I’m sorry. I don’t know this clever artist’s name. It so often happens that way with all the graphic art that surround us. For the past 100 years or so we’ve been increasingly inundated with mechanically reproduced images. This has relegated most of what we see to the realms of anonymity.
In this case, I wear it. I bought the t-shirt. Twelve Euros, I think.
The problem here is that without the name, there’s no way I can properly credit the artist whose unsigned work I’m discussing here. And without the name, it’s hard to express my gratitude for way this playful work of t-shirt art has changed how I look at the world’s most famous painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
Because it is customary to give credit where credit is due, at first opportunity I meant to return to shop in Florence where I bought the t-shirt and ask the lady to point me down the path to the artist. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile: Hey artist, are you are out there? Step up and let me know. We’ll have an espresso. I want you to know that I wear your shirt once a week. That is, at work, in the packing house where other working people stop me all the time to ask me what it signifies. The lady who cleans the restrooms loves it and was the last to ask.
As I have told one or two of my co-workers in the packinghouse, the truth is that Leonardo’s masterpiece is a painting I once literally turned my back on. This was a long time ago. I was just 19. I’m not fond of crowds then, nor am I now. I needed relief from the crowd-induced claustrophobia I was experiencing in the Louvre, where the painting hangs. These people were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, speaking of that “mysterious smile”, that “enigmatic smile”, that smile they were seeing under their own reflections upon the bullet-proof glass. The experience was less than I had hoped.
And so the this is how it was for me back then, and how I left it for years, a smile fixed in recollection and behind glass I nursed a sour grapes feeling that the painting was overrated.
Not too long ago, I bought this Mona Lisa-themed t-shirt as a souvenir in Italy. Artsy T-shirts are about the only kind of souvenir I will buy when I travel. They’re reasonably cheap light, and perfect for the kind of travel packing I do. When I buy a new t-shirt, I throw out the one in my backpack that is the most worn.
That’s the question I’ve been mulling over lately. I believe the answer lies in how the brain likes to process visual images artists create in the form of a painting or sculpture. At some level the brain has to ask, is this a thing in motion or a thing at rest?
Michelangelo’s David is stationary, and that’s important because that David is captured in a moment of intense mental preparation for the kill. Also, Donatello’s David, stands posed with one foot resting on Goliath’s severed head. But then, Bernini’s David appears with his the body awhirl in the act of launching of the stone from the sling.
The same can be said of paintings. A still life is still life. The fruit is not supposed to be going anywhere. Jesus can hang lifeless on the cross in one painting, but and in another be carrying the cross to the hill.
As for the Mona Lisa. It’s a portrait. Ordinarily, a portrait’s subject is a figure that is not in motion. Leonardo’s model is posed, it should seem, positioned at rest, seated in a chair that someone has set out in a lovely patio or loggia, an outdoor room with a commanding view of the rocky landscape.
So, is she, or isn’t she? Stationary, that is. I sure thought so for years and years after I turned my back on the painting to extract myself from the crowd. Because Leonardo was an excruciatingly slow painter, Lisa del Giocondo would be sitting for long time indeed.
Being a painter who liked to take his sweet time, clever Leonardo arranged for entertainment to amuse the lady during her long sitting. Giorgio Vasari tells us that Leonardo hired musicians and clowns to perform for the lady.
So with clowns, we can assume there was some slapstick, high jinks and jokes. And from that, can we not assume that Lisa also laughed? Now, if she laughed, would that smile have been a fixed, long-posed smile?
The art on my shirt has lead me to think otherwise and process the image as one frame in a motion picture. This graphic presents the lady’s expression in a series of twelve consecutive frames that appear to represent a face in full animation.
That is, from the mild amusement of, say, Leonardo’s hired clown entering the loggia, followed by more schtick and buffoonery, leading up to a final moment of some rollicking ROFLMAO-worthy pratfall. I particularly like how the graphic artist has her falling out of the right edge of the final frame.
So these days, I’m going with Leonardo’s subject being a subject in motion. His notebooks do attest to an abiding interest in the motion of birds and other animals. He liked to purchase caged birds just to release them and study their movements.
Like some other works of art from the past, this painting remains in continuous play in our times. Duchamps and Dali have painted spoofs of it. I don’t bemoan the appropriation of old works for present day tastes and amusement. I like it, perhaps in way similar to the way Renaissance era people enjoyed seeing the works Romans and Greeks at play in their time and in their art. I relish the past achieving a presence in the present, like how Mona Lisa made an appearance in Batman comics.
And these days, as forensic archeologists pick at the bones in her grave, I see do imagine a much-alive Lisa del Giocondo laughing. I so love to wear her laugh across my belly. Better that, I think, than just a smile behind bullet-proof glass.