Leonardo Da Vinci left 7200 pages of notebooks after his death, filled with anatomical and scientific drawings, detailed designs for new machines and weapons, military strategies, maps, sketches, and observations, as well as 15 paintings. He was interested in art, engineering, biology, medicine and geology amongst many other subjects. Walter Isaacson’s book is an interpretation and analysis of those notebooks and paintings. If you have ever wondered about the life and mind of a voracious creative genius, then this is undoubtedly a satisfying read. The six hundreds pages of the book, ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’ by Walter Isaacson it is an immensely impressive undertaking.
Author Walter Isaacson was born in 1952; he is an American writer and journalist. One of the main focal points of his career is not only the critically acclaimed biographies he has written about Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Leonardo Da Vinci but also that Isaacson was the chairman and CEO of CNN during the 9/11 attacks.
Isaacson is a very experienced wordsmith. He has the skill and experience to carefully draw out the life of the gay and ostentatiously dressed artists life. The book is a story of a truly gifted artist who often failed to complete his projects and commissions. Leonardo’s uncompleted work can sometimes be incorrectly misunderstood making him seem penurious, both artistically and financially. However, Isaacson proposes that Leonardo’s wide-ranging curiosities gave his work more substance. That meandering is precisely what made him distinguished and extraordinary in what he achieved.
The book is balanced by the author’s artistic licence to analysis and understand how Leonardo thought by interpreting the footnotes of Leonardo drawings. Leonardo had an intensely, inquisitive nature about all areas of life, which is highlighted by his to-do list. With items such as; why is the sky blue? Describe the tongue of the woodpecker; get the measurements of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni; and get a master of hydraulics to explain how to repair a lock, a canal and a mill. Leonardo’s inquisitive nature was insatiable, unsurpassed and beyond compare. Although he lacked formal education, Leonardo achieved so much in his lifetime. It took hundreds of years for the rest of the world to catch him up.
Leonardo was aware of his contemporaries like the young Michelangelo, but Isaacson’s book shows that he never tried to compete with his peers. He always seemed to know he was on a different path. Leonardo was interested in knowledge about life and how things work for its own sake. He turned down many lucrative commissions, clearly showing self-gain wasn’t necessary to him. Leonardo had no interest in trying to prove things to people he didn’t know or respect.
Leonardo knew what he didn’t want. His ego and his legacy weren’t important to him. For Leonardo following such a path would feel restrained, like being in prison, captive to someone else’s demands. Instead, Leonardo developed a hunch and followed his intuition. He pursued whatever made him happy at that moment, getting lost in whatever took his fancy. He wanted complete, unconditional creative freedom that was free from interference.
Leonardo doesn’t stop after the endless uncompleted projects and paintings. Instead, he was too interested in being an unpretentious student of life. When he paints, it is as if to prove the point that they are no precise lines, boundaries or borders in nature. Leonardo believed that lines are mathematical constructs without physical presence. Leonardo said;
“Do not edge contours with a definite outline, because the contours are lines and they are invisible, not only from a distance but also closer to hand. If the line and the mathematical point are invisible, the outline of things also being lines are invisible even when they are nearer. Instead, an artist needs to represent the shape and volume of objects, rely on light and shadow. The line forming the boundary of a surface is of invisible thickness; therefore, O painter do not surround your bodies with lines.”
Instead, he became the pioneer of a technique, taken from the Italian word for smoke, ‘sfumato’. Leonardo’s technique helps to soften the transition between colour and makes line irrelevant. This is very noticeable in the Mona Lisa.
I enjoyed this extensive attention-holding book. It asked profound questions about who we want to be in life. Although it is possible to pull the historical contexts from 15th-century Italian culture at times, Isaacson acknowledges that he lacked “intimate personal revelations.” However, he makes up for it by trying to process the 7200 notebooks and paintings. On the whole, it was a delightful read.
Michael Craig-Martin’s book titled ‘On being an artist’ is a collection of thoughts and notes that he has written over his career. The book is written in an informal style, making it easy to read. They range from chapter titles such as, ‘On advice for aspiring artist,’ to ‘On British attitudes to contemporary art.’ Michael presents an interesting and insightful account of a young artist finding his way into the contemporary art world.
Michael who was born in 1941 studied Fine Art at Yale University for Art and Architecture. In 1966 Michael crossed the Atlantic and started a new life in England. To support his artistic practice Michael started teaching. The highlights of the early part of his career include the artwork ‘An Oak Tree’ (1973) and teaching artists such as Damian Hirst, Julian Opie and Gary Hume at Goldsmiths.
