Mona Lisa destroys the idea that art in the age of mechanical reproduction has lost its aura.by Donald Sassoon / October 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
A young woman is seated, her right hand upon her wrist, her left hand on the arm of a chair. She turns towards us, presenting a three-quarter view. Her round visage faces us directly while her brown eyes appear to glance towards the right. Her broad forehead is enhanced by her missing eyebrows. Her hair is covered by a translucent veil. She wears a sober, dark dress. Her neckline reveals the inception of her breasts. She wears no jewellery. She smiles. The loggia or balcony supporting her appears to be suspended upon a chasm. Behind her surges a strange and distant landscape. On the left is a lake and a path; on the right a river crossed by a bridge: the only sign of human existence in a barren landscape. This is what is represented by means of oil paint on a piece of wood. It is small: 77cm high and 53cm long. The Louvre identifies it by the inventory number 779. Of the thousands of paintings in its collection, only this one is in a special container, set in concrete and protected by two sheets of bulletproof triple-laminated glass, 25cm apart. The painting has been in this box since 1974. It is inspected annually. The silica gel used to maintain the temperature is changed; the wood is checked to establish whether it has contracted or expanded. In 2003, in time for its presumed 500th anniversary, painting number 779 will be in a room of its own. Until recently it was kept with the Venetian paintings (by Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto and others) near the Grande Gallerie, which boasts some of the wonders of Italian art, including five other Leonardos, various Raphaels, Bronzinos, Correggios, Fra Angelicos and a Caravaggio. Elsewhere, visitors can find paintings by Velasquez, D?rer, Van Eyck, Vermeer, Rubens, Poussin, Rembrandt and Goya. These works-among the most celebrated of western art-can be contemplated at leisure, even in peak holiday season, by any of the 5.5m people who visit the Louvre every year. All except Number 779, known in France as La Joconde, in Italy as La Gioconda and everywhere else as the Mona Lisa. This is, allegedly, the portrait of a Florentine lady, Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a merchant. She would have been addressed as “Monna” Lisa, Monna being a contraction of Madonna (mia donna or m’lady). The obstacle to an unimpeded viewing is the constantly shifting crowd trying to catch a glimpse of the famous painting. Refractions from camera flashes on the glass not only make it more difficult to examine the work, but adds to the feeling that the object is a kind of celebrity. No other Louvre artefact is subjected to such adoration or curiosity, not even female icons like the armless Venus de Milo or the headless Victory of Samothrace. No other museum possesses a single exhibit which so overwhelms in popularity the others: not Botticelli’s Birth of Venus at the Uffizi, Rembrandt’s Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum, or even Velasquez’s Las Meninas at the Prado. Yet many of those standing before the Mona Lisa are left disconcerted. By 20th-century conventions, she is neither beautiful, nor sexy. The painting is not grandiose or politically inspiring. It does not tell a story. It’s just a plain woman, smiling a little. Visitors say it is because of its mystery and its enigmatic smile. But there are many puzzles in many old paintings: inexplicable gaps in their histories, uncertainties over who commissioned them or what they represent. Not far from Mona Lisa hangs Raphael’s The Virgin and Child with St John c1507-08. The origin of this painting is more enigmatic than that of Leonardo’s. We do not know who commissioned it or how it got into the collection of King Francis I. But the mysteries surrounding the Mona Lisa are an inexhaustible source of popular and press interest. Why did Leonardo keep it for himself instead of handing it over to the husband? Who sold it to Francis I? Is it really the portrait of Lisa Gherardini? Some mysteries appear to be invented. Above all, the famous question: why is she smiling? Over the last 50 years or so this has intrigued scientists more than art historians. The trend began in 1955, when a Genoa daily reported that a local dentist had attributed Mona Lisa’s expression to a toothache, while a “London critic” had discovered she was deaf, her expression due to the effort of trying to hear what Leonardo was telling her. More substantial was the 1959 claim of Kenneth D Keele, a respected Leonardo expert, that Mona Lisa was pregnant. In the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, he