This post appeared first at Commons Machinery as Mona Lisa Smile
Do you recognize this picture?
Of course you do! It’s the Mona Lisa! Probably one of the most iconic works of art in the western world. It has been reproduced on countless posters, postcards, and brochures. It’s also been reproduced (or parodied) less reverentially in a thousand ways. My favorite art prankster and founder of ready made art, Marcel Duchamp, drew a thin mustache and beard on a Mona Lisa postcard in 1919. Since then, recreating the lady has become an industry.
She has appeared in Lego, graffitied by Banksy, and several times on The Simpsons. She has been recreated in food, computer chips and Rubix cubes…on sheets, shower curtains and toilet paper. She is ubiquitous.
But what do most people know about her? She is instantly recognizable but what is in the background of the image? Who was the artist? Has she always been famous? Have you noticed that she has no eyebrows?
Today the image is the most famous, the most visited, written about, sung about and parodied work of art in the world (The Independent). It was painted and owned by Leonardo da Vinci in the 16th century and acquired by King Francis I of France, and has been on permanent display at The Louvre museum in Paris since 1797. The lack of eyebrows may have been a 16th-century Florentine fashion or a bumbled restoration – we really don’t know.
All this is well and good but the interesting thing about the art was that, for most of its existence, it wasn’t really that important. It wasn’t raved about or famous, it was one of many interesting pieces mostly famous because it was one of the works of da Vinci. The painting technique is highly admired but hardly something that most of us notice.
Things really got interesting when, in 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian working in the Louvre, hid the small painting under his smock and walked out with her. The scandal was immediate. Authorities suspected foreigners and avant-garde artists. Picasso was interrogated, Apollinaire was held in custody. Most surprisingly, more people came to the Louvre to see the empty space on the wall than would show up to see the actual painting.
Peruggia eventually took the painting to Florence and was caught when he contacted an art dealer. He claimed that his motives were patriotic and that the painting belonged in Italy. His reasons aside, the theft made her a superstar well on the way to international celebrity status. She went on international tours in Europe, the United States, and the USSR.
That’s where we are now. An instantly recognizable iconic superstar of a picture, but few will know why she is famous or much about her. Of course we could argue that it is enough to recognize her, in the same way as we recognize other cultural references. But to really understand why this rather ordinary looking Italian woman with shaved eyebrows is important, we need to know more about her background and context. Also, the more we are able to know about an icon the more we can appreciate or reject it on different levels.
The importance of the images around us does not lie in the image itself. I admit that I find the Italian woman boring. Her famous smile is not interesting to me. Seeing the crowds gather around her original in the museum baffles me. But the stories of what makes her great are fascinating.
Mona Lisa is an easy image, because she is so well known. But what about the thousands of gorgeous and thoughtful images that flicker past our screens when we idly browse. How do we know what they are all about? We need to be able to find out what they are, where they are from, who made them, and how they became famous. We need the ability to find the stories behind the image in order for them to become more relevant and valuable to us.
For more about the Mona Lisa check out: Donald Sassoon, Mona Lisa: The History of the World’s Most Famous Painting, Harper Collins paperback.