the Mona Lisa Lesson

Most people know that the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci is probably the most famous painting in the world.  But how many people understand why?  Do they think it is a work of paramount achievement in the annals of art history?  Perhaps, but that would be a hard case to make.  Even da Vinci himself would have had strong opposition to that idea.  There is a lot of intrigue and speculation around the story of the painting and its subject, especially the 'smile', which was even commented on by Freud.  It has even been hypothesized that it is actually a self-portrait.  But all of this mystery and intense investigation, including secret codes and symbols hidden in the composition, have come after the painting gained notoriety, these stories are not the source of the painting's fame.

It certainly does have an interesting history, hanging with the king of France and with Napoleon for a time, but it gained international attention when the painting was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 and finally recovered almost 2 years later.  Picasso was even caught up in the scenario and questioned over his alleged involvement, and he was never one to pass up on getting some exposure.  It has been copied by hundreds of artists over the years for various reasons starting with the painting by Duchamp who made a parody of the portrait with a mustache painted on the model’s face to help launch the whole 'conceptual' art movement.  

Since then, it has continued to captivate people's imagination; an estimated 8 million people view it each year.

I spent a couple of days in the Louvre a few years ago and I saw these signs everywhere:

So many people come to the Louvre just to see this one painting so they had to post signs so people could go straight there without being distracted by all of the other art on the walls.  The museum even built a special room to house the painting.  The small painting is behind glass and sits on its own wall in the middle of the room surrounded by some of the greatest paintings of the high Renaissance by the most celebrated artists of their day including Tiepolo, Titian, and Veronese.  Artists that Leonardo himself revered.  Spectacular paintings of enormous skill and creative ingenuity are all around and few who come to gaze at 'La Jaconde' even notice them.  Every time I was in the area I saw the swarms of admirers crowding in front of the famous piece taking pictures and videos.

Ironically, most of these people walk right past what is perhaps Da Vinci's most brilliant artistic achievement to get to see the famous little portrait.

Leonardo only ever painted about 22 paintings in his life, but he did do something really remarkable and revolutionary in his art that changed the way artist's painted from that point forward.  That interesting technical info will have to be the subject of another blog.

So why are so many obsessed with the Mona Lisa?  It's all about marketing, exposure, and constant media attention.  The majority of people will obsess over, and identify with, whatever they are told to, esp if it is repeated, alot.