Through July 29, New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, 1801 Mountain Road NW, Albuquerque, 505-841-2800
“Amazing.” “Remarkable.” “Extraordinary.” When just one wall panel in a museum exhibit is so prone to heightened adjectives, you know you’re not viewing a modest show. It is one of grandeur, of extravagant scale. Da Vinci: The Genius, at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque, is a blockbuster of an exhibit, peppered with sponsor signage and featuring huge blow-up reproductions of once-intimate artistic details, like the Mona Lisa’s faint smile. A massive parachute soars overhead; a bridge extends across a length of floor, tempting the viewer to study it from all angles; and an eight-sided mirrored room provides infinite perspectives. The exhibit’s objects spill out into the hallway of the museum’s second floor, as though they simply cannot be contained.
The effect of it all is genuine amazement, at the Renaissance artist and inventor’s remarkable genius. Hyperbole is sometimes merited.
The touring exhibit is by Grande Exhibitions, whose interactive shows are, fittingly, all about grandiosity, with titles that should be read in a deep movie-trailer voice: Extreme Forces of Nature, Van Gogh Alive: The Experience. What makes the extremeness in Da Vinci: The Genius not only tolerable but advantageous is the man at its center. Leonardo’s sketches have been meticulously recreated as physical objects by Italian artisans; the objects’ new dimensionality and size allow visitors to scrutinize, with incomparable opportunity, his truly astonishing mind.
The works span disciplines — among them are mechanisms exploring flight, optics, warfare, hydraulics, anatomy, music, and physics. They range dramatically from costumes Leonardo designed for Duke Ludovico Sforza’s extravagant Milanese parties to imposing battlefield weapons, including a giant crossbow and a conical tank lined with cannons. Many of the models are recognizable from their present-day iterations. A diving suit loosely resembles a modern scuba suit, and a car structure is not only current-looking but perhaps even futuristic. According to the accompanying text, the car may have been used as a stage prop, and it would not have needed anyone to push it. Leonardo may have anticipated that one day, we would be debating the repercussions of autonomous vehicles.
There are moments of poignant smallness in the exhibit. Several facsimiles of codices, into which Leonardo’s notebook pages were collated after his death, are included. Their minuteness creates a useful contrast to the large-scale objects around and above, and the facsimiles encourage us to appreciate the craftsmanship of the artisans who have transformed the artist’s fine drawings into firm works. One explanatory text, accompanying a clock mechanism, describes how the clock was crafted by a ninety-year-old artisan from Leonardo’s hometown of Vinci. The mention hints at real engagement with the weight of the object, and with the weight of what it must have meant to bring it to life.
The exhibition is divided into two sections: Leonardo’s inventions are on the second floor, while several rooms on the first floor focus, less arrestingly, on his paintings. One first-floor room is lined with reproductions of the paintings, most of which are not accompanied by textual descriptions. Of the few that are, La Bella Principessa is described as a great 21st-century art-world find, its authenticity seemingly confirmed by a single fingerprint — “proof” that has been largely discredited. (Last year’s debate about the authenticity of Salvator Mundi, which ultimately became the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction, is not addressed.) An adjacent room delves into the Mona Lisa and a meticulous study of it by French engineer Pascal Cotte, who photographed the painting in 2004 with a multispectral camera and applied a light-projecting technique called the layer amplification method to make new observations about the work. Cotte found that the painting has three discrete portraits below the final version, a claim that is presented in the exhibition as fact rather than hypothesis, despite some art historians’ skepticism. Elsewhere in the exhibition room, gigantic reproductions of the Mona Lisa’s details — a hand here, a torso there — have something of a clinical feel, as though the painting’s subject has undergone unfortunate amputations.
In his recent biography of Leonardo, Walter Isaacson describes the problematic nature of the “genius” designation: “Slapping the ‘genius’ label on Leonardo oddly minimizes him by making it seem as if he were touched by lightning,” when instead, the artist cultivated his genius through study, inquisitiveness, and diligence. Da Vinci: The Genius allows us to see not just the brilliance of Leonardo’s imagination, but also the ways in which the human mind — albeit an exceptionally gifted one — can achieve so much that is extraordinary through the relentless pursuit of knowledge.