Is it possible to find fault with an exhibition that presents nearly 120 drawings by Leonardo da Vinci to an art-hungry public on both sides of the Atlantic? The exhibition, “Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman,” generously support by Morgan Stanley, has been widely praised by leading instruments of the media, with not one but two lengthy stories in the New York Times. The line of exhibition-goers snakes around half of the second floor of the museum, with waiting times as long as two hours. Once inside the exhibition proper, the buzzing of the “audio-tour gadgets” attached to the ears of eager visitors vibrate through the multi-room presentation, causing them to turn, robot-like, from object to object, stopping short without warning. The catalogue — all 8 1/2 pounds of it — is sold all over the museum along with Leonardo merchandise of every description. Now back to the question: is there anything amiss?
Actually the show is anything but comprehensive, as it might otherwise appear to be, for Leonardo’s most renowned complex and essential finished work, the Last Supper, is represented by only a single preliminary sketch. In other words, any discourse related to the mural is quite impossible. Another curious omission is the total absence of any drawings by one of the greatest drawing collections in the world, that of the Uffizi’s Gabinetto di disegno in Florence. The Uffizi’s spectacular study for the background of the Adoration of the Magi, which is a touchstone for all of the subjects Leonardo focused on as a draftsman — perspective, figures, animals, architecture, and landscape — cannot be consulted.
Of course these omissions raise a larger cultural question: would it not have been just as effective to have an exhibition of excellent facsimiles of Leonardo drawings where there would be no obvious lacunae in the show? The quality can be so fine that only specialists could actually distinguish the originals from the copies, and the full story of “Leonardo, Master Draftsman” could be spelled out properly. This is in fact the best case scenario for the objects themselves, as they could be spared the potential danger from transport, changes in humidity and lighting, and unforseen, and not entirely uncommon, accidents.
However, with this scenario, museums would not pull in the crowds, sell the entrance tickets, fill the restaurant, increase their membership, or sell the merchandise. Dampened would be the unabashed praise heaped upon the museum and upon the investment bankers who paid the bills. The fact remains that one cannot readily understand the complex world of Leonardo’s mind as revealed by his drawings without a good deal of homework, to which most of the viewers are unaccustomed. If the driving motivation behind such an exhibition is a confrontation with original works, then the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, small, but of considerable quality, should have been more than sufficient.