Karen Haber Reviews Leonardo 2 by Stéphane Levallois

Leonardo 2, Stéphane Levallois (NBM/Louvre éditions 978-1-681122-64-9, $29.99, 96pp, hc) October 2020. Cover by Stéphane Levallois.

If we ever needed art, we need it now. Discuss­ing art books in a time of plague may seem frivolous, but there’s an argument to be made that any distraction becomes precious during times of extreme stress. Also valuable is the reminder of the sublime and ingenious ways humans can transmute powerful emotions into deeply mean­ingful images. It’s a skill that has been hardwired into Homo sapiens from the time of cave dwelling. Art, like music, has the power to heal, to connect, to ease the claustrophobic isolation we each of us suffer inside our own lonely skulls.

This column is being written as we slog our way through the eighth month of the pandemic, two weeks before the Presidential election. Here in Northern California, we are also enduring the cycle of drought and wildfires that has turned Autumn into a terrifying season on the Left Coast.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to escape from the pandemic and other threats through the magic that art provides, through virtual tours of museums, online tutorials, paint-by-numbers, and virtual or actual books.

Some of the books I discuss below are from 2019, but I think their value is important right now for comfort and delight. I’ve enjoyed crawl­ing into them, and I invite you all to join me in the magic cave.

Leonardo 2 by Stéphane Levallois is a brilliant melding of space opera and art history spiced up with a clear shout-out to gay pride that has been wonderfully combined in this hardcover novel.

A big handsome volume from NBM and Louvre editions, Leonardo 2 is the newest in a series of art-heavy graphic novels by various artists in cooperation with the Louvre Museum. Each artist creates a story based upon an element from the Louvre’s fabled collections.

Levallois, a concept artist for Hollywood films, focused on Leonardo da Vinci. Over two years, he taught himself to draw with his opposite hand to replicate the Renaissance master’s work as accurately as possible, and painstakingly redrew and painted Leonardo’s sketches and paintings for his own use.

In this ingenious tour de force he celebrates the human spirit and curiosity, openness to the unknown, queer identity, and the peculiar human ability to transmute the familiar into new and interesting ideas.

The space opera at the heart of the book revolves around a clone of Leonardo created by the desper­ate remnants of humanity to save and redeem the human species from murderous alien foes. Alter­nating with the tale of the far future is the story of Leonardo’s life, underlining his homosexuality and the androgyny of many of his portraits.

Levallois interprets Leonardo’s designs and incorporates them into the characters, vessels, and architecture of his story, creating both machineries of space and scenes of aesthetic wonder.

Printed in black, sepia, and white with judicious use of color – as in “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne” – and featuring impressive endpapers, the book opens with cinematic power in a series of wordless black-and-white panels. On page 14, the first words of the tale appear. Throughout the book, Levallois employs the sequential art format to create mystery, poignancy, and a sense of wonder.

He makes clever use of some of the Renais­sance master’s most famous images (“Vitruvian Man”, circa 1490; “Saint John the Baptist”, circa 1508-1519; “Study of Two Warrior’s Heads for the Battle of Anghari”, 1503-1504,) but avoids using that most famous image of all, Mona Lisa, which might have been too distracting. Perhaps his most inspired artistic flight is the translation of a circular plant sketch into a space/time vortex late in the story.

In the afterword, discussing several of his inspi­rations, the artist comments, “When you look at them closely, you realize Leonardo’s inventions and designs present a repertory of forms perfect for science fiction.”

This is the graphic novel at its best, educational for anyone unfamiliar with the sketches of Leon­ardo – is there anyone? – or just pure delight for art lovers. Don’t miss it.

This review and more like it in the December 2020 issue of Locus.

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