Last week, my husband Ken, Theresa and her boyfriend Conrad, and I drove to Birmingham, Alabama together to see the Leonardo exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art. I woke Ken up early, because it was election day, worried after turning on CNN and hearing about long lines already at 7 AM. We hadn’t voted early, partly because I didn’t make up my mind until the day before (yeah, I know, I’m one of those middle-aged independent voters and anyway, I don’t like to vote too early because something might happen to change my mind at the last minute). We drove to the polling place at 7:45 and there was a line but not too bad. It was a very diverse crowd — an elderly Asian gentleman in front of me, along with an assortment of young and old black and white voters. Very America. Ken and I cheerfully cancelled out each other’s votes and were out of there by 8:15.
The weather was great — coolish with blue skies — as we stopped to pick up Theresa and Conrad. We ate a nice lunch at a small Mexican restaurant, and found the museum without much trouble. This was the first time in a long time I’d actually gotten off the freeway in Birmingham, although over the years I have driven through many times on the way to Mississippi or New Orleans. When we arrived at the museum the street was lined with dozens of school buses, but it was still lunch time and they were on their way out. The museum is beautiful and really big, as big as the High in Atlanta. On the way to the special Leonardo exhibit I checked out their extensive Pre-Columbian collection, which made me wish I had brought a sketchpad. There was one small sculpture in particular that I loved — a man wearing what appeared to be a fitted doublet in every way like an Elizabethan garment, except that Ken and I couldn’t figure out if it had sleeves. A bit of remaining paint suggested that it might have been made of jaguar skin. He was wearing a tall brimmed hat that was very Elizabethan too. In the next room I stumbled on a statue of a short Incan girl wearing another amazing hat, a close-fitting helmet, parti-colored in blue and tan (not right down the middle but cleverly off-center) with floppy earpieces that hung to the shoulders. She was completely nude otherwise except for jewelry. Theresa didn’t like the Pre-Columbian stuff because she said it creeped her out, and it does have a lot of death imagery and scary demonic faces, but it also is very humorous and whimsical and reminds me in some ways of modern gaming art. I found a scrap of paper in my purse and sketched the Incan hat. (Later: what did I do with that damn sketch?) Note: I finally found the scrap of paper in 2011, and used it to make a tiny little 3″x5″ painting for Chattacon, a science fiction convention. Then I lost the scrap of paper. Then I found it again and I figured I’d better scan it quick before I lose it again. Here they are:
After we looked at the Pre-Columbian art we found the Leonardo exhibit and stayed there about an hour. It consisted of many silverpoint and chalk drawings on prepared papers, displayed behind glass, of course, some of them in windows that enabled the viewer to look at sheets drawn on both sides. Many were familiar, and so beautifully and smoothly executed that I found myself losing the immediacy of the experience and reacting as if I were looking at a picture in a book! I kept having to shake myself from my museum-trance, realizing over and over that these were actual drawings made by Leonardo! I looked for scratches and erasures but even then it was hard to stay present. We were given large magnifying glasses to look at the incredible detail but I just took off my glasses and bored right in. Usually when I draw at work I take off my glasses, and find that I can see a huge amount of detail that way. I don’t know if other people can do that or not. I got as close to the drawing as possible, nose about 1″ from the glass, with my hands behind my back so the museum guards don’t think I’m trying to touch anything. They usually don’t mind me.
I enjoyed seeing the drawings of the human figure in which Leonardo was obviously marking out the muscle groups, something I have done myself in figure drawings. His mastery of the horse was astonishing. He must have spent many many hours drawing these beautiful animals and carefully observing their musculature and motion. The papers were prepared with glue size, pigment, and bone ash, although they appeared to be thinly washed. The colors were very restrained — a grayish pink and a bluish gray. The metalpoint had more substance and depth than I have been able to achieve myself. I know that metalpoint darkens with time but his lines just looked softer. I don’t know if they were silverpoint or lead point — lead point looks more like a soft pencil. Some of them were mixtures of red chalk, black ink, and metalpoint with additions of white paint, once again used in a very restrained manner. I think I have been laying everything too heavy in my silverpoint drawings.
If Leonardo had lived in the 20th century, I think he would have been a science-fiction illustrator or a scientific illustrator, with his eye for detail and his interest in science. He would probably have loved computers too. He wouldn’t have been a fine artist because no museum in the mid-twentieth century would have been interested in his work. I can hear those of you who like abstract painting saying, but he would have been so creative, he would have just painted wonderful abstract paintings. Hmmm. Nah. After we wandered away from the Leonardo drawings I found the European collection, which includes a large number of Renaissance and late-Middle Ages minor masters. There were many panels on wood in tempera and once again, I was able to get really close to observe the brushwork. There were roomfuls of Baroque and Rococco paintings and lots of American 19th century art, which I think is so undervalued. So much stuff that after a while I wore out and my brain started to buzz and I couldn’t absorb anymore.
Two or three rooms were devoted to abstracts and postmodernism. They don’t interest me and so I just kind of wandered through. The abstract movement in the early 20th century was a reaction to the excessive rigidity of 19th century academic painting. Academic painting was exquisite technically, but already the first cracks of the 20th century’s existential crisis of meaning in the West had appeared. Most abstraction, to me at least, is the very essence of meaninglessness, and they had a point, but they threw the baby out with the bathwater; thousands of poor art students wandered through art school in the 20th century and no one could teach them anything, because no one knew anything. I was one of them. “How do I paint this?” I would ask, and be told, just express yourself. You’re free to do anything! Bah.
Then, a wonderful surprise: On the way to the gift shop, a gigantic Bouguereau, a wonderful nude, so large I could only inspect the hands and feet. I know Bouguereau is eye candy, but I don’t care. It’s not his fault that Darwin undercut the religious foundations of the Western spirit. The man could paint. How I wish I could have visited his studio: I read that the children who posed for his putti played at his feet as he worked. How did he manage that? An awful spotlight put a glare on the center part of the painting and I found myself wishing for a ladder so I could look at the face, but I could only back away and see it from a distance. I looked at his flesh tones for a long time. The edges were quite clean, not carefully fuzzed as so many of the 18th and 19th century academic painters did to make the flesh look soft, and yet his flesh is lifelike, even more than lifelike. A master, and if you had been alive in 1955 when the abstracts were being painted, and had been able to write a check for about $5000 or even less, you could have owned a Bouguereau! Ken and I wandered out to the sculpture garden , where a large Botero bronze made me feel as if the artist had been spying on me. There were some interesting Salvador Dali drawings in the hall too. My brain finally stopped processing information completely and Conrad, Ken and I sat down in the lobby and waited on Theresa, who was still looking. I found a kid’s name tag in the restroom, and Theresa was able to find the right school group and get it to them in less than a minute. The woman is amazing.
On the way out of town, we saw lots of schoolkids in the neighborhoods around the museum and I thought about how far our country has come since the little girls were killed in the church bombing so long ago, but still in my lifetime. That night we elected our first African-American president but I was too tired to stay up for the election results and just read about it in the paper the next day. All the old white guys like Leonardo are long dead and gone but Quality — Quality remains.