Image: Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of the Musician, c.1485, oil on walnut (detail) © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana – Milano/De Agostini Picture Library

Tokyo Metropolitan Art’s Portrait of a Genius

by Sarah Custen

The Embassy of Italy has declared 2013 the “Year of Italy in Japan” in a bid to encourage economic collaboration, particularly in the IT and energy areas, but for the layperson, this means numerous opportunities to view rare, precious and canonical artwork, much of which is on display in Japan for the first time.

For its part, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, in Ueno, offers us the second in a series of exhibitions showing throughout the year at various museums—Leonardo da Vinci: Portrait of a Genius.

The museum aspires to serve as a “doorway to art,” says curator Akiko Kobayashi, who views the Met’s participation in this Italian-Japanese cultural exchange as a rare opportunity to introduce classical art and help us “understand the source of modern art history.”

Indeed, the exhibition does well to place our understanding of Leonardo into a more solid historical and cultural context. Selected renaissance drawings and paintings by other Italian artists, which both predate his work and demonstrate an influence on generations after, serve to throw his innovations and brilliance into greater relief, while books from his own admired collection and the lesser-known sketches of his Codex Atlanticus reveal to us the intensity of his curiosity and quest for knowledge.

The exhibit is truly a portrait in and of itself—not only of the Italian master, but also of art and intellectual culture in Italy during the Renaissance. It is not the flashy showing of wall-to-wall masterpieces some might expect when they hear the name Leonardo Da Vinci, though it does feature the Portrait of Musician, a visually incomparable work from his first Milano period.

The artist’s commonly used ‘surname’ simply means “from Vinci village,” as Kobayashi was quick to point out, though in common parlance he’s almost never referred to by first name only, as though that were too personal, perhaps disrespectful, for a man of such remarkable reputation.

However, one does come away from the exhibition with a more intimate knowledge of the man himself. To squint at Leonardo’s legendary backwards handwriting, to see the grain of the paper, the most frail and tentative sketches, is to see a great mind at work. That complex mind, when placed so thoughtfully into a clear historical context, becomes surprisingly accessible.

The untouchable myth of The Great Da Vinci is transformed into a real person. Someone we can understand; someone we can call, simply, “Leonardo.”

Leonardo Da Vinci at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art (click for more info, in Japanese)

When: April 23 Tuesday – June 30 Sunday (closed Mondays)

Where: Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum

How much: ¥1,500 (adults) / ¥1,300 (college students) / ¥800 (high school students) / ¥1,000 (seniors – 65 and over)

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