wrote that an enlargement of the thyroid had caused the “almost puffy” neck. Thus he solved the puzzle of the smile. It signalled placid satisfaction-Leonardo’s ideal picture of motherhood. As medical interest grew, Mona Lisa’s health deteriorated. In 1989, Kedal Adour, an American specialist, diagnosed the facial paralysis, Bell’s palsy. In 1991, Professor Jean-Jacques Comtet of Lyon claimed the lady was hemiplegic (spastic). With the right arm and shoulder paralysed, she could not sit any other way. Dentists joined the fray. Joseph E Borkowski explained that the expression of the Mona Lisa is common to people who have lost their front teeth. He pointed out that a close-up of the lip area shows a scar not unlike that left by the application of blunt force. Did Leonardo knock her about because she refused to stand still? Was she a battered wife? But the most interesting enigma remains this: why is the Mona Lisa the best-known painting in the world? A glimpse of a detail-her silhouette, her eyes, her hands-brings instant recognition, even from those with no interest in or knowledge of painting. How did she rout her competition: the Venuses and the Eves, the Davids and madonnas, of the Renaissance? The question has broader implications. How are high culture products transformed into popular icons? In fields other than painting, no one is supreme. Jostling for position in music are the initial bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the tune from Ode to Joy, Bach’s Air on the G String (thanks to Hamlet cigars), Puccini’s Nessun Dorma (thanks to Pavarotti and the World Cup 1990). But such popularity requires easy consumption: a few bars from the Ode to Joy, not the whole Ninth Symphony, an aria not the entire opera. By contrast, a painting or sculpture can be consumed in a matter of minutes, even seconds. In a twinkle, we have “done” Mona Lisa. We can’t do that with War and Peace, Wagner’s Ring or even with Citizen Kane. This may explain why only a visual cultural product could have reached the apex of renown of the Mona Lisa. It does not explain why it is the Mona Lisa. Some will say: this is just hype. Perhaps, but why Mona Lisa and not something else? Hype, or marketing, requires an agency which consciously sets out to promote a particular product-a commercial item, a political idea, a personality, religious values. The promotion of the Mona Lisa is not the work of a single historical agent, but the result of a complex set of circumstances and chance events. So let’s start at the beginning. Giorgio Vasari, who played the leading role in ranking artists in the Renaissance, held Michelangelo in higher esteem than any other painter, but regarded the Mona Lisa as a masterpiece. He wrote in 1568: “Looking at this face, anyone who wanted to know how far nature can be imitated by art would understand immediately… the execution of this painting is enough to make the strongest artist tremble with fear.” It is Vasari who tells us that this is the portrait of Mona Lisa, wife of Francesco del Giocondo. He tells us when it was painted (1503-6), that it took four years, that Leonardo had managed to dispel those traces of sadness which pervade many sitters by having Lisa entertained by clowns and musicians while he painted (hence the smile) and that it now belonged to the King of France. Vasari had never seen it, but added: “in this portrait… was depicted a smile so beautiful that it was, to behold, more heavenly than human, and all who saw it thought it was wonderful and as real as life itself.” Note: the smile is beautiful, not mysterious. The painting was praised because it was true to life-not the ruling aesthetic criterion of 20th-century art, but fairly close to contemporary popular taste. Mona Lisa’s pose was strikingly new: it looked towards the viewer, the landscape is unusual, we see a full bust and her hands. Some of these innovations had been borrowed from Flemish painters and Leonardo had tried some of them before, as in his portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, who looks at us directly. But Mona Lisa had movement. Leonardo used the chiaroscuro to give depth and the contrapposto position (the body facing one way and the head facing the other) to give the idea of movement. One can imagine the scene: Lisa is sitting down; we call her; she turns calmly, her body half-turned, the face fully turned. If you have your passport photograph taken in one of the newer booths, a helpful note suggests you should do just that: turn the body a little to one side and your face slightly towards the other. Finally the sfumato technique pioneered by Leonardo, the delicate blurring at the corners of the mouth and