Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan (National Gallery)

Leonardo’s masterpieces remain startlingly modern, finds Thomas Calvocoressi.

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan
National Gallery, London WC2

There's little that is codified, conspiratorial, overblown or even "blockbuster" about "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan", an exhibition that, in truth, befits the latter label more than any other in the National Gallery's recent history. The curator, Luke Syson, has achieved something remarkable: a crowd-pleasing, history-making show that is nevertheless quiet, contemplative and calm, despite its awesome star turns. And these do not disappoint - how could they?

Let's not understate the gallery's extraordinary achievement. After five years in gestation, this exhibition has pulled together nine of Leonardo's 20 or so surviving paintings for the first (and, perhaps, last) time. These are all the works - except one, the mural of The Last Supper, which remains in situ - that he painted during his most prolific period, from 1482 to 1499, as court painter for Ludovico Sforza, ruler of Milan. Each room is dominated by one or two of the masterpieces, surrounded by Leonardo's related sketches, some never shown before.

From the first of his portraits we come to, The Musician, we witness what sets Leonardo apart: a thrilling tension between the strict conventions of courtly and sacred portraiture and his life-giving realism and artistry. In La Belle Ferronnière, although the shape of the woman's face is geometrically perfect, her expression - pensive and slightly suspicious – is arresting in its modernity; she is turned half towards us, as if challenging us to disapprove. The Lady with an Ermine, depicting Sforza's mistress, has a purity of beauty that is meant both to celebrate love and elicit it in the viewer; but she looks away, eluding us with a knowing almost-smile.

It is such nuance and sensitivity to his sitters that gives these paintings their humanity, transcending the relatively stiff and bloodless portraits by followers such as d'Oggiono. In his unfinished painting Saint Jerome and the accompanying anatomical sketches, Leonardo shows how he understands the body literally inside out; the twisted, muscular, lion-loving priest has a naturalistic physicality that elevates the work from blank idealisation but in so doing also lays bare its subject's soul. In these works, Leonardo's skills as mathematician and anatomist and his brilliant imagination collide.

There are many other firsts here: the first time the two almost hallucinatory Virgin of the Rocks paintings have been displayed in the same gallery; the first showing of the recently attributed Christ as Salvator Mundi, with its hazy-faced Jesus and miraculous crystal ball; a highly intricate knot pattern that we are told can be considered the first work of abstract art. What stays with you most, though, are Leonardo's startlingly fresh drawings. From his scribbles of women with their wondrous sense of vitality and movement to his heavily reworked (pentimento), kinetic mother-and-child studies, it is as if - 500 years after his death - he is just around the corner, the ink wet on the page, the breath of genius hanging in the air.

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide