The week before Christmas an old friend of mine got me and Thathusband in to the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery. A rare proper grown-up night out, with drinks and canapés and time to read the descriptions by the paintings, for once, ha ha, to see the writing on the wall.
And, obviously, they aren’t half bad. Some of them are famous enough to make you feel like some weird kind of faker in their presence; others are immense and seem to glow in the dark almost, to strange you out in their familiarity, otherness, modernity and agedness.
There are lots of sketches and there’s something in their peculiar fragility and what they reveal about the obsessive attempt to capture first reality and then perfection. The emphasis on dimension and symmetry, the again and again and again-ness of the hunt for the look of a hand, an ear, an ermine, a back, a muscular calf, a child’s face – all scrawled in red or blue or black. The search for authenticity is fascinating.
There are some wonderful pieces, perhaps the big guns being the two versions of The Virgin Of The Rocks. But relieved as I was to get to gen up and take my time I found myself pulled, as ever, to seeing the exhibition through the filter of my new self and the tiny world I now inhabit since having children, and probably since I last had a leisurely walk through a gallery with my husband and without a changing bag.
For a thousand reasons, I’m still breastfeeding newborn. Mainly, I guess, because whenever I try to stop he can sense my ambivalence and either cluster-feeds like a newborn to bank his supply, or goes nuts at night bringing my paper-thin grasp on my mind and my happiness shuddering to a sleepless halt.
Maybe that is why I was drawn to a series of sketches and a painting: The Madonna Litta and in particular the idea of authenticity and what that means. Now, I’m told by better art critics than I that, though long attributed, many think this wasn’t painted by Leonardo but by one of his followers (or at least finished off).
I’ve posted the picture but struggled to find an official one to publish, so will take it down if I get told off. For now, look up. I don’t know who dunnit. But I do know this: the painter nailed breastfeeding.
I’m not surprised; I’m sure it was a more common sight in da Vinci’s time. But also I saw the sketches. Sketches trying again and again to get around the fat and thin and luminously fuzzy and sharply defined nature of babies and toddlers; attempts to capture their cheeks working, their faces in profile; turning, turning, degree by degree away from the world and then back to it. The hunt, by whichever artist, for the right angle to show the breastfeeding Christ as a suckling babe.
Wikipedia refers to the awkward pose of the child (and other details like the outline), suggesting this is not the real deal. And it may not be a da Vinci but the kid is doing nothing symbolic that is particular or perculiar to the son of God in a symbolic drawing. The kid in the picture is nailing breastfeeding too and entering the obvious next stage: ‘I can feed, now I will survey my kingdom with a nipple clamped in my mouth at whichever angle I choose, however I contort my mother’s boob’.
He’s not tiny, not a newborn (unlike most images we get of breastfeeding these days). He’s easily out of his early days, a couple of months, maybe quite a bit older in my view. Look at the fat folds! Mostly though, his strong but relaxed cheeks give him away, and his posture. He’s owning that breast, and turning away regardless of how painful that is to his mother, to look out and away. And check out the hand, resting on her boob, territorial, protective, about to slap in some primaeval attempt to increase let down, perhaps, if that frizzy haired tot is anything like mine, about to pinch the flesh in his thick fingers just to remind her he’s there.
His neck is taut, he’s latched, and crucially, like all breastfed babies once securely on, he’s looking for a better offer. He may be looking away, this sucking Christchild: to the heavens, to his Father, to his future, on humanity, to us the viewer of the painting, perpetual and timeless voyeurs on his infancy, or however you want to read it with an art historian’s hat on.
With a mother’s hat, I’ll tell you this: for all the historical debate over whether Mary is beautiful enough in it, or her hands too clumsy, I think that the genius of the picture is its reality. The intention may be some symbolism of Christ looking in another direction, directly at us in fact as his mother gazes down immersed in that wonderful view of their face you get when they are feeding. The truth? They all do that. All babies. The minute they learn to feed and can control their head they plug in then look out. On the tit: the perfect vantage point to assess the world you are going to conquer be you God, monster, saviour or, simply, milk-obsessed scamp.
Whatever the truth, that baby is all too human.