of the eyes, lends indeterminacy. As EH Gombrich pointed out: we are not certain of her expression, she is smiling but not quite. Perhaps she is wistful. We the viewers have a role to play in decoding Mona Lisa and over the following five centuries we have used this privilege abundantly. Leonardo deliberately refrained from providing any of the usual clues painters used to identify who they were painting, such as getting them to hold a medallion or a symbol. Mona Lisa cannot be readily identified, so she could be anyone. This made it easier for later generations to regard her as representing the “eternal feminine” or the “universal woman.” Leonardo was seen as a major painter, but not the greatest. The competition was considerable. For Christmas dinner in 1500 you could, in theory, have had round the table: Mantegna (69), Giovanni Bellini (70), Botticelli (56), Carpaccio (40), Perugino (54), D?rer (29), Bosch (50), Cranach (28), Michelangelo (25), Raphael (17) and a baby Holbein (3). Leonardo could find employment in Milan with Lodovico Il Moro only by stressing, on his application form, his yet unproved skills as a military engineer. His multitude of interests, the qualities that helped to make his fame in the 19th and 20th centuries, led him to abandon or delay project after project. Pope Leo X complained that Leonardo never finished anything and he preferred the rising star, Raphael. Michelangelo, having decorated the Sistine Chapel, was at the peak of his glory. In 1516, Titian had become official painter to the Venetian Republic and ruled unchallenged. Leonardo found that in Italy there was no position commensurate with his standing. This is why he accepted the invitation of Francis I and although no longer young, crossed the Alps to join the King’s court near Amboise on the Loire, where he died in 1519. He took with him his notebooks, his drawings and some of his pictures, including the Virgin and Child with St Anne, Bacchus, as well as a “portrait of a Florentine lady” (so recorded by a visitor, Antonio de Beatis), presumably the Mona Lisa. From the point of view of the “marketing” of Mona Lisa, the move to France was crucial. Although it was not obvious at the time, Francis I was laying the foundation for the transformation of France as Europe’s artistic centre. His people scoured Italy buying masterpieces. The collection he accumulated became the core of the future holdings of the Louvre. Had Mona Lisa ended up in the manor of some minor aristocrat in, say, Bulgaria or Wolverhampton, it would not have the unique position it has today. By the 17th century, the Mona Lisa was sufficiently well known for the Duke of Buckingham (in Paris in 1625 to collect Charles I’s future wife, Henrietta Maria) to ask Louis XIII to sell it to him. The king agreed but was later dissuaded by his courtiers. Otherwise it might now be hanging in London in the National Gallery. By the end of the 18th century, the French royal collection had grown. Various plans were devised to make it public, accelerated by the revolution. The Grande Gallerie of the Louvre became in 1793 the Mus?e Central des Arts. The revolutionary government was instrumental in exhibiting the great works which had belonged to the crown-including Mona Lisa. It became the property of the French people. This was the start of the Louvre as a museum. The original idea was for it to be used mainly by artists to copy and learn from the great masters. Artists had the Louvre to themselves for most of the week. Only after 1855 (l’Exposition Universelle) was the public allowed in every day. The Mona Lisa was now at the centre of the international art world, sharing the limelight with other masterpieces of the past. Artists came from all over Europe, especially Britain, to copy them. Between 1851 and 1880 (when photography became widespread) the Mona Lisa was copied 71 times, but it was far from being top of the list. Murillo’s Immaculate Conception was copied 197 times, Correggio’s Saint Catherine 186 times, Veronese’s Wedding at Cana 167 times and Titian’s Entombment 130. In the mid-19th century, the Mona Lisa was less valued than other well-established Renaissance masterpieces, as we can see from the 1849 estimate of its market price: 90,000 francs. This was a considerable sum. At the time, a comfortable middle-class house in a good district could be had for 50,000 francs. But Mona Lisa was easily outdistanced by Titian’s Supper at Emmaus (150,000 francs) and dwarfed by Raphael’s The Virgin and Child with St John (400,000 francs, up 100,000 since 1821) and his Holy Family (600,000 francs). Various factors helped the Mona Lisa inch its way towards the top. One was the burgeoning cult of Leonardo, a cult which