Vitruvians and a Mouse

Da Vinci inspired Engine Room Gallery exhibition. Click Play Video for an online exhibition narrated by gallery owner Cliff Brookes

When Leonardo Da Vinci produced his Vitruvian Man drawing in 1487, he did so in keeping with the Renaissance artist’s preoccupation with reaching perfection.

Based on the theoretical work of Vitruvius, the ancient Roman architect who argued that architecture might learn a thing or two in terms of proportion from the human body itself, Da Vinci’s sketch of a nude, adult male with arms outstretched and legs divided, positioned within a square within a circle, would henceforth be trumpeted as the ideal representation of the ideal man.

Artists throughout the subsequent centuries endeavored to maintain this idealised view of the human 'Slogan Heads', Jack Pakenhamform. There were some mavericks along the way, like the late 18th, early 19th century Spanish artist Francisco Goya, whose Black Paintings were not so much concerned with the physical representation of the human form as the subconscious condition of the human psyche.

But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the art world finally broke free of the constraints of convention. Gone were the beautiful specimens of the Renaissance legacy. In their place, man became distorted, re-evaluated in the impressionist, Cubist and surrealist mold.

Vitruvians and a Mouse, the current exhibition at the Engine Room gallery in Belfast, looks at how far the art world and her artists have come since Da Vinci’s academic study of the human form.

The selection of drawings and paintings on show in the Engine Room, loaned from the Fenderesky collection as part of an ongoing collaboration between the two galleries, do not by any means have the same immediate effect as Goya‘s monstrous visions. But they convey the same idea - that man is not perfect, that there are two sides to every coin.

'Renaissance man saw the human mind and the human body in terms of the peak of creation, God’s creation,' explains Engine Room Gallery owner Cliff Brookes. 

'That sort of perception followed through right into Victorian times. But over the past hundred years, increasingly the image of the Vitruvian Man is an image that contemporary artists struggle to relate to. 

'Portrait with Weed', Sharon Kelly'I think the reasons for this are obvious. In the last century we’ve had two horrific world wars, with numerous wars in between. We’ve had disasters that have led, ultimately, in this century, to man literally destroying his own environment. 

'So contemporary artists' view of modern man doesn’t live up to Renaissance man’s idea of what humanity should aspire to. That is what this exhibition is about.'

Vitruvians and a Mouse
is a dark, intensely introspective exhibition. Without any explanation of the concept behind the drawings and paintings on show - not to mention John Brown's rusty toaster piece, mysteriously decorated with a mouse -, some will find these works difficult to comprehend. 

Others will recoil from the warped, childlike portrayal of modern man by the likes of Jack Pakenham, Alastair Maclennan, David Crone, Graham Gingles and Sharon Kelly with bewildered disbelief. How can such acclaimed artists produce such messy, unattractive work?

Brookes can see the potential for division that the exhibition holds. But it's the positive, underlying message behind the pieces that saves him from dropping to his knees in fatalistic anguish.

'Although many of the figures perhaps appear a little monster-like and capable of perpetrating great evil, really, for the most part, I see them more as victims, quite sympathetically drawn.
'Again, that is where the huge difference between modern thinking on humanity and 'Toaster', John BrownRenaissance thinking on humanity comes into play. In the past it was black and white, good versus evil. 

'The modern consensus is that we are all capable of evil whilst at the same time we are all capable of becoming victims of that same evil. Finally artists are free enough to tackle that subject in their work.

'I'm not depressed by an exhibition like this at all. Though I must admit on the opening night one guy who was an artist said ‘This is a terribly depressing show’. 

'You could look at the work in that way, but for me it's not depressing, not when you realize there is a purpose to it, a theme. When you take that theme and that purpose and say "look, humanity isn’t perfect, let’s try and improve it somehow", that is a positive thing for me. I think this exhibition succeeds in doing that.' 

Lee Henry

Vitruvians and a Mouse runs in the Engine Room Gallery until September 27.