There have been some cracking exhibitions in Sheffield since I moved here three years ago, and not just at the major venues. It would be difficult trying to single any out when so many have been so good. Instead I’ll just use the good fortune that my name on the Musings slot for March coincides with two remarkable exhibitions currently in town. They are Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Millenium Gallery and Who We Are: Photographs by Martin Jenkinson at Weston Park. Both are fascinating. This is my personal response to them.
I find Jenkinson’s photographs quite superb on so many levels. Technically they’re incredibly sharp. He had an astute eye for composition, creating as well as capturing a very strong atmosphere. I get a strong sense that he cared passionately about his subject matter, whether it’s human portraits or groups, industrial or rural landscapes, the workplace or the lack of a workplace, industrial conflict, growth or decline, his recreational love of motorbikes and biking; his photographs give them all a powerful status and dignity that can only be portrayed when the photographer empathises strongly with the subject. This is perhaps what makes him such a stand out photographer. The photographs all contain a narrative, enhanced in a majority of cases by his preferred use of black and white images. Although newspaper reproduction during his career mainly used monochrome photographs, this choice runs through much of his non journalistic work.
One visit to the exhibition was with some good friends and political activists. As we looked at the photographs we were retracing our steps through the tumultuous and defining nineteen eighties. It was very moving to see Jenkinson’s record of The People’s March for Jobs. I could remember vividly the night when the community arts project I worked for, together with the local Trades Council hosted a civic reception as the march came through the West Midlands. We saluted the marchers, sharing their anger, determination and hopes and above all celebrating their spirit as we partied into the night. It was this spirit that Jenkinson captures so well.
Equally powerful and perhaps even more iconic are his photographs of the Miners’ Strike. During it I was involved mainly in raising funds in Huddersfield and creating banners, one with the Women’s Support Group in Grimesthorpe. Such powerful pictures, such powerful solidarity and such massive forces deployed against it.
But beware nostalgia. These are photographs that tell important histories of human endeavour, but the stories did not always have happy ever endings. I thought the reproduction of Jenkinson’s office and the collection of his journalists accreditation badges added considerably to the strength of the exhibition and gave an illuminating insight into his character. It was ironic to read the expiry date on one of these badges was also the year he died.
No less powerful for me is the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. Quite a coup for Museums Sheffield and congratulations to all concerned in securing its place amongst the dozen venues hosting this national event.
One activity I’ve resumed since moving to Sheffield is life drawing, after a gap of almost fifty years since I last did it at art college. For some inspiration I’ve frequently looked at books of Leonard’s drawings and marvelled at them. So one aspect of going to the exhibition was to see some drawings with which I thought I was already familiar. Not so, seeing them in the flesh so to speak is quite different. There’s certainly a lot of understandable and perhaps justifiable hype surrounding Leonardo; world’s greatest artist being one of them.
A few years ago whilst holidaying in Paris our family queued for a very long time on a very hot day to see the Mona Lisa. The crocodile queue slowly inched its way into The Louvre and eventually reached the great painting, and that was the only time it seemed to pick up speed during the entire morning’s outing. The painting was smaller than I had imagined and it was also quite some distance back from the viewer Although I felt distinctly underwhelmed by the painting, I put most of that down to sheer fatigue and it being the most ridiculous way to look at any work of art. Anyway I needed to put on a brave face for the benefit of our French friend and host so I kept an open mind.
I’ve been to the current exhibition a few times and one of them was relatively uncrowded for most of my visit. What a wonderful contrast from the Paris experience. I’m still sceptical of applying the superlative epithet to any artist, ‘greatest living’, ‘greatest ever’, but we sadly live in a consumerist world of wanting a never ending series of best ever experiences.
I do think that Leonardo’s drawings are quite amazing, even though to varying degrees. Being able to get up close to a 500 year old drawing is different from looking at a reproduction of the same in a book. Perhaps it’s the necessary lighting conditions and my eyesight that made close study in the gallery a bit difficult but no less enjoyable for me. (Tip: take a magnifying glass with you).
I marvelled at how he could create the illusion of three dimensional depth in two dimensions with just a few lines. I know the theory of highlighting and shading, have practiced it in my work, but seeing it applied with such deftness here is intensely joyful. After looking at the kind of tools he was using it makes his skills even more amazing. Again and again I just wondered how he did it. The drawings are pages from his sketch books, so they are understandably small but they contain incredible detail. There is such sureness of touch in the flawless curves of his studies of plants. The same wonderful intricacies in his studies of anatomy and water flow.
An additional aspect of the drawings being pages from his sketch books is the notes that accompany them. Spontaneous, functional and fluid they are nonetheless a visual delight and often enhance the artistic quality of the page, although I doubt that was at all his intent. I wondered what different impact the text may have had on this visual effect if it was legible. There is hardly any deviation of the angle of the lines or size of the words, and hardly any blots! Again, how did he do it? Some of the drawings reminded me that these are his sketch books and perhaps the quick jottings of his enormous enquiring mind rather than works of art. The working drawings for the pump fountains don’t have the same visual impact as most of the others, but are a reminder that he was so much more than an incredible artist, not least a visionary engineer.
Two footnotes. I enjoyed the accompanying installation in the adjoining gallery and would have liked a longer sequence of the flow of moving people. It’s also a very helpful collection of background exhibition information that is well set out, but I’d love to know just how the collection of drawings did end up in the royal household over a hundred years after Leonardo’s death.
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