would accelerate in the 20th century and project him as the most representative Renaissance figure, ahead of his two main rivals, Michelangelo and Raphael. Nineteenth-century France was constantly searching for role models and Leonardo fitted the mood of the times. He combined arts and science to an unusual degree. That he was not French was irrelevant. He had long been nationalised. Stendhal, Michelet, and Gautier wrote at length about him. Taine regarded him as the first real inventor. Michelet called him the Italian Faust. Vasari’s report (often challenged since) that Leonardo had expired in the arms of Francis I was found particularly moving and was often represented in paintings, notably by Ingres. The idea that political power would humble itself before a great intellect was particularly flattering to intellectuals. Another factor was the transformation of the Mona Lisa from true-to-life portrait of a Florentine housewife into an enigmatic femme fatale. This was the work of the literary elite. The improvements in typesetting, the fall in the price of paper and the expansion of the middle classes had created a thriving reading public for the fashionable literary journals. These journals determined how a painting should be regarded. A function of art criticism, after all, is to enable the amateur cognoscenti to have an idea of what the painting means before seeing it. The intellectuals convinced their readers that paintings needed to be decoded and that only people of culture and artistic sensibility, such as themselves, could perform this task. They thus supplanted the aristocrats and art patrons and became the arbiters of taste. Having invented the femme fatale, French Romantic litt?rateurs had to give her a face. They decreed that, like all fascinating women, she was dangerous and deadly. “This canvas attracts me, revolts me, consumes me,” wrote the historian, Michelet, “and I go to her in spite of myself, as the bird to the snake.” (Napoleon contributed to the Mona Lisa cult by taking it from the Louvre and placing it in his bedroom.) But the most important promoter of the new image of the Mona Lisa as a femme fatale was Th?ophile Gautier. Gautier was obsessed with the devouring women of mythology and the ancient world (Cleopatra, Helen), with oriental women, gypsy girls and Italian beauties. In an article in Le Moniteur Universel of 26th November 1855, Gautier set out his view of the Mona Lisa: “This strange being… her gaze promising unknown pleasures… her divinely ironic expression… her mocking lips subtly despising the common pleasures of mortals.” He had started a trend. “The seduction and enchantment of Mona Lisa has survived for over 300 years,” wrote Charles Cl?ment in 1861. “Thousands of men, of all ages… have been enflamed by these limpid and burning eyes. They have listened to words of deception from these perfidious lips. They have carried this poisoned dart into their hearts and taken it to the four corners of the world… Lovers, poets, dreamers, go and die at her feet! ” By the mid-1850s, the myth of Mona Lisa as an enigmatic mangeuse d’homme was well established in France. It was spread to England by Walter Pater in a famous essay-Mona Lisa criticism was substantially in the hands of the French and the British. Pater reviewed Leonardo’s oeuvre and announced that La Gioconda was “Leonardo’s masterpiece” and added: “This beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed… the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas….” One might fancy Lisa herself, sitting on a heavenly cloud, chuckling at these outpourings. The influence of Pater was remarkable: on Oscar Wilde, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham and many others. He contributed decisively to the establishment of the dominant interpretation of the Mona Lisa among the cultural elite at the end of the 19th century. She had become the embodiment of the “eternal feminine.” In the 19th century, women were often represented as a source of power. Nations, in that age of nationalism, were female. Russia-and martyred Poland-were represented as mothers. The insurgent Italy of the Risorgimento was depicted as a young woman. Marianne became the symbol of France. The Motherland, la madrepatria, la mère-patrie, die mutterland was invoked more often than the fatherland. The Catholic church joined in. In 1854 the Pope, after centuries of debates, promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (ineffabilis deus). The Mother of God had been conceived without original sin. New shrines at Lourdes in France and Marpingen in Germany attracted massive pilgrimages. The educated elite regarded the cult of the Virgin as something for the masses blinded by