Tag Archives: Giorgio Vasari

Who drew Laughing Mona Lisa?

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“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.

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Seeing Mona Lisa Differently

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.
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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.

shirtszAs I was saying,  this unidentified  graphic artist’s work changed how I see the Mona Lisa, or rather how I see the Mona Lisa when viewing computer screen reproductions of the Mona Lisa.

How so?

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.

Brilliant.

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.

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That madness and art thing

Madness is that low-hanging fruit in the Eden of our art and literary history.

I was going to save that line for the next in a series improvisational prose poems I want to do, but that will have to wait. The truth is that I’m not ready to do the poem today. Perhaps tomorrow. I have what we called in Journalism school, “more reporting to do” here. So, even if there is a poem in that, today I’m doing the non-fiction prose thing. Journalism. That is, reporting on Humanity’s long and sometimes misguided tradition of yoking madness with creative output.

Here goes: Van Gogh cut off his ear.

No, wait, everyone’s heard that story. Besides, the meme is problematical here. This narrative of madness-induced creativity reminds us that it sometimes ends with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The madness stopped Van Gogh’s paintings from coming. Hemingway never completed the short piece Jack Kennedy asked him to write for an inauguration reading. Old Robert Frost filled in with a reading of The Gift Outright. Same problem with Silvia Plath’s suicide, but not before she went to the trouble of letting us know that her affliction impeded her art, “When you are insane, you are busy being insane – all the time,” she said. “When I was crazy, that’s all I was.” So much for the crazy romanticizing.

Who else? Ezra Pound? He lived a long life, thanks in part to his madness having saved him from execution for treason. Some said it was feigned.

No, lets do this: There was a Florentine painter who claimed he could see a city or landscape in phlegm and blood stains. That’s crazy, no? He found these compositions on a wall that the sick and dying had coughed and spat upon. His neighbors talked, saying he lived more like a beast than a man. They could not help themselves from thinking that there was a connection with the half-human figures in the paintings.  Ever since then, men and women  have come and go talking about the madness of Piero di Cosimo, 1452-1521.

Novelist George Eliot was among those who talked. After living in Florence in the 1860s, Eliot could not resist writing a historical novel about Florence. Perfectly understandable, of course. While she was writing her Florence novel, Romola, she could not resist giving Piero di Cosimo a crazed speaking part, tossing into the game some colorful madman eccentricities. A girl comes to Piero’s door with a basket of boiled eggs. Piero got to where he would only eat boiled eggs. He was so afraid of fire, he never cooked. He made one exception to that rule. He had to boil glue to seal the oils on his paintings, so he braved the fire for that, and while doing so he set out another pot to boil fifty eggs at a time. I particularly like the toads in Eliot places in his living room, and also the rabbit and roosting pigeons.

Before saying more about Piero di Cosimo, lets dig a little deeper into the history of this tradition of linking this madness thing with art and creativity.

Socrates, proclaimed, “If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, and are utterly eclipsed by inspired madmen.” Is this like, if you’re normal, don’t even bother? Stick to sales or accounting.

Poe bragged about being so touched. “Men have called me mad,” he said. “but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence.”

Freud was in the game. After observing the body language of Michelangelo’s Moses sculpture in Rome, the doctor diagnosed the sculptor as laboring under a repressed rage against his patron Pope Julius II. Freud saw all that in the positioning of Moses’ marble foot, along with the way Moses fingers his beard. That sounds like a stretch, but it did turn out that Michelangelo eventually unleashed that rage on Pope. He nearly brained Julius with scaffold planks that he tossed from his high perch in the Sistine Chapel.

Coincidence or not, Sigmund Freud published his analysis of Moses-Michelangelo shortly after reading Giorgio Vasari’s artist biographies. Vasari was commenting at length on the peculiarities of many of the artists’ personal behavior. That was in the Sixteenth Century. Freud was writing about Michelangelo’s rage in 1914.

More recently, there’s the case of Martin Ramirez too. After being confined for decades in a mental institution, Ramirez became the poster boy for  artistis mental illness.  In 2008 a New York times article declared  Ramirez  “simply one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.”  Ok, he is good. Got that.   Now get this, the Wikipedia article on Ramirez leads with a line that reads, “Martín Ramírez (1895–1963) was a self-taught artist who spent most of his adult life institutionalized in California.” See, Ramirez here is not an artist who happens to be mad, but a madman who makes art.

"Courtyard" by Martin Ramirez

We also have the poets weighing in their verse. Like Freud, some of them look at the art, and then think they see something of the artist’s mind.

Jean Valentine’s 2009 chapbook , Lucy, includes a poem called “Outsider Art”, about  Ramirez  and his art. In this case, Valentine acknowledges a whole lot more of the artist who happens to be insane, and gives him a place in our shared humanity. In the context of the rest of the chapbook, the Ramirez poem is among other poems thematically linked to “Lucy” a protohuman hominoid who died three million years ago. If Lucy is one of us, so is Ramirez.

Poet John Stone brings us back once last time here to Piero di Cosimo with “Forest Fire”, a meditation on the Cosimo painting of the same name. Just by making the painting the object of a poet’s attention, we are lead to wonder if “Forest Fire” has anything to do with Piero’s pathalogical fear of fire, or the beast-like nature that Giorgio Vasari claimed had strayed increasingly to the feral side over the course of his life. We wonder what, if anything, in the picture came out of the Rorschach visions of phlegm stains on a sickroom wall?

"Forest Fire" by Piero di Cosimo.

Vasari said Piero lived more like a beast than a man. Beast?  These words have lead to speculation about the Painting, “Forest Fire.” How can you help that when the painting is filled with beasts, one of which includes a pig with a half-human face, and a person with deer-like features.

Look here. Stone walks us back to a beastly primal myth time when people and animals were more alike. Lucy’s time, perhaps. The stories and pictographs of Native Americans sometimes speak of a myth time “when people and animals were not so different.” Stone observes in the painting:

A human snout
floats in the face of a swine.
A bearded man-deer nudges his doe.

Stone says all of them are “being” and because of the fire these beings are “being” driven out as the fully-formed humans discover the uses of fire. This brings on end of Eden and it’s low-hanging fruit. And so, Stone’s poem concludes with the expulsion:

…like God, Di Cosimo
conjured up a reason
to take it away.

–RS

(Thanks to Stefano Sandano, of Romanguide.com for passing along his take on Freud’s Moses of Michelangelo)

This post is dedicated to all my writer and poet friends who I met in those crazy days at the “Writers Asylum”.