Leonardo da Vinci and James Capper: Sculptures, Machines, Tools, and Art

You may already know that the Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) filled numerous notebooks with drawings, ideas for inventions, and notes. Some of his drawings were elaborate plans for machines that were never built in his lifetime, for example, his "aerial screw," which is a flying machine similar to a helicopter (but long before helicopters ever existed). While he never actually built and tested the aerial screw, his notes and drawings mapped out exactly how the device would operate. As you can see in the model, below right, his idea was that four men would turn the central axis fast enough so that the circular linen "blades" would provide air pressure that would lift the vehicle into the sky. Scroll down to read more...

helicopter concept by Leonardo da Vinci


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Below you can see two more of his drawings for machines, including this war chariot, below left, which was covered with sharp, swirling blades that were meant to slash the enemy during battle. Below right we have his armored car - or tank - design, with the intention of having canons on all sides and a protective cover not unlike a turtle's shell. But one can argue that since these machines were never built, they really only existed as ideas expressed through art - the drawings and notes in his notebooks.

da Vinci designed war machines

Essential question #1: Why - or for whom - did Leonardo make some of these designs for weapons and machines? (scroll down for explanations and thoughts on these questions)

Leonardo da Vinci is often thought of as an artist first and foremost, which brings up Essential Question #2: Can you name at least two - if not more - of Leonardo da Vinci's most-famous art works?

As we've seen above, Leonardo the artist was also Leonardo the inventor, creating ideas for machines and tools. We now want to introduce you to a contemporary artist - James Capper - who specifically makes machines and tools as his art. As we look at Capper's work, you'll see that they are functioning machines, but the fact that they're being shown in an art gallery removes them from the practical world as far as being used as everyday tools. We want to look and think about if changing the context in which these machines are presented succeeds in transforming them from being machines into sculpture and art. Below is an installation view of James Capper's exhibition titled Tools at the Hannah Barry Gallery (based in London) display booth at the 2013 Armory Show in New York City. Scroll down for more on Capper and his work.



sculpture by James Capper

Essential Question #3: Note some observations about the picture above and the two detail images below and then discuss what might be two reasons why the tools are presented this way on top of these large blocks? What two purposes do the blocks serve?

Power tools as sculpture by James Capper

You've seen the tools presented as sculpture in these still pictures, now let's take a look at the tools being used as tools, in this video by Jason Das, which we found on YouTube:

Below are three common power tools, from left: a power drill, a table saw, and a jigsaw. Essential Question #4: Visually, do these common power tools differ in appearance from Capper's power tools, and if so, how? Would you ever consider these to be sculpture if they were placed on a pedestal in a gallery? (Scroll down for our explanations and answers to these Essential Questions, including further discussion points one can use in the classroom)

power drill, table saw, jigsaw



Explanations and thoughts on the Essential Questions:

Essential question #1: Why - or for whom - did Leonardo make some of these designs for weapons and machines? Leonardo sent a letter to Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan, in 1482, in an attempt to persuade Sforza to become his patron. In the letter, he mentioned that he was writing "in order to acquaint you with my secrets," which included ideas for cannons, armored wagons, and other things meant for times of war. He also offered to design buildings and bridges - all practical things that the ruler of a city might need. But what I find interesting is that last - but not least - he also offered his skills as a sculptor and painter, saying that "in painting, I can do as much as anyone, whoever he may be." So while he starts his "sales pitch" with practical offerings, he makes sure to offer his artistic services as well.

Essential Question #2: Can you name at least two - if not more - of Leonardo da Vinci's most-famous art works? The two you should absolutely know are: Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, pictured below. Other masterpieces by Leonardo include: Virgin of the Rocks, Lady with an Ermine, Vitruvian Man, and Adoration of the Magi, among many others.

Mona Lisa and the Last Supper

Essential Question #3: Note some observations about the James Capper pictures and then discuss what might be two reasons why the tools are presented this way on top of these large blocks? What two purposes do the blocks serve? The artist has created these tools that also serve as sculpture, so the blocks on which they sit also serve two purposes, one of which is that the blocks act as pedestals for the piece as sculpture. As you can see in the pictures below, it's quite common for sculptors to present their art on a pedestal, so in this sense, Capper is simply following a longstanding modern art tradition.

But you may have also noticed the wires coming out of the back of the tools/sculptures, and that some of the pedestals looked chopped and ragged. This is because Capper will plug in the tool to a generator and actually demonstrate the tool's capabilities by cutting, scraping, or grinding into the pedestal. In this way, the pedestal provides its second purpose, which is allowing the artist to reveal the tool's functionality and to show how it can make marks on a surface. When one is drawing, marks are being made on paper, so one could argue that these tools are drawing machines, which brings us back to seeing them in an artistic manner rather than just as abstract power tools.

Constantin Brancusi, James Capper and Henry Moore

Essential Question #4: Visually, do these common power tools differ in appearance from Capper's power tools, and if so, how? Would you ever consider these to be sculpture if they were placed on a pedestal in a gallery? This question is more of an opinion question, so there's not any one correct answer. But in our opinion, the common power tools have identifiable safety elements in place, such as the guards around the saw blades, whereas Capper's tools are bare and exposed, with the sharp cutting elements out in the open, ready to inflict damage and potential harm.

As to the 2nd question, whether these common tools could be considered sculpture if placed in a gallery ... that gets a little more complicated ... one could easily say "no," because they're so commonly known in society as tools that one wouldn't confuse them with sculpture, whereas Capper's tools, being one-of-a-kind objects, and a bit more abstract as to their purpose, might pass as sculpture. But on the flip side, one could argue that Jeff Koons took a well-known tool - a wet/dry vac, and put it in a glass case, and called it art. If the Museum of Modern Art will collect it as art, could another artist take a power drill and present it in the same way and call it art? We'll leave that up to you to discuss and decide.




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