Renaissance men

The restlessly creative lives of Leonardo da Vinci and Mark Mothersbaugh

Mark Mothersbaugh said late-night angst drives his compulsive art-making. Credit: Submitted image

WHITTIER — After hearing several curators analogize the careers of Leonardo da Vinci and Mark Mothersbaugh, who star in separate but coincidentally timed exhibitions the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, you think: Poor Mothersbaugh.

Poor Mothersbaugh — gets his first major museum show and now here’s the original Renaissance man himself, threatening to eclipse the spotlight. You’d think that, but Mothersbaugh, 65 and a formidable polymath in his own right, seemed untroubled by the comparisons.

He even imagined a contest, Mothersbaugh vs. da Vinci, for a group touring the exhibitions before they opened to the public June 18.

If the first round tested their ability drawing buff, nude men then, sure, the Vitruvian Man takes it. But Mothersbaugh added: “Probably any style of music I could write better music than him.”

Even if there is some evidence da Vinci was skilled with the lyre, modern ears are more likely to perk for Devo, the pre-New Wave art-rock band Mothersbaugh co-founded in the early ’70s, or the dozens of soundtracks he composed for everything from the children’s television classic “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” to the movies of Wes Anderson. Round two: Mothersbaugh.

Not that the museum ever intended this to go mano a mano; the two are presented as complementary artists and creative thinkers. MIA President Kaywin Feldman described Mothersbaugh and Da Vinci as “two brilliant men who really reflected the times in which they lived” and who both remain relevant today.

The mind behind the “Mona Lisa”

Named for an English earl who purchased it in the 1700s, the Codex Leicester is, more or less, a notebook: 72 formerly bound pages of scientific observations and drawings recorded by da Vinci in the timeframe of 1508–1510, mostly concerning the properties of water. Acquired by Bill Gates in 1994 for more than $30 million, the codex began a cross-country tour this year at the Phoenix Art Museum, and after two months in Minneapolis heads to the North Carolina Museum of Art.

“This isn’t the ‘Mona Lisa’; this is the mind behind the ‘Mona Lisa,’” explained MIA curator Alex Bortolot, who designed the local version of the exhibition.

The codex is a window into that lively and free-ranging mind. Bortolot described da Vinci as a “master of analogical thought,” one able to extrapolate his knowledge of water on Earth into a hypothesis about an ocean-covered moon.

Written in da Vinci’s famous mirror script — more likely a way to keep the lefty’s sleeve out of the ink than an attempt at secrecy — the ideas are linked but flow in no particular order.

“It’s like a thought process; it’s not really linear,” Bortolot said.

The hand-drawn illustrations provide fascinating insight into the fundamental role drawing played in da Vinci’s process, both in recording his observations and developing his ideas.

For context, the exhibition also includes a section on the creative process of modern-day inventors, including Scott Olson, the Minnesota man who gave us Rollerblades.

Showing in a separate room is “The Raft,” a short film by artist Bill Viola. The super-slow-motion scene of actors caught in a deluge is a powerful mash-up of technology and art — the type of thing you think da Vinci would’ve appreciated.

Compulsively creative

If da Vinci used drawing to understand the world around him, for Mothersbaugh, it seems like something different: an always-open spigot that empties an overflowing inner world.

At the ink-covered heart of “Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia” are more than 30,000 postcard drawings Mothersbaugh has produced daily for three decades. Humorous and grotesque, operating in the visual langue of comics and mid-century advertising art, they spill out at a rate of “anywhere from a couple to a whole bunch” each day, he said.

“It depends on how much angst I have or what particularly frustrated me or freaked me out during the day,” Mothersbaugh, who was in town for the opening, said.

Organized and curated by Adam Lerner, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, where the show open last fall, “Myopia” tells a couple of origin stories. The first is Mothersbaugh’s life as an artist, which he traces back to a turning point in the second grade, when after eight years of living in a visual fog he got his first pair of glasses and was astounded by a world he never knew existed.

A decade-and-a-half later, as an art student at Kent State University, he came across a fringe religious pamphlet that put mankind’s decline in terms of “de-evolution” — a kooky idea that for Mothersbaugh was given brutal credence when the National Guard opened fire on protesting students on the campus in 1970. That’s where Devo got its name when it formed a few years later.

From drawing to prints to sculpture to music — including fascinating early footage of Devo performing and an installation of several of Mothersbaugh’s homemade instruments — “Myopia” captures an artist’s compulsive creativity extending in every direction at once.


“Leonardo Da Vinci, the Codex Leicester, and the Creative Mind” and “Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia”

When: Through Aug. 30

Where: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S.

Info:, 870-3000