`Leonardo Lives' -- Sam Show Is Smart, Cohesive And Insightful

Art exhibit preview

"Leonardo Lives: The Codex Leicester and Leonardo da Vinci's Legacy of Art and Science," at the Seattle Art Museum, from Oct. 23 to Jan. 4. Advance tickets, which are recommended, are available through through Ticketmaster, 206-292-ARTS. Tickets are $6 for adults, $4 for seniors and children under 12. Tickets are also available through SAM's website, www.LeonardoLives.org.

Leonardo has landed. And when the Seattle Art Museum opens its highly-hyped Leonardo da Vinci show next week, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

One is the near impossibility of doing a credible art exhibition on Leonardo. The great Renaissance painter, anatomist, natural scientist, inventor and engineer left few paintings when he died in 1519, and all are now so valuable that they rarely travel. Imagine the futility of trying to borrow the world's most famous painting, Leonardo's "Mona Lisa," from the Louvre in Paris and the conundrum is obvious.

SAM was fortunate to be able to borrow five of Leonardo's drawings for this show. Though none is among his most famous - his drawings too are so treasured that they are considered nearly priceless works of art - several of those on view at SAM are nevertheless remarkable. Having them gives the exhibition a weight that it otherwise would lack.

The other obvious challenge for SAM curators was to build an art show around a scientific document, the Codex Leicester. When Bill Gates bought the notebook three years ago for $30.8 million, he said he was intrigued by the great man's unrelenting pursuit of knowledge and cross-disciplinary thinking. The codex is essentially a collection of notes and observations on water, astronomy and geology. The 360 little drawings included in it are each about the size of a thumbnail, and they have all the sex appeal of answers to a geometry exam.

That said, SAM curators Chiyo Ishikawa and Trevor Fairbrother have managed to pull together a show that is smart, often insightful and remarkably cohesive. Though some visitors will find the number of artworks underwhelming for a show that is being billed as a blockbuster - there are 14 in the section on Leonardo and his contemporaries, and 35 in the section that addresses Leonardo's influence in 20th-century art - those who spend the time to read the labels and look at the art will be rewarded.

The refreshingly engaging catalog written by Ishikawa and Fairbrother also is helpful. It is an intelligent person's Cliffs Notes to Leonardo and the mythology that surrounds him.

The codex itself is problematic. Written in a backwards, mirror script in archaic Italian, it obviously is not user-friendly. Few, if any, visitors will be able to decipher it.

But the point of publicly displaying an obtuse historical document, such as the codex, is to elicit an emotional response. And from there, perhaps, to elicit an intellectual one. Leonardo, the Renaissance genius, put his hand to this paper nearly 500 years ago. To stand six inches in front of one of these pages of tiny, cramped, densely penned brown script is to stand in approximately the same relationship to the paper in which Leonardo stood. Like viewing the Shroud of Turin, viewing the codex elicits wonder and mystery, even if every page looks pretty much like the last.

At SAM the 18 double-sided pages are displayed in 18 floor-to-ceiling columns that have been equipped with Plexiglas display windows. The pages hang vertically at about eye level in the windows. For conservation reasons, each window is lit only one minute out of every five. Lights are on in a third of the windows at any given time, though the pages are viewable even when the lights are off.

To help visitors understand what is written in the codex, SAM has set up batteries of computers in the same galleries as the codex so visitors can use the Corbis Corp.'s CD-ROM on Leonardo to read English translations of the notebook. Bill Gates is chairman of Corbis, so it's no surprise that the CD-ROM is the best key to the Codex Leicester.

Among the gems in the show are two gorgeous drapery studies that Leonardo did as a teenager; a beautiful copy of Leonardo's "Virgin and Child with Saint Anne" painted by Leonardo's student Salai; some irreverent, pop-art Mona Lisas by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Arneson; and a group of 20th-century takes on Leonardo's "Last Supper" by such provocative artists as Andres Serrano and Mary Beth Edelson.