madonna eclipses the shapes nearby, which feel very simplistic compared to the rest of the show.

The £16-20 price tag here is what you'd expect of a blockbuster exhibition. This show is half the size of  your usual major show, and focuses entirely on one work. As enjoyable as it is, that's a lot of cash for people to fork out to see it.

This exhibition is a bold experiment by the gallery to appeal to a different audience, and it's great to see a place known for generally attracting an older crowd using technology to mix things up. Does it get everything perfect? No. Is it hideously overpriced? Most definitely. Should the gallery be doing more exhibitions like this one? Yes please.

Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece is on at The National Gallery from 9 November 2019 - 26 January 2020. Tickets are priced between £16-£20.

Last Updated 28 November 2019