In LIVING WITH LEONARDO, Kemp tries to be engaging about a genius

Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond
By Martin Kemp

We have all surely heard that old Chinese proverb: ‘On Life’s road there are many forks.’ How true, how poignant. I, myself, have never been so wise. Not now, and not at the age of 13, when I decided that Johnny Depp was my hero, and that I, too, was to become an actor. I followed that road as far as I could – until, at 17, I was rejected by every major drama school in the country. Too young, too short, too shy, too bad, my dream swiftly faded. I was devastated. My life was forked.

Seized by tramp dread, I opted next for a more conventional route: university, to study English. Five applications went out, four rejections came back. Glasgow kept me from the clean sweep. But there was a twist. While York’s English department had tossed my CV, someone down the corridor had picked it back up. So came my way an entirely unsolicited proposal: an offer to read Art History – an offer I did not have to give much thought to. It was a no-brainer: it was a no, thank you. Yet, sometimes (just sometimes) I wish that I had not been so flippant.

We all think about what could have been – the mind will naturally wander – if only I went left, not right; to York, not Glasgow. But imagine how I felt, walking out of the bookshop holding Living with Leonardo. The paperback had come out that day; the hype had been around for a while. Because, after five decades in the business, a Vinci expert was laying the art world bare: the money, the crime, the drugs, the rampant shagging, this book was telling all – all that I was missing out on.

Now, this Martin Kemp is not that Martin Kemp – the Martin Kemp, Spandau Martin Kemp. This Martin Kemp is an art historian, an influential one. He has been a leading advocate for the attribution of both La Bella Principessa and the Salvator Mundi (now the world’s most expensive painting). He was personally involved in the recovery of the Buccleuch Madonna, stolen from Drumlanrig Castle in 2003, and in reinstating its counterpart, the Lansdowne Madonna, to Leonardo status. Alongside Giuseppe Pallanti, he has published significant findings on the artist’s lost mother: ‘Ma Vinci’, the elusive Caterina.

On Leonardo, Kemp has produced paper after paper, book after book. But this one is different: this one is a memoir – the sum of his career, of his life’s devotion. What a shame, then, that it is so poorly written.

The publishers Thames & Hudson made a promotional video for the hardback’s release – a Q&A. Questions appear on-screen then fade to reveal Kemp, flanked by sculpture and perched on a wooden armchair. The first is a softball. Eyes wide, he leans in to answer it: Describing the book in 3 words, that is difficult but… [he nods] ’Engaging with a genius.’ In the book, it is routine for his sentences to be a word (or five) too long. Perhaps he feels pressure to be as captivating as Leonardo – a pressure that keeps his hand on the page – for the problem is at its worst when he writes about himself.

In chapter one, Kemp reminisces about his first trip to Italy. For him, ‘gondola’ is too pedestrian a word. He opts instead for ‘craft propelled by oars.’  In Milan – Milan, with its ‘wide streets flanked by heavy buildings’ – he remembers seeing some trams: ‘articulated in three sections, they clanked past with ponderous insistence, jerking round obligatory corners.’ And here is this art historian’s description of the Sala delle Asse:

Decorated by Leonardo and his studio… it presented us with an ambiguous experience. Damage and successive restorations of the ceiling vault had reduced the elaborate interlace of branching trees and knotted gold rope to a soup of cold minestrone.

Riddle me that.

What you quickly learn is that Kemp is not a romantic (and not just when it comes to paint: his passages on poetry are aggressively dull). No, Kemp is an historian. It seems impossible to be both when your subject is Leonardo da Vinci.

Every day – every day for fifty years ­– our author has dealt with correspondence from ‘swelling legions of ‘Leonardo loonies’’. You can guess who make up such a group: the average art snob; the cult of Dan Brown, keeper of the Code; and those who inherit a picture and instantly recognise its unseen value, who go on Antiques Roadshow to school the dealers: Don’t you recognise it, Fiona? It’s Lenny the Paint.

Kemp replies to everyone, so as not to be rude. To him, ‘such things go with the privilege of having a public profile as a Leonardo expert.’ But when it comes to the artist, he puts emotion aside and relies solely on hard evidence – it is a matter of self-preservation, a way of keeping clean in a field so caked with crap. His dour writing is a consequence, and though it may strip the book of humour and feeling, his authority is retained.

(Though he is often too eager to turn this authority on his readers. Tired of dealing with ‘loonies’, Kemp hopes to nip the problem in the bud by teaching us all how to think like him. The whole of the third chapter seems dedicated to just this. He gently takes us by the hand and leads us through his thought processes, no matter how simple; he tells us often the value of reason and an open mind. Call me ungrateful – and do not get me wrong, one could learn a lot! – but I found this to be a bit too bold. And by ‘bold’ I mean offensively condescending.)

Crucially, quality prose is not the only thing missing: all the filth is missing, too. What a gyp. Living with Leonardo, it turns out, is one of those books that critics do not bother reading – a practice I used to scoff at. The hype had been over nothing; reviewers had spent months just getting each other hot and bothered. Because in reality, Kemp’s book is not salacious; what it is, is gaseous. It flits from one subject to another, from opinion to history, with no distinguishable narrative.

In his introduction, Kemp admits that Living is unique: part monograph, part memoir. A nice experiment, sure – sometimes you just have to try something different. But neither side holds up. The monograph leaves you wanting, and the writing is too hollow for a memoir. (Reflective writing requires something that this book sorely lacks: humanity.) There must have come a time when the pen went down, when he sat back and read the end result; and a point when his editor did the same. It is unimaginable that the latter did not advise a change in format – to a series of essays, or articles, or that Kemp rewrite the book as a series of diary entries (something fast and honest).

But here we are. And my advice would be that if you must read this book, then read the final chapter first (if not alone): ‘Codes and Codswallop’ is as good as it ever gets. In it, he dismantles Dan Brown; and that, after all, is the real crowd pleaser. He rattles through conspiracy theories at a polemical pace. It is a relief for the reader, as it must be for Kemp, to witness all his repressed frustration pour out onto the page – but this is not worth paying £12.99 for.

After finishing this chapter, I personally let out a huge sigh of relief – not only was it over, but I was vindicated. What a relief that I chose English, not Art History; that although I may have to suffer through books like these, at least I am not writing them.