Da Vinci at the National Gallery. Is it worth it?

I visited the National Gallery to 'Experience a Masterpiece,' the masterpiece being 'The Virgin on the Rocks' by Leonardo Da Vinci. Unfortunately, this 'immersive experience' did not live up to expectations.

The National Gallery are running an exhibition entitled 'Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece,'  which will remain open until January 26th 2020. With four different spaces, each designed to look at 'The Virgin of the Rocks' through different lenses, this exhibition promised intellectual and artistic engagement with Da Vinci's work. Despite the visual effects explored, the exhibition as a whole was underwhelming, appealing neither to Da Vinci enthusiasts, nor to those looking to experience a new form of art. I attended this exhibition with Florence, an Art History student with an extensive knowledge of Da Vinci, whilst I was on the other end; a novice with the desire to learn more... and yet, neither of us gained anything from this experience. Walking through the four rooms takes an absolute maximum of 40 minutes, including time spent stopping to watch projections from start to finish, and observing all aspects of the rooms provided.

The first room is entitled 'The Mind of Leonardo', showing his thoughts and ideas as he begun to paint 'The Virgin of the Rocks.' However the information is filtered through glass cubes, and makes for an overall confused experience. The Evening Standard called it a 'messy digital show,' which would leave the average viewer 'puzzled.'

Arguably the most informative room, 'The Studio' explored the secrets of the painting's composition, uncovered by science/conservation. This room was filled with projections of Da Vinci's studio, which, upon first glance, appeared impressive. However, it quickly became clear that in order to create an 'immersive' experience, they had sacrificed the integrity of the research, obscuring Da Vinci's studio with elaborate lighting and gimmickry. 

The next room was 'The Light and Shadow Experiment,' labelled as a 'room sized experiment to discover the dramatic effects of light and shadow.' Whilst it was interactive, as promised, this was simply a room to play with lighting, and offered no insights into Da Vinci's personal usage of light, adding no value to the exhibition itself.

Finally we arrive at 'The Imagined Chapel,' where we are shown 'The Virgin on the Rocks,' the only painting in the entire exhibition. It is placed upon a virtual altarpiece, upon which multiple projections rotate, giving an insight into what the surroundings would look like, and yet in doing so, it takes away focus from the painting itself. Whilst the painting was impressive, the entire exhibition surrounding it seemed arbitrary, and displaying an artwork you can usually see for free by painting it as an 'immersive experience,' seems misleading.

Promoted as an in-depth experience, and costing £14 for students, this was an event attended primarily by those who wished to engage further with their knowledge of Da Vinci. In my opinion, this would be a fantastic exhibition if it was aimed at a different audience, and managed expectations. Whilst I did enjoy the exhibition, it did not match up to my expectations, and was a visually pleasing but frankly, a non-stimulating experience. As BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz said regarding the exhibition, 'I'm all for being entertained, but I want to be educated as well.'

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Kashmini Shah

Kashmini Shah

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1 Comments

  • Jacob Jenner-Arnold

    On 15 December 2019, 22:04 Jacob Jenner-Arnold commented:

    Thanks for the review, it does sound rather disappointing. Hopefully if this event continues to run to run they will take on board the issues.

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