Exhibition – Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece – National Gallery (2019)
9 November 2019 – 26 January 2000
Professor Amanda Lillie (University of York) was co-curator with Dr Caroline Campbell (Director of Collections and Research, National Gallery) of the technologically pioneering exhibition Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece, held at the National Gallery, London, from 9 November 2019 to 26 January 2020 (extended from 12 January). This immersive exhibition was created by 59 Productions. It joined other events around the world in celebration of Leonardo da Vinci, five hundred years after his death in 1519.
Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece focused on Leonardo’s painting The Virgin of the Rocks (c. 1491/2-9 and 1506-8), part of the National Gallery's permanent collection. The exhibition was divided into four different experience areas: The Mind of Leonardo; The Studio; The Light and Shadow Experiment; and The Imagined Chapel. The Imagined Chapel provided the visual climax, showing the original painting surrounded by a projection of how it might have looked within the altarpiece for which it had been commissioned.
The exhibition was accompanied by an online publication, to which Professor Lillie contributed, including the article 'The Lost Altarpiece'.
500 years after his death, Leonardo remains one of the world’s most popular artists and the National Gallery’s Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece provides an immersive exploration of his genius as a painter, focusing on 'The Virgin of the Rocks'. Critics have described the Experience as ‘atmospheric’, ‘fun and informative’ and ‘a bold move.’
The ground floor galleries have been completely transformed into a space that investigates 'The Virgin of the Rocks' and the inventive mind that created it. A wide range of multi-sensory experiences are presented across four separate rooms. Visitors are able to step inside a similar chapel-setting and see what art historical research suggests the painting’s setting may have looked like. They can explore Leonardo’s own research, which informed the specific compositions in the painting. In addition they can see how Leonardo used his scientific studies to create strong effects of light and shadow in his painting. The modern process of discovery in a conservation studio, where the mysteries and secrets of a painting are uncovered, are also brought to life with visitors being able to engage in detail with the latest findings underneath 'The Virgin of the Rocks'.
Professor Lillie co-convened a colloquium in York with Professor Liz Prettejohn (Department of History of Art, University of York) and Professor Hugh Haughton (Department of English, University of York), in conjunction with the exhibition: 'The Virgin of the Rocks: Artists and Writers Responding to Leonardo, c.1850 to c.1930' was held on 6 December 2019.
Dr Campbell gave a 'Curator’s Introduction to Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece' in a lunchtime talk at the National Gallery on 9 December 2019:
One of the real aspirations in the Leonardo exhibition […] was to be able to present this type of material more clearly; […]another, related, was to be able to show the picture more beautifully and more wonderfully than sometimes it is possible to do in the galleries; and thirdly, to be able to give a sense of its original context. [...] In thinking through how we might do that, and how we could present this very complex and sometimes very challenging material in a way that would seem exciting, we decided to work with […] 59 Productions. […] We wanted to find somebody who could work with us to tell a very complicated story in a way that wasn’t the way we normally do things here at the National Gallery, and which we hoped would be immersive and encourage people to come back for more. […] This of course is very experimental and I think we at the National Gallery are the first major institution to try and do an exhibition of this kind.
[...] When working through what this exhibition was going to be, with 59 Productions, [...] together with my co-curator Amanda Lillie from the University of York , and Larry Keith and Marika Spring from our Conservation and Scientific Departments here [at the National Gallery], what we really wanted to have was a duality: was the sense of how Leonardo had made that painting; [...] and secondly to be able to show how we study paintings at the National Gallery.
[...] At the moment Amanda Lillie and I, together with 59 Productions and our colleagues in Digital, are working on a digital recreation of the altarpiece, which will include all of it, which we’ll put on our website in due course: [...] this is still very much work in progress. And I wanted to underline that one of the points of doing this exhibition in this way was because it really is underpinned by academic research - and academic research which is not just completed but which is continuing - and, in fact, will probably will continue for several more years.
(Dr Caroline Campbell, 'Curator’s Introduction to Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece')
Main image: Exhibition banner for 'Leonardo: Experience a Masteroeice' at the National Gallery, London (2019-20)