a plebeian religiosity. But the Mona Lisa became, for them, a kind of secular Virgin Mary. Vasari’s description of a cheerful smile caused by the presence of clowns and musicians had been transformed into the enigmatic smile we now know. The Queen, visiting the Louvre in 1956, paused by the Mona Lisa and, after a long silence, murmured “rather enigmatic.” By the 1900s, the press no longer addressed itself to a narrow elite. The illustrated supplements of the Petit Journal and the Petit Parisien sold 1m copies, as did their English equivalents. As now, they featured stories of wars, violence, celebrities, royalty, and, above all, crimes. With the help of such publications, Mona Lisa went mass-market. In 1911 an Italian carpenter, Vincenzo Peruggia, who had emigrated to Paris, was working at the Louvre. He had heard that the unprepossessing Mona Lisa was one of the most valuable paintings in the world. A few days later, on 21st August 1911, Peruggia stole it. There was an immediate reaction which set the world press buzzing. The cabinet met. The director of paintings at the Louvre resigned. Many flocked to the Louvre to look at the empty space where it had been hanging. Postcards were printed, cartoons appeared mocking the security of the museum, songs were composed. Two years later, when everything had calmed down and people were beginning to forget the theft, Peruggia, who had kept the Mona Lisa in a box in his bed-sit in Paris, went to Florence hoping to sell it to a dealer, who immediately informed the authorities. The Italian government, in spite of nationalist pressures, agreed to return it to the Louvre. Before that, however, it was exhibited in Florence, then taken to Rome, exhibited for a few more days before the Italian royal family and adoring crowds, and finally taken to Paris, the subject of enormous press interest. The public rushed to see “their” Mona Lisa safely back: more songs, postcards, cartoons, and more headlines (La Joconde est retourn?). Whether the peoples of Europe had a distinct recollection of these events after the turbulent years of the first world war is doubtful. Some have sought to locate in the theft the main cause of the popularity of the Mona Lisa. But this is premature. Certainly it gave the Mona Lisa substantial publicity and mass press exposure, but it did not create a stable collective memory. Between 1911 and 1913, the London Illustrated Weekly devoted only three long features to the Mona Lisa: when it was stolen, when it was found and one other general holding piece. Each time the paper had to remind its readers how famous the stolen painting was, that Leonardo was a Renaissance genius who had invented scuba diving, the bicycle, and the aircraft-and that the smile was enigmatic. Mona Lisa had become one of the most recognisable products of classical art. So when avant-garde artists looked for a classical work to send up, they had, just like advertisers, to rely on one which was already well-known. This is where Marcel Duchamp came in. He took a monochrome postcard of the Mona Lisa and drew in a moustache and beard. He had been developing the idea that as art could only be defined by its context, it could be made out of anything. It was like the miracle of transubstantiation. If a vulgar wafer can become the body of Christ, a urinal can become a work of art, provided it is so regarded by an artist and positioned in an art gallery. This turned out to be Duchamp’s best-known work. A pattern was set: artists would use the Mona Lisa, disfigure it, distort it, play around with it. In the 1960s, Andy Warhol accorded her the celebrity status of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe with his Thirty Are Better than One (1963). He was followed by Magritte, Jasper Johns and, in the 1980s, by a flood of derivations and send-ups. Almost every politician and celebrity of note has been caricatured as Mona Lisa: Golda Meir, de Gaulle, Thatcher, Blair, Chirac, Monica Lewinsky and Mao Tse-tung-as Mona-Mao. A key to the ascendant popularity of the Mona Lisa was the unprecedented economic boom of the 1960s. An effect of this was the phenomenal expansion of mass travel and tourism. Paris, as had long been the case, was one of the favoured destinations. Mass tourism is now one of the main industries in the world, but it is a recent phenomenon. In the late 1940s, in Britain, only 3.1m workers had two weeks holidays a year. Ten years later there were over 12m. In 1971, only one-third of adults in Britain had ever been abroad, ten years later only one third had never been. By the 1990s, travel and tourism accounted for at least 6 per cent of the world GDP, employing more than 127m people around the globe. A by-product of