London's Blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci Exhibition Hits the Big Screen

London's Blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci Exhibition Hits the Big Screen
Detail from Leonardo da Vinci's "The Virgin of the Rocks," c. 1505
(Courtesy The National Gallery)

Can Leonardo da Vinci's star power translate to the big screen? After the blockbuster exhibition devoted to the Renaissance master closes at London’s National Gallery, Leonardo will hit theaters across the United States as the subject of "Leonardo Live." The film offers a virtual tour of the blockbuster exhibition "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan," which closes on February 4.

The 85-minute documentary offers a combination of interviews filmed in the galleries, segments on Leonardo's life, and mini-documentaries about the works on view, which include a full-scale copy of the “Last Supper” and “Salvator Mundi,” which was only recently attributed to the Renaissance master. Most of the paintings will never travel again; those from private collections may never again be on public view.

"Leonardo Live" premiered to enthusiastic crowds in Britain in November. The film was beamed live into 41 nearly sold-out cinemas across the United Kingdom on the exhibition’s preview night. "The National Gallery has spent five years putting this exhibition together, and basically only 500,000 people will get to see it in person," “Leonardo Live” director Phil Grabsky told BLOUIN ARTINFO. (Tickets to the National Gallery’s show were famously scalped and resold online for up to $400.)  The film will now premiere in the U.S. on February 16.

But what can one really glean from seeing art — which so often benefits from careful in-person inspection — on film? “Even if you’re lucky enough to get a ticket to the Leonardo show, you get about 18 seconds in front of a painting,” Grabsky said. “The great thing about a film is that I can focus on a detail and hold it.”

The film’s hosts, art historian and White Cube exhibitions director Tim Marlow and journalist Mariella Frostrup, get various perspectives on the masterpieces. They interview ballet dancer Deborah Bull about movement in the paintings, while "Harry Potter" actress Fiona Shaw discusses their theatricality.

“It’s one thing to go in and do a recorded documentary,” Grabsky said. “It’s another thing entirely to do a live show in a gallery filled with what is perhaps the most expensive grouping of paintings on exhibition anywhere in the world.” (A few hiccups from the live shooting — a camera that broke, an autocue that stopped — will be corrected in the United States version.)

The film came out of Grabsky's interest in doing a collaboration with the National Gallery even before he knew about the Leonardo exhibition. “I told them, ‘I want to do a live screening, have you got anything coming up?' And they kind of smiled, and said, ‘We’ve got perhaps the biggest artist there is.’”