Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece review

Art
2 out of 5 stars
Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece review
Leonardo da Vinci 'The Virgin with the Infant Saint John the Baptist adoring the Christ Child accompanied by an Angel' ('The Virgin of the Rocks') © The National Gallery, London

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

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The National Gallery’s new immersive exhibition aims to drag visitors inside Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ with a little help from cutting edge virtual reality technology. The painting, one of the gallery’s most popular, is normally on display for free in a room crammed with visitors who make a special point of seeing it. It now costs £18-£20, on the understanding that the ‘immersive’ additions will enhance your encounter.

Across four sections, you’ll find fairly disengaging attempts at delving into the mind of the Renaissance Man creator, a comparison of the Louvre’s version and the National Gallery’s, and details of the Milan chapel the religious artwork was intended for.

The worst part is ‘The Light and Shadow Experiment’, an interactive chiaroscuro crib sheet where visitors train light beams onto, among other things, a medium-sized rock. The chapel room, in contrast, is basic but pretty, sparkly and fun.

And right at the end, in the fifth room, is the painting itself. As a rule, Leonardo’s artworks are smaller than imagined (as though their mega-fame means they should be mega-huge) and ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ is made to seem smaller yet with the addition of various projections around it recreating the other parts of the chapel altarpiece.

This is the room where you’ll find all the people. Because here’s the fundamental problem: people already came to ‘experience a masterpiece’, without the VR jazz. And they did so because - oh, yes - it’s a masterpiece.

Leonardo’s painting – and London scored the much better version – has the unearthly cold-blooded beauty of a reptile. Squint and it looks like slimy inkblots slithering down the canvas. Mary’s severely anemic and the baby Jesus’s flesh looks as boulder-like as the rocks he’s perched on. It’s so beautiful, and so bizarre, people are magnetised to it even when there’s a box load of VR toys doing their worst to distract from it. Couldn’t we just pretend this never happened and quietly return it to Room 66?

By: Rosemary Waugh

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