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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Disastrous Paintings

There is hardly an artist alive today who can't report from his or her past a work that turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.  I once tried painting kittens with a palette knife--not perhaps the best choice of method for such soft, fuzzy, cuddly little creatures.  I don't know what ever happened to it and I don't much care.  Even the greatest of artist have succumbed to similar misfortune.  Michelangelo--his Tomb of Julius II, Leonardo da Vinci--his unfortunate mixed media experiment with The Last Supper.  One of Frank Lloyde Wright's clients was plagued by a leaky roof right over his seat at the dining room table in his Wright-designed home.  The architect told him to move his chair.

Study for Milan equestrian
sculpture, 1482-90,
Actually, when it comes to Leonardo, genius that he was, his bravado often outpaced the technical limitations of his media.  He went to Milan in 1482 to design and cast a bronze equestrian statue 23 feet tall, more than twice as large as anything ever attempted before.  The problem was, he spent more time while there directing extravagant entertainment productions than building his horse. He was more than ten years, drawing it, engineering it, modeling it, even remodeling it.  They even got as far as acquiring the nearly ten tons of bronze for it, only to have the model destroyed when Milan fell to French invaders in 1499. Leonardo fled for his life.  However, once back in Florence, around 1505, there came an even greater disaster--The Battle of Anghiari.

Commissioned by the city fathers in direct competition with his upstart rival, Michelangelo, who was to paint the opposite wall in the council chamber, (a scene titled The Battle of Cascina, which was never executed). Leonardo was faced with a giant space and neither the experience nor the temperament to work in true fresco, the logical medium for such a commission.  With the difficulties of the Last Supper still fresh in his mind, he fortunately eschewed tempera on gesso and decided to try reviving the ancient Roman painting medium, encaustic.  Leonardo was nothing if not ambitious. 

Battle of Anghiari, 1603 drawing,
Peter Paul Rubens, based on studies
 by Leonardo

Basically the medium involves mixing and painting with pigments added to hot wax. Traditionally such work had been done on small, wooden panels.  To facilitate his movement in front of the wall Leonardo invented an ingenious wheeled scaffolding that could be raised and lowered by workmen turning a large wooden screw in its crisscrossed legs.  If only his genius had extended to a way to paint large-scale murals using hot wax without generating so much heat from his braziers as to cause the finished portions of the painting to melt, he might have created a considerable masterpiece.  As it was, ever the scientist, Leonardo discovered the law of physics which says that when heat rises, wax descends.

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