Sometimes the hardest things to see are the things that are in front of us most often. The familiar, the commonplace and the clichéd pull a veil over our eyes that dull us to their real appearance. So it is with Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait of a wealthy Florentine woman, most likely Lisa Gherardini, wife of silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo.
Paintings from this period usually come to us named by someone other then the artist, years after they have left the artist’s studio. “La Gioconda” (or “La Joconde” in French) is a reference to the subject of the portrait as del Giocondo’s wife (and may also be wordplay meaning “light hearted”), while “Mona Lisa” simply means “Madam Lisa” or “Lady Lisa”.
The painting is almost impossible to see without peeling away layer after layer of cultural debris. The image has been reproduced, copied, morphed, written about, sung about, used in advertising and entertainment, and is generally woven into the fabric of or culture like no other work of art. There is a rather amazing site called Mona Lisa on the Web that pulls together links to over 600 Mona Lisa resources. Most of them are modifications, image mashups, animations, alternate faces, cartoons and such, and some are actually informational.
No other image has been so thoroughly modified and parodied, perhaps starting with Marcel Duchamp’s infamous mustache and goatee back in 1919. I even had my own bit of fun with her in this page from my webcomic in the mid-90’s. (Click on the image to see another bit of Mona License “underneath”.) I had my way with her again as a dinosaur cartoon.
On top of the long history of fascination with this particular painting, there is, of course, a new wave of Mona Mania sparked by all of the hype surrounding The Da Vinci Code. Even the venerable Louvre itself is bending to the winds of popular culture with Da Vinci Code Soundwalks.
Popular books and movies that bring attention and interest to great works of art are a Good Thing, and I’m glad whenever people who don’t normally pay attention to art drop by the art world for a looksee.
The challenge for those of us already here is to look at iconic images like La Gioconda and see them fresh, as paintings, the way they were meant to be seen.
One of the important tricks I learned as an illustrator and comic artist is how to see an overworked image freshly by looking at it in a mirror. This is much easier on the computer, and I have deliberately flipped the images of Dearest Mona here (or “flopped” for you graphic artists out there – OK, I admit it, I’m a flip-flopper). Anyway, I’ve reversed them left to right so you can at least get a momentary glimpse of the painting with fresh eyes.
Now look at her enigmatic smile (turned up on one end, straight on the other), her “not quite looking at you” gaze, the angelic hands, painted as if tenderly caressed by Leonardo’s brush, his wonderful sfumato blending, and his dramatic imaginary landscape with its beautiful aerial perspective, fantastic mountains, oddly snakelike winding road, arched bridge and slim hints of foreground architecture; not to mention the oddly “wrong” horizon, in which the two sides of the background do not seem to be aligned.
When you want to look at her right-way-’round again, you can see the original image on the Musée du Louvre site.
I had an extraordinary opportunity to see the actual painting under very favorable circumstances when I was in Paris a few years ago. It was the last night of our first visit to Paris and we had been to the Musée d’Orsay during our stay, but not yet to the Louvre. It was a Friday night and the museum was open late, but only particular galleries. The Italian Masters gallery was one of them, however, and we found, at the end of the gallery at the end of the night, that we had La Gioconda almost to ourselves, sharing the entire gallery with only 5 or 6 people.
I have to say that I was not expecting anything beyond Leonardo’s usual brilliance. I had seen several of his wonderfully accomplished paintings and drawings before, and was perhaps expecting something less from the “most famous painting in the world”, probably just because it was such a cliché and weighed down by so much cultural baggage.
I was surprised. I was wrong. I was astonished. Many clichés have a basis in truth and the legendary status of La Gioconda is one of them. The painting is extraordinary, captivating, mysterious, alluring, enigmatic, and, of course, painted with supreme mastery. My personal reaction to seeing Mona Lisa in person was not so much fascination with the way she smiles, but delight in the way she made me smile.