this industry was expansion of museums and exhibitions. People go to Paris or London, see the Eiffel Tower and Crown Jewels and then visit a museum. It is thus helpful to know what to see. The Mona Lisa was already well-established and would have been among the favourites to visit in any case. But the French state gave it an extra push. On 14th December 1962, Mona Lisa was carefully packed in an airtight aluminium case, placed in a first-class cabin in an ocean liner and transported to the US. On 8th January, it was unveiled in Washington at a glittering party in the presence of the Kennedys. The menu of the official dinner at the French embassy featured poires Mona Lisa (pears in chocolate sauce, bundled in pastry). The painting was exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington and later at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In just over six weeks, 1,751,521 people had lined up to contemplate La Joconde for 30 seconds or so. Newspapers constantly juxtaposed the radiant smile of Jackie Kennedy with that of the Mona Lisa, the Kennedys’ intellectual standing went up a notch or two and French cultural prestige rode victorious on the back of an Italian woman painted by an Italian artist. The architect of this particular enterprise was Andr? Malraux, de Gaulle’s minister of culture, prize-winning writer, resistance hero, maître-penseur for some, mountebank on the make for others. He was, in a way, continuing the enterprise started by Francis I, with a difference: military and economic power had decisively shifted across the Atlantic but America was implicitly recognising that, when it came to High Art, Europe-and France in particular-remained the dominant power. The French repeated the enterprise ten years later when the Mona Lisa was sent to Japan. By then, April 1974, the art of merchandising had reached new heights and the image of Mona Lisa could be seen everywhere. The Japanese authorities had allowed ten seconds per visitor, which is why they excluded the disabled, who could not be expected to move forward quickly enough. After protests and a pot of paint thrown at the Mona Lisa’s protective glass, the authorities relented and set aside a special day for those on crutches and in wheelchairs. By now, the Mona Lisa was a true international celebrity. And it is at this stage that the advertising industry moved in. Advertisers had been using art for a long time. In 1862, Thomas Barratt, chairman of Pears Soap, had persuaded Millais to let him use his child blowing bubbles of soap as an advertisement for Pears. There had been sporadic uses of the Mona Lisa for advertising, especially after the 1911 theft. But it was not until the 1960s that the boom began. Levi might have shown Michelangelo’s David wearing jeans, but the Mona Lisa has had no competitor. In the 1970s, 23 new advertisements a year have been traced, and since the 1980s a new advertisement has appeared almost weekly. Many of these are send-ups ? la Duchamp. Others are more respectful. But all wish to associate their wares with a “product” recognised as standing for high quality. They want to convey an image of classic modernity, (hence many of the advertisements are for computers, electronics, food, wine, clothes, and cosmetics). Advertisers use the Mona Lisa for their own ends but they also provide unlimited advertising for the Mona Lisa itself. Each new technological or stylistic innovation has been an excuse for artists to show off with the Mona Lisa using computer graphics, or photocopying machines or montage or collage, showing her in curlers, the cross-eyed Mona Lisa, the sexualised Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa smoking a joint. All use the Mona Lisa to attract interest and attention to themselves… as, perhaps, I am doing now and, in so doing, reinforcing the hegemony of Mona Lisa. Walter Benjamin famously suggested that, in the age of mechanical reproduction, the work of art would lose its “aura.” I wonder. The Mona Lisa has been reproduced more than any painting in the world, but its ubiquitous presence has increased people’s desire to see the original. There is, after all, only one Mona Lisa; there will never be another one. In a world dominated by reproducible commodities available to an ever-expanding mass of consumers, to be the “one and only” becomes a big selling point. So how could Lisa Gherardini fail? Painted by a genius, bought by a king, set in the heart of Paris, worshipped by intellectuals, kidnapped by an Italian, sent up by the avant-garde, chosen to represent France by de Gaulle, worshipped by the Americans and the Japanese and backed by a global advertising industry. It is also, I think, quite a beautiful painting.