The Keeper of the Keys Tells His Tale

By Mike LankfordAugust 17, 2018

The Keeper of the Keys Tells His Tale

Living with Leonardo by Martin Kemp

LEONARDO STUDIES can be divided into two main camps: traditional scholars who have studied the artist for decades and have developed firm opinions, and those on the outside who bring fresh eyes and great enthusiasm, perhaps, but not much else — at least according to those on the inside. And no one resides deeper inside the institutional Leonardo than does Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of the History of Art at Trinity College, Oxford.

Or, to put it another way: if you think you’ve discovered a lost Leonardo in your attic and you need the painting blessed and sanctified before putting it on the market — call Kemp, he’s your man. He is also, one gets the sense, extremely hard to persuade.

Kemp’s new memoir is the story of his intensive study of the artist’s work over the past 50 years. Detailing his attempts to discover and understand an individual who was not only cryptic but utterly unique, Living with Leonardo is not a work of scholarship so much as a study of the scholar himself and the long road he’s traveled. Kemp first discovered Leonardo while studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge, and his approach to the artist has always been scientific — i.e., quantitative and incremental, not allowing of much speculation (of which he felt there was plenty already).

Early in the book, Kemp records his disdain for metaphor and other verbal fireworks as not telling us anything worthwhile about the art or the artist. Though he has softened his opinion somewhat over the years, as a young man Kemp first came to Leonardo through the sciences, specifically through Leonardo’s drawings of human anatomy, which he encountered in Windsor Castle. (Kemp grew up in the castle’s shadow, attending Windsor Grammar School.) His approach to Leonardo was never that of the aesthete or connoisseur, or even the historian; rather, he is very much an empiricist — physical evidence speaks loudest to him, not taste or fashion or peer pressure, although he is a great respecter of precedent.

How we apprehend genius, even how we talk about genius, has been challenged in recent years with concerns about the “mad genius” or the genius as predator. A version of this argument has actually been going on since at least the 19th century, when Tolstoy shrunk Napoleon down to size in War and Peace. Tolstoy’s exact contemporary, Mark Twain, came at the topic with characteristic humor, satirically eviscerating everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Shakespeare. But while novelists and then literary scholars in general began reevaluating the notion of the “great man” in history, art historians continued just as before, deifying the great artist. This was, after all, the age of Walter Pater and John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle. The notion of the great artist seemed only to expand under their rhetorical finesse — developing into a cultural icon that Kenneth Clark would call “the artist as hero.” This deification has been going on since Giorgio Vasari wrote the very first art history, and it’s still going on today.

The biographies of great artists create a dilemma for the scholar. On the one hand, there is the art itself, which speaks volumes and should need no interpreter; on the other hand, there is the art critic, chock full of opinions and eager to share. Most art histories are written out of this tension, but not so with Kemp — he writes to explain, not to argue. When he finds himself caught up in an argument, as was the case with the fraught attributions of La Bella Principessa and Salvator Mundi, one senses his reluctance to join the fray. He’s a scholar, a researcher who happens to have expertise on an artist who is at the center of a worldwide fascination, so his phone rings a lot. He’s also a doting grandfather who builds Renaissance toys for his grandchild.

Most of his time these days is taken up with lecturing and writing and consulting, on everything from rediscovered works found in attics to museum exhibits all over the world. In the early chapters of Living with Leonardo, he takes us through his own discovery of Leonardo’s art, starting with The Last Supper (which he did not like at all), through the complete 20-year restoration of that painting (he’s still not sure about it), through various minor efforts, to the Mona Lisa herself — of which Kemp is a world-class explainer. After reading Kemp, that well-known painting pulses with life and seems new once again.

This raises an interesting question about art history: When does the interpreter begin adding his or her own intelligence to the thing interpreted? In other words, when does illumination become something more? Leonardo’s attempts to probe certain complex mechanisms in nature are given an even sharper focus centuries later when a writer with a gift like Kemp’s explains it all to us. His analysis of Leonardo’s engineering drawings, which he describes as suggesting a “structural intuition,” is so insightful and entirely reasonable that it is surely correct. Yet it is also an evolved understanding, not half so well articulated by Leonardo himself. The intelligence of the observer changes the thing observed, and the problem for the historian (or the reader) is to distinguish between the view at the time of creation and how it appears to us much later, cleaned up and set straight. Over the past 500 years, Leonardo has become encrusted with the brilliance of others, some of it that of Martin Kemp, who has been hugely influential in constructing the Leonardo we view today.

So how should one approach Leonardo — by adding a bit more varnish to the portrait, or by stripping it all away? In a sense, Kemp does both. He faults connoisseurs who imagine qualities in the paintings that do not exist, yet as a scientist Kemp has his own lens to approach his subject. The resultant portrait of Leonardo is of a rather modern, scientific man, who looks a lot like us. The traditional view of Leonardo has not been that of a scientist doing art, as Kemp seems to describe him, but of an artist distracted by science — and an artist dabbling in science is rather different from a scientist turning to art. Scientists are deliberate and think in a methodical way; artists, on the other hand, often don’t have a plan, or even a clue, and are frequently unsure of their purpose until they discover it at some later point. They’re playing, figuring it out as they go along, allowing the work to reveal itself. Leonardo’s entire life speaks to this improvisational process — suggesting a cast of mind, a way of seeing. The Leonardo I’ve come to know has much more in common with Thelonious Monk than he has with Jonas Salk, although he clearly resembles both at times. That’s the amazement of Leonardo.

As Kemp reminds us, we see the Leonardo we are prepared to see. And to look at Leonardo today is not to see a man alone, thinking in the dark, but an institutional icon, bathed in light. This seems profoundly ironic. Leonardo, the ultimate outsider, has become the ultimate insider, one whose paintings set world records on the art market. Kemp tells us that Leonardo would have relished this irony. I rather think it would perplex him deeply. He’d take the money and run, of course, but hearing himself talked about with curatorial certainty would, I believe, drive him mad.

Kemp’s Living with Leonardo is not really about the artist, however, or even about Kemp himself, so much as it is about the modern world that Leonardo’s art inhabits, a world of museums and art restorers and “distinguished” authorities who don’t all agree, as well as charlatans and nut cases of every variety. Leonardo attracts them all, and Kemp delights in telling their story. At bottom, though, this is a tale of the money Old Master paintings attract and the verification process that goes on behind the scenes to ensure that this money is spent on authentic goods. The book is fascinating when it shows us the small world of the art experts, the verifiers, the connoisseurs, the curators and their corporate sponsors, and the feverish little head-space they occupy. Kemp has been there, seen it all, and lived to tell the tale.


Mike Lankford is the author of Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of Leonardo da Vinci (Melville House, 2017), a Wall Street Journal 2017 Book of the Year.

LARB Contributor

Mike Lankford is the author of Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of Leonardo da Vinci (Melville House, 2017), a Wall Street Journal 2017 Book of the Year.


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