Here is a list of people who would enjoy the remarkable Phoenix Art Museum show of works by Leonardo da Vinci:
- Lawyers who work in water resources
- Lawyers who work with science-based clients
- Lawyers who appreciate amazing art
- Everyone else
“Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester and the Power of Observation” opened last Saturday and will remain open through April 12. If you or out-of-town guests happen to want to avoid a certain football game this weekend, this museum could be the place to be.
Way back in 1994, Bill Gates of Microsoft fame bought the Codex—a manuscript that is filled with writing and images—for more than $30 million. The Codex was created by Leonardo between 1508 and 1510, and Museum Director Jim Ballinger told us that this is the first work by the creative genius to be displayed in Arizona.
Ballinger, who is retiring from his longtime position at the end of January, is clearly pleased to have brought the master to PAM. Among other great elements of the show, he said, viewers will be amazed to see Leonardo’s work “from his own hand.”
“In my 40 years at the Phoenix Art Museum, this is the kind of thing you dream about.”
The U.S. journey of the Codex is circumscribed: If you miss it here, you’ll have to go to either the Minneapolis Institute of Art or the North Carolina Museum of Art, each of which will include the manuscript in their own shows.
Among the impressive aspects of this show are the strategic moves that made it possible. The day before the show opened, Ballinger told assembled press that donors based in Arizona engaged in what turned out to be a two-year project to get the master’s work to the state. And “the easiest ask I ever made,” says Ballinger, was to the utility SRP, which was impressed by Leonardo’s commitment to assessing water use and its effect on civilizations.
“If we didn’t have water in Arizona,” he added, “the museum and we all wouldn’t be here. Leonardo thought deeply about water’s many uses, for power, agriculture, and even defense. The Codex serves as a platform for a community dialogue and discussion” about this valuable resource.
Ballinger mentioned another seminal aspect to the Codex: Leonardo’s interest in astronomy—a favorite topic for a state that is a global leader in examining the heavens.
Curator Dr. Jerry Smith, leading a tour of the Codex and the surrounding works, called the document “the earliest known scientific notebook that exists.”
The display of that notebook is stunning and evocative. Individual pages are suspended upright behind glass in black obelisks, allowing viewers to stand as close as Leonardo did to the sheets of paper—and to view both sides of each sheet, covered in the genius’s handwriting. Easy-to-read captions translate his notorious reverse-writing Italian. They also describe the science represented.
A technological element that could have been unnecessary overkill turns out to be one of the most addictive parts of the show: A “Codascope” (two, actually) allows viewers to pull up digital versions of every page and to read and see the written and visual annotations that describe multiple elements. As time-risky as surfing the Web, the ’scope quickly draws viewers into Leonardo’s world, where every element suggests another.
If Leonardo’s own work were all that was displayed, the show would be a noteworthy success. But the creative minds at the Museum thought that the “conversation” could go far beyond that. And so Dr. Jerry Smith and his team took on their task: “to put the Codex in broader context.”
That context is why viewers will see 30 other compelling works by many other artists represented in this show. The works, whose creation ranged over 500 years, include “The Raft” video by Bill Viola (along with Viola’s own Notebook regarding the creation of his digital work), a stunning 1500’s-era woodcut print of Venice from above created by Jacopo de Barbari, modern moon images by Kiki Smith, the strobe-light “splash” photos of Harold Edgerton, the repeated-imagery photos of Eadweard Muybridge, “After the Mona Lisa 8” by Devorah Sperber, paintings by Claude Monet, and more.
The patient stroller may discern the connection between these works and that of Leonardo: Many have to do with water and the nighttime sky, agrees Smith. But, more important, they have to do with “curiosity, observation, and thinking on paper.”
“What if Leonardo had had a camera?” Smith asks. That and similar questions, magnified to multiple genres, occupies the viewer in profitable ways. Moving from the Codex to these works and back suggests multiple ways that Leonardo influenced those who created centuries later. And it hints at the ways those later artists—whether through stop-action photography, or moonscapes that are analogues for the human body, or video showing water’s sometimes-violent effect on humans—forever have altered the way we can see Leonardo.
Sometimes, we are reminded by the smart folks at the Phoenix Art Museum, conversations can span centuries.
The show runs through April 12. More detail is here.
And for even more background, here is an article by reporter Kellie Hwang in the Arizona Republic.Follow @azatty