Category Archives: Journalism

Who drew Laughing Mona Lisa?


“Laughing Mona Lisa” appears uncredited on back cover of a 1980’s out-of-print book.

Isn’t it a Pity?

Yes, it’s too bad when time shrouds the identity of  an artist with a level of anonymity of a paleolithic bison painter.  All I can say now is that I searched some more,  but did not find. Cerco, ma non trovo. 

The name I was looking for belongs to the creator of  “Laughing Mona Lisa,”  a piece of graphic art that was the subject of my last blog post.  Unfortunately, the artist’s identity appears to be something that’s now lost somewhere in the irretrievable history of 1970s southern California pop culture. The trail was older, longer, and more faint than I imagined.

Apparently, art blogger Robert A. Baron  went this way ahead of me. He got as far as tracing the image to a piece of wrapping paper from a Pier I Imports store in Redondo Beach, California .  The gift wrap was back in the 1970s.  Also during that decade, the graphic  circulated in the form of cocktail napkins, says Baron.

That just goes to show how wrong I was with my earlier assumption. My plan was to contact the store in Florence, Italy, where I purchased the T-shirt,  and then the wholesaler,  the manufacturer, and so on.  After all that, I thought,  maybe I would learn who created the series of images that regularly appears across my chest and stomach.

This much I do know now, the original graphic has changed a little over the decades.  So, it’s evolving in the public domain,  apparently adapting to contemporary contexts as it continues to be in play in form of T-shirts and who knows what else next.

One change in the graphic is in the framing of the panels.  Each shot was originally depicted  as one frame on a roll or reel of  35 mm film. That is, the panels were framed by strips of camera or projector sprocket holes running along the sides of each panel. Or, as they are called in the film industry: perforations,  perfs, for short.

The perfs reinforce the impression that the restrained smile on Leonardo’s model was a thing in motion, not fixed in a pose.  Alone, each panel would stand as a single cinematographic instant, frozen within a sequence of instances as this lady’s expression changes on its way toward uncontrolled laughter.  Leonardo’s original painting is one of those instances as well.

By the way, something like that could be said about the expressions of shock on the faces in Leonardo’s “Last Supper,” as the apostles react in the moment immediately following  Jesus saying, “One of you will betray me?”  Here is another frozen moment on its way to something else. First shock, then presumably horror.

While not as dramatic as the scene in the “Last Supper”, the expression in the Mona Lisa is presumably the initial reaction to the entertainment  Leonardo arranged for her long sitting.  Leonardo “surrounded his model with musicians, singers and buffoons to keep her in gentle gayety and so avoid the melancholy aspect we observe in most portraits,” says  Giorgio Vasari. Vasari is the 16th century Italian painter, architect and author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.

Just “gentle gayety”?  Come on, Giorgio.  With buffoons in the room,  would not the punch lines, pratfalls  and slapstick produce some laughing out loud?

Mona Lisa appearing as captures on 35mm film.

Mona Lisa appearing as captured on 35mm film.

In 1980, years after the wrapping paper and cocktail napkins, the graphic appears again on the back cover of a slim edition of a now out-of-print collection of Mona Lisa parodies and Mona Lisa influenced artwork. That would be, Mona Lisas, by Mary Rose Storey, pictured above. “Laughing Mona Lisa” appears on the back cover.

This time the panels appear without the film perforations, so the graphic at this point is more in the style of comic book panels. This is  also how the drawing appears on my souvenir T-shirt.  The curious thing is that while other artwork is credited to the artists in Ms. Storey’s book, “Laughing Mona Lisa” remains uncredited on the back cover. It’s not even listed as “anonymous.”

So how do I leave this?

Ok, this helps. When I was a newspaper reporter, I sometimes wrote about hikers, climbers, or hunters and children getting themselves lost in some wilderness or another. There would be a big search operation with hundreds of volunteers and sometimes aircraft. Most of the time the people were found. Once or twice the individuals disappeared for good, sad to say.  In those cases, the last press release from the sheriff  read “search suspended.”   Suspended? Suspended until when?  I always had ask that.  Suspended pending further information, was always the answer.  No closure.

So, search suspended.  There’s nothing here of the magnitude of a missing person, of course. This little case does remains open and with no word on whether the artist is even alive after all this time.  I’d love to learn that he or she is alive and well, of course.

Meanwhile, if I’m going to have a conversation with the creator of a piece of graphics art that I like, it will be something else, and some another time, probably fairly soon.

Please stay tuned.

The Egg of Columbus

In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, Columbus was a sea pirate, a high Renaissance sea pirate, a slaver and a con man. We’ve all heard how Columbus presented the king and queen of Spain with a scheme to bring the riches of the Indies back to Seville and Barcelona. Bait with the Indies, then switch to the Bahamas.

In his novel, Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut’s narrator undermines the traditional narrative by taking the usual issues with the notion that human beings discovered America in 1492. That year “… was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill” human beings who already lived in the Western Hemisphere. He goes on to say, “The chief weapon of sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was too late, how heartless and greedy they were.”

To astonish?

Yes, there’s stories about Columbus’ capacity to astonish. He says in his journal that the “Indians” were so primitive that they were astonished to find out that swords would cut their hands when they grabbed the metal blades. One wonders about the manner in which those swords were presented to make that happen. And then there was his parading of captured people and animals from the Caribbean through Spanish streets, which did astonish the crowds as much as anything P.T. Barnum could have ever dreamed up. Another story with some bearing on that is “The Egg of Columbus” There is an unfortunate metaphor involving this trick with a broken egg, and it’s something less than an omelette for the people of the Caribbean.

Columbus and the old egg trick.

The story is most often attributed to an Italian historian Girolamo Benzoni, who in 1565 published an account of a Spanish banquet for Columbus after his return. Columbus confounded a group of noblemen who sugested the Admiral was not as special as he might think. Sooner or later another sailor would have bumped into that land mass by heading west, probably a Spaniard. According to the account, Columbus did not immediately respond. Instead, he asked that an egg be brought to the table, and then said, ‘My lords, I will lay a wager with any of you that you are unable to make this egg stand on its end like I will do without any kind of help or aid.’ Sooner or later, somebody would figure out the trick.

One can see how the story speaks well of Columbus. He was, after all, the most clever man in the room.

One of the many monuments to Columbus is a modernist egg sculpture by Julio Bauza, installed in 1992 on the Spanish Island of Ibiza. A replica of his ship, the Santa Maria, is anchored within a hole in the egg. Some Ibizans claim Columbus was not Genoise, but one of them. That is their grand narrative.

And, in 1883, physicist Nikola Tesla, created a electro magnetically driven device that made a brass egg stand up for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition. He called the machine, “The Egg of Columbus.”

And yet, there is a problem. Like the Ibizan monument, there’s a hole in this narrative. Just as Columbus is erroneously credited with “discovering” America, the famous Egg of Columbus is erroneously credited to Columbus.

Before all that, in 1418, there was this Florentine sculptor and architect named Filippo Brunelleschi who was competing with other architects to be awarded the job of designing a dome for the uncompleted Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. No one had built so large a dome before. It was still unclear how it could be done. Brunelleschi refused to reveal any drawings or present a model. He claimed that if he did any of that, then his ideas would sooner or later be stolen and the commission might just as easily go to any builder willing to employ them.

Instead, says Giorgio Vasari, writing in 1550, Brunelleschi “… made a proposal that the building of the cupola should be given to him who could make an egg stand firmly on the smooth marble, for by doing this he would show his skill. And an egg being brought, all the masters tried to make it stand upright, but none found the way. And when they bade Filippo set it up, he took it, and striking it on the marble made it stand. ”