~ Posted by Simon Willis, May 10th 2012
More and more galleries are producing apps for their exhibitions. Some are modest, like the one for the Lucian Freud show at the National Portrait Gallery, which doesn't go beyond the exhibition itself. Others have bells and whistles. For its Abstract Expressionist exhibition in 2010, MoMA in New York produced an app with videos, interactive maps and audio commentary on the paintings. The problem was that artists like Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock made very big pictures, and the scale is lost on screen. The other problem is that if you're looking at a dark painting by Rothko on an iPad, you also see your own face reflected back at you.
The app for "Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist", which is on at the Queen's Gallery in London, is the best yet. You get illustrated mini-essays about every stage and aspect of Leonardo's career as an anatomist, each one ending with a video from a curator, historian or surgeon. You get animated comparisons with modern anatomical understanding, which occasionally show where Leonardo went wrong, but more often show how right he was.
But the real reason to download the app, of course, is the complete drawings, which, because of their scale and intricacy, work very well on screen. The pages of Leonardo's notebooks weren't that large, so you're not seeing them hugely reduced. The beauty of the drawings is in the detail, and on the iPad you can zoom in on every joint, nerve and tendon. On one sheet alone there are five separate studies of the muscles of the shoulder and arm, each drawing showing something different: the system of bones; the way the muscles attach to the bones; the muscles from the neck to the tip of the thumb, from two different angles; the shoulder with its largest muscle removed to show the smaller muscles underneath. It's all meticulously captured.
You can get close in the gallery too, but what you can't do is read Leonardo's notes, written in his famous mirror writing. On the iPad, the notes are reversed and translated in situ on each page, telling you what is shown, how it works or how it's best dissected, but also giving an insight into why he draws a hand, foot or heart in the way he does. "When you have drawn the bones of the hand," he wrote, "and wish to draw on this the muscles which are joined with these bones, make threads instead of muscles. I say threads and not lines in order that one should know what muscle goes below or above another muscle, which cannot be done with simple lines." Here is Leonardo using his art to make his science as clear as possible.
His mastery of the line extends to the one-liner. Next to a drawing of the lungs he wrote: "Dust does damage." Next to a drawing of a man's heart he wrote: "The heart is placed exactly in the middle between the brain and testicles."
"Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist" is on at the Queen's Gallery in London until October 7th. The iPad app costs £9.95