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Why Did Leonardo Draw These Weird Faces?

Category: Art & Culture,Arts & Design

HAARLEM, the Netherlands — Most people associate Leonardo da Vinci with his visions of beauty: the “Mona Lisa,” for instance, or his perfectly proportioned “Vitruvian Man.” But if we had been alive at any time from the 16th century to the 19th century, we would most likely have associated the Italian Renaissance master with bulbous noses, protruding foreheads and sunken chins.

Until the 19th century, nearly all of Leonardo’s famous portraits were held in private collections, and his public masterpiece, “The Last Supper,” was accessible primarily to visitors of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. His drawings often of men and women with strangely deformed or exaggerated features — which he called “visi mostruosi,” or “monstrous faces,” and which scholars call “grotesques” — were distributed widely, and avidly copied.

Artists of his time saw these as “the essence of Leonardo,” said Martin Clayton, head of the prints and drawings collection at Windsor Castle, where 555 Leonardo drawings are held as part of the British Royal Collection Trust.

The Teylers Museum in Haarlem, a city 12 miles west of Amsterdam, is exploring this aspect of the artist’s career, with its “Leonardo da Vinci” exhibition, which runs through Jan. 6. It includes about 90 artworks in total, 32 of them by Leonardo.

Leonardo was a true Renaissance man, fascinated with everything — the mechanics of flight, architecture, engineering, botany, artillery and human anatomy — but one of his favorite private pastimes was to draw faces, either as scribbles in the margins of his notebooks or as fully conceived sketches later used for paintings.

But as far as we know, Leonardo never used the monstrous faces in his paintings, said Michiel Plomp, a co-curator of the Teylers show. “He wrote a lot about how important it was to have a diversity of faces in an artwork, Mr. Plomp said in an interview, “but if you look at the few paintings he made, there are angelic faces everywhere.”

Mr. Plomp said that Leonardo would often follow strange-looking individuals to try to memorize their faces so that he could sketch them later. At least once, he went so far as to invite some strangers into his home, where he told jokes, and then later drew images of them laughing, Mr. Plomp added.

Michael Kwakkelstein, the guest curator of the exhibition and an art history professor at Utrecht University, said that Leonardo probably produced these unusual faces as part of a wide-ranging exploration of human physiognomy. He has attempted to classify Leonardo’s faces based on the intentions for their use.

Some were designed to entertain. “He seemed to be making a series of these ridiculous figures laughing or ranting and raving, maybe to amuse himself,” Professor Kwakkelstein said. Leonardo may have also decided “to have them printed and engraved as a series of comic figures to make people laugh.”

Others were used to explore expression. “Human emotion and human character is an essential characteristic of Leonardo’s art,” Professor Kwakkelstein said. “He was essentially interested in body language and how it’s related to emotions and character.”

The exhibition includes a vast range of Leonardo’s faces, from the absurd to the sublime. It begins with a series of profiles that may have been inspired by coins or sculptures, such as “Head of a Youth, Turned to the Right,” which may be based on Antinous, the famously handsome lover of the Roman emperor Hadrian, or on Leonardo’s own pupil Salai, who was described as “a graceful and beautiful youth with fine curly hair.”

Another drawing, “Head and Shoulders of a Young Woman” (c. 1490), which is often described as the “Mona Lisa of drawings,” was very likely the basis for “The Virgin of the Rocks” (1483-86).The exhibit also includes three preliminary studies Leonardo made for “The Last Supper,” including a sketch for the portrait of Judas.

In the exhibition’s final room, a full-scale, printed reproduction of “The Last Supper” is presented across from a version that has been attributed to a follower, Andrea di Bartoli Solari, and that usually hangs in Tongerlo Abbey in Belgium. Comparing the two, it’s easy to notice that Leonardo’s version presents a wider range of human emotion and expression.

“Leonardo da Vinci worked all his life in trying to render faces as a kind of mirror of the soul, and this was the apotheosis,” Marjan Scharloo, director of the Teylers Museum, said of the “The Last Supper.”

“Here you see anger, shock and disbelief,” she said, standing in front of the painting. “All of their faces are expressing something to which we can connect, and he was the first one to do this is in this convincing way.”

In other words, she said, Leonardo’s fascination with ugliness was part of his pursuit of beauty.


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