Michael Craig-Martin book ‘On being an artist’ – related links
Michael’s clear and concise explanation of conceptual art while discussing, ‘An Oak Tree’ (1973) is one of the many interesting parts of the book. He points out that mistakenly many art critics try to see a literal concept rather than treat as a poetic idea. The artwork creates a suspension of disbelief and highlights how conceptual art doesn’t exist in the object itself but in the mind of the viewer. As a mental concept ‘An oak tree’ like all conceptual art, it is a trigger to encourage contemplation. The work highlights how art creates a place inside your head where you can go on your own to process the world and its complexities.
Michael has established a highly successful international art career. Throughout the book, Michael gives a very honest account of the highs and lows of being an artist. I found his frankness and openness thought-provoking. However, Michael says with all sincerity, “I would never advise anyone to become an artist. If you have another option, take it.”
As an artist myself I found Michael’s personal account and practical information is very informative. I enjoyed the clear and concise ideas and concepts, which are explained in a friendly and helpful manner. I am sure the book would also be interesting and engaging for anyone who is interested in the life of an artist.
Michael Craig-Martin, ‘On being an artist’ – related book reviews
If you have ever wondered what an artist’s life would be like if they put art first at the expenses of relationships, friendships and family. If so, then this is the book to read. For a few years before Lucian Freud’s death, Geordie Greig the editor from the Mail on Sunday was able to share breakfast with Lucian at his favourite restaurant, Clarkes on Kensington Church Street. Greig’s book about Freud does a worthy job of sketching out the painter’s hedonistic personal life. ‘Breakfast with Lucian’ is the story of an adulterous, brawler and rogue with no boundaries or restraints.
This book is written in the style of an author’s note. Interesting facts and aspects of his life are uncovered within the writing. There are many shocking tales of Freud, like the time he smelt a woman strong perfume in public, he raised his voice saying, “I hate perfume. Women should smell of one thing. Cunt! In fact, they should invent a perfume called cunt.”
Freud was never willing to apologise for his inexcusable behaviour. His actions are like his paintings, were engaging and frighteningly real. Greig tried hard to give an account of Freud’s life without judgement or blame but instead, at times, I found it gossipy. It tends to focus on aspects of his life, like Freud’s role as a father. I wanted a read a different type of book. As an artist, I wanted to read about Freud’s ability to undress the human soul in his paintings.
Freud could sketch out a life for what it really was. He had the drive to work towards uncovering answer about being human. Freud explained that “When I’m painting people in clothes I’m thinking very much of naked people, or animals dressed.” Freud was able to go beyond just painting, to create an ‘intensification of reality.’ He explains, “The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.” In his painting practice, he dug deep making this meaning visible for others to see, while everything in his personal life was left to rot.
There was clearly a great sacrifice from the people around Freud who put up with the death threats, his scandalous sexual exploits and escaping the Krays. ‘Breakfast with Lucian’ is clearly entertaining, but in spite of that, I wanted to know more about what Freud achieved with his art than whisperings about his personal life.
My overriding feeling is that this is a book of anecdotes which does not try to explain truly explain Freud and the reasons behind his fantastic paintings. When reading it I had to remind myself that it was written by an editor from a daily rag who undoubtedly loves scandal. It would a completely different book if it was written by an art critic, historian or even an art aficionado.
However, Freud indulgence in his art unquestionably doesn’t justify the way he conducted himself and the way he treated others. Throughout his life’s work, Freud revealed a spectacular spectrum of deep meaning about human life, one that many other artists would be fearful to delve into.
Eric Fischl was born in 1948 in New York City, his suburban upbringing and career as an internationally acclaimed American artist is presented in his book ‘Bad Boy’.
Fischl shares his deep wounds when discussing his personal relationships, especially with his depressed and alcoholic mother. These troubling experiences made their way into his artwork creating a dialogue about his personal wounds and ironically they ultimately lead to him getting into trouble.
The death of Fischl’s mother inspired the work he became famous for. It is interesting that after his first solo show in New York at the Edward Thorp Gallery in 1979 and the following success lead to him ‘going off the rails’ as the book title suggests and he enjoyed success a little too much.
Fischl’s book is informative and helpful to other artists. There are interesting advice and tips on how to deal with the process of being a successful artist and he discusses the issues and ideas in his work.
Eric Fischl says in the book,
“Painting is a process that guides me back through complex experiences that I didn’t have words to describe or understand. It relieves feelings and memories and brings them forward with clarity and resolution. Each one of my paintings is like a journey, a process to excavate nuggets of emotion, artefacts of memory, the treasures buried in my unconscious. My imagery evokes feelings that were once too painful to ephemeral or too embarrassing to articulate or even to remember.”
Eric Fischl’s ideas are well developed and considered as you would expect from someone who has had international success as an artist. He uses clear, convincing and honest language. I think the book is a good read and has lots of information and advice about dealing with life an artist. I enjoyed reading it and strongly recommend it.