Mona - The Medusa Equation
and the Pregnant Mona Lisa

Fig. 38a
"Mona Lisa Revisited" © 1991 Alfred Gescheidt
a Greeting Card from "The Image Bank" Published by Portal Publications, Ltd.
Corte Madera, California #125 GGB101
"Honey, you're not old, you're a classic! Happy Birthday"
text by Rita Abrams

 

 
Fig. 38b, and 38c (detail)
Japanese Advertisement (and detail), for Sekaido,
a Tokyo store specializing in art supplies and custom made photograph frames,
with Mona Lisa. Probably to be attributed to Morimura Yasumasa.
Refer to: http://photojpn.org/DIR/vendors.html

 

Commentary: It is not difficult to understand why artists, both fine and popular, are drawn to Mona Lisa's mouth. Here, in two examples, one from a greeting card and the other from an advertisement, artists have chosen to render Mona's mouth agape, in the first example, ostensibly in the toothless grimace of decrepitude and, in the second, in wide-eyed and open-mouthed astonishment. To this