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The Da Vinci Codex

Images provided by the Phoenix Art Museum.

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Leonardo Da Vinci’s Personal Diary Of Ideas, Theories, And Diagrams Comes To The Phoenix Art Museum For A Limited Engagement In The Steele Gallery

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By Jeff Moses
Modern Times Magazine

Jan. 29, 2014 —The work of Leonardo da Vinci is on display in Arizona for the first time ever at the Phoenix Art Museum Steele Gallery, and like the man himself, it is a little difficult to understand, but definitely worth the effort. Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester and the Power of Observation is a fascinating art show that takes a deep look at the relationship between art and science with da Vinci, one of history's most notable experts on both, directly in the center of it.

“It is the very first time that Leonardo’s work is being shown here in the state of Arizona. A work by Leonardo’s hand, not just work that is dealing with his inventions and machines he would make. But actual work by his hand, it’s the very first time,” said Curator of American and European Art to 1950 and Art of the American West Jerry Smith.

Da Vinci is directly in the center of the exhibition both literally and figuratively because the 18-double sided pages of his codex are displayed literally in the center of The Steele Gallery. But also figuratively because while there are other artists’ work being displayed, they are all being displayed with the intention of highlighting the method of “thinking on paper” which da Vinci employed, according to Smith.

“Think about that sense of investigation, of curiosity, observation and thinking on paper that we find in the codex. We found it in Leonardo’s work and we find that continuing throughout time,” said Smith. ”That’s why we have it in photography, we have it in paintings, we see it in  artists who would look closely and observe nature very closely. Artists who use their camera to record close observations of nature. Just like what we see in the codex.”

The actual codex is just 18 handwritten pages — hand-folded in half and double sided — that were written backwards. The documents also feature a litany of tiny diagrams by Leonardo. The exhibit is accentuated by both the high-tech looking display cases for the pages, and the nifty touch screen decoders on the wall that help visitors translate the words on the pages.

But the exhibit also features the work of a wider array of artists, from different time periods, who worked in a variety of mediums.

“When you're starting with the beginning of the 16th century, the work from 1500 by Jacopo de Barbari — his large 4.5 by 9 foot view of Venice — that was the first aerial view of a European city. It was imaginative and it kind of puts things in the context of Leonardo’s time of investigation,” said Smith. “In the exhibit, we see artists who use their camera as a way to experiment and find the right image. Like the Edward Westons and so all the way down to the 21st century with Bill Viola and Debra Sperber. Those things are continuing that tradition that Leonardo was showing 500 years ago.”

Some of the works which are being  displayed in the Steele Gallery with the Codex include Jacopo de Barbari’s “View of Venice,” Kiki Smith’s photography work “Tidal,” Eadweard Muybridge’s “Animal Locomotion,” Harold Edgerton's “Formation of a Drop of Water,” Edward Weston's “Pepper,” Ansel Adams’ “Old Faithful,” Dervorah Sperber's “After Mona Lisa,” and video project by Bill Viola. “The Raft”. There are also two works by Claude Monet.

Viola’s short film, “The Raft” was shot in 60-seconds, but then slowed down so much that the run time is over 10-minutes. It shows frame-by-frame a fairly uninteresting group of people getting blasted by a forceful stream of water.

Edward Westen’s “Pepper” is simply some really intricate photos of a bell pepper that transcend its simplicity.

What the two works have in common — besides both being from the more technologically advanced side of things  — is that they were accompanied by the artists’ own “codex.” The artists’ notebooks accompany the pieces, allowing visitors to see them thinking out their ideas on paper, complete with sketches, just like Leonardo.

“When you compare what Leonardo was doing and how he was thinking something through and compare it to the notebook that’s right there by Bill Viola, it’s the same ideas of working problems through on paper,” said Smith.

Some of the other works that are currently accompanying the codex like Adams’ “Old Faithful,” Muybridge's “Animal Locomotion,” Edgerton's “Formation of a Drop of Water,” and Smith’s “Tidal” blur the lines between artistry and science. “Pepper” and “View of Venice” toe that same line. Even the work by Monet, the master painter, involved painstaking observation of nature and attention to detail at a scientific level.

“It would certainly be at home at the Science Center. This is the original, first kind of scientific notebook that comes down to us,” said Smith. “But the the context we put it in, adding these works of art around it, that help us reflect on the codex itself and vice versa. I think that’s why it’s as at home here as it could be at the Science Center.”

But just because the work is considered art does not mean it is not incredibly groundbreaking within the realm of science. Leonardo was centuries ahead of his time as an artist, inventor, scientist, and thinker. Many of his ideas, theories and inventions would come to life posthumously.

“It’s remarkably revolutionary for his time,” said Smith. “He did not publish in his lifetime, but after the fact, his writings were making discoveries that others wouldn’t land on for a hundred, 200 and 300 years later. He was just leaps and bounds ahead of his time.”

The exhibit is exhilarating if for no other reason than being so close to work done by one the worlds greatest individuals. But the museum really went above and beyond to make it an immersive experience. Both through production as well as curation.

“The lighting, the cases, the juxtaposition of centuries, the entrance at a different area even, all of it very different and I think pretty exciting,” said Smith. “It’s not every day that you get to have Leonardo in house.”

Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Leicester and the Power of Observation will be showing at the Phoenix Art Museum until April 25. General Admission is $15 for adults, $6 for children ages 6 to 17, $12 for seniors and $10 for college students with identification. Museum members and children under 6 are admitted free. Admission for this exhibition is reduced to $8 for adults, $5 for children ages 6 to 17 during our voluntary donation time, Wednesdays from 3 to 9 p.m. and First Fridays from 6 to 10 p.m. For more information, visit the Phoenix Art Museum website.

Jeff Moses a senior contributor at Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at jmoses@moderntimesmagazine.com.
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