Christopher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

At the be­gin­ning of the Scot­tish ex­hi­bi­tion, a lit­tle sheet by Leonardo da Vinci takes visi­tors into the heart of Re­nais­sance draw­ing as well as offering us a vivid glimpse of Leonardo’s own in­sa­tiable cu­rios­ity. It is a study of a dog’s paw drawn four times from slightly dif­fer­ent an­gles as the artist searches out its char­ac­ter­is­tic struc­ture.

It is the left forepaw, as we can see from the so-called dew claw, which cor­re­sponds to our thumb but has no ob­vi­ous func­tion in a quadruped: the dog walks on the four fin­gers of its hand, whose pha­langes and their ar­tic­u­la­tion Leonardo so care­fully de­lin­eates.

The struc­tural ac­cu­racy re­minds us that this is the artist whose stud­ies of hu­man anatomy were pi­o­neer­ing as art and science so of­ten con­verged, an­tic­i­pat­ing by two gen­er­a­tions the first mod­ern man­ual of anatomy, Ve­sal­ius’s en­cy­clo­pe­dic De Hu­mani cor­poris fab­rica (1543).

But the cu­rios­ity and care we sense in this study also re­mind us that Leonardo was in­tensely aware of the con­nec­tions of hu­man and an­i­mal life.

The medium is typ­i­cal of the Re­nais­sance in gen­eral and of Leonardo in par­tic­u­lar. Met­al­point — prob­a­bly in this case sil­ver­point — is one of the most por­ta­ble and ef­fi­cient of all me­dia for draw­ing, re­quir­ing nei­ther ink and wa­ter nor even a penknife or sharp­ener. Once the stick of sil­ver is shaped to the de­sired point, it can be used for months or years with­out fur­ther sharp­en­ing; on the other hand sil­ver will not make a mark on un­coated pa­per, so sheets need to be pre­pared with a mix­ture of bone-ash and size or gouache. The Greats: Mas­ter­pieces from the Na­tional Gal­leries of Scot­land. Part two: the draw­ings Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney. Un­til Fe­bru­ary 14.

Sil­ver­point draw­ings can­not be erased in the usual way — with a rub­ber to­day or with the soft crumb of bread in the past — but the sur­face can be wiped off with a damp cloth and re­coated, so the medium is in prac­tice an erasable one that was also suited to the prac­tice draw­ings of stu­dents and the prepara­tory sketches of artists.

Leonardo rec­om­mended the

artist should

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