Essays on Art by A. Clutton-Brock


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Page 5

Before Francis Bacon, before Velasquez or Manet, he prophesied not
merely the new artist or the new man of science, but the new man who is
to free himself from his inheritance and to see, feel, think, and act in
all things with the spontaneity of God. That is why he is a legendary
hero to us, with a legend that is not in the past but in the future. For
his prophecy is still far from fulfilment; and the very science that he
initiated tells us how hard it is for man to free himself from his
inheritance. It seems strange to us that Leonardo sang hymns to
causation as if to God. In its will was his peace and his freedom.

O marvellous necessity, thou with supreme reason constrainest
all efforts to be the direct result of their causes, and by a
supreme and irrevocable law every natural action obeys thee by
the shortest possible process.

Who would believe that so small a space could contain the
images of all the universe? O mighty process, what talent can
avail to penetrate a nature such as thine? What tongue will it
be that can unfold so great a wonder? Verily none. This it is
that guides the human discourse to the considering of divine

[Footnote 1: The sayings of Leonardo quoted in this article are taken
from _Leonardo da Vinci's Notebooks_, by E. M'Curdy. (Duckworth, 1906.)]

To Leonardo causation meant the escape from caprice; it meant a secure
relation between man and all things, in which man would gain power by
knowledge, in which every increase of knowledge would reveal to him more
and more of the supreme reason. There was no chain for him in cause and
effect, no unthinking of the will of man. Rather by knowledge man would
discover his own will and know that it was the universal will. So man
must never be afraid of knowledge. "The eye is the window of the soul."
Like Whitman he tells us always to look with the eye, and so to confound
the wisdom of ages. There is in every man's vision the power of relating
himself now and directly to reality by knowledge; and in knowing other
things he knows himself. By knowledge man changes what seemed to be a
compulsion into a harmony; he gives up his own caprice for the universal

That is the religion of Leonardo, in art as in science. For him the
artist also must relate himself directly to the visible world, in which
is the only inspiration; to accept any formula is to see with dead men's
eyes. That has been said again and again by artists, but not with
Leonardo's mystical and philosophical conviction. He knew that it is
vain to study Nature unless she is to you a goddess or a god; you can
learn nothing from reality unless you adore it, and in adoring it he
found his freedom. How different is this doctrine from that with which,
after centuries of scientific advance, we intimidate ourselves. We are
threatened by a creed far more enslaving than that of the Middle Ages.
If the Middle Ages turned to the past to learn what they were to think
or to do, we turn to the past to learn what we are. They may have feared
the new; but we say that there is no new, nothing but some combination
or variation of the old. Causation is to us a chain that binds us to the
past, but to Leonardo it was freedom; and so he prophesies a freedom
that we may attain to not by denying facts or making myths, but by
discovering what he hinted--that causation itself is not compulsion but
will, and our will if, by knowledge, we make it ours.

No one before him had been so much in love with reality, whatever it may
be. He was called a sceptic, but it was only that he preferred reality
itself to any tales about it; and his religion, his worship, was the
search for the very fact. This, because he was both artist and man of
science, he carried further than anyone else, pursuing it with all his
faculties. In his drawings there is the beauty not of his character, but
of the character of what he draws; he does not make a design, but finds

it--but it is the beauty of the thing itself, discovered and insisted
upon with the passion of a lover. He draws animals, trees, flowers, as
Correggio draws Antiope or Io; and it is only in his drawings now that
he speaks clearly to us. The "Mona Lisa" is well enough, but another
hand might have executed the painting of it. It owes its popular fame to
the smile about which it is so easy to write finely; but in the drawings
we see the experiencing passion of Leonardo himself, we see him
feeling, as in the notebooks we see him thinking. There is the eagerness
of discovery at which so often he stopped short, turning away from a
task to further discovery, living always in the moment, taking no
thought either for the morrow or for yesterday, unable to attend to any
business, even the business of the artist, seeing life not as a struggle
or a duty, but as an adventure of all the senses and all the faculties.
He is, even with his pencil, the greatest talker in the world, but
without egotism, talking always of what he sees, satisfying himself not
with the common appetites and passions of men, but with his one supreme
passion for reality. If Michelangelo thought him a dilettante, there
must have been in his taunt some envy of Leonardo's freedom.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 5th Jun 2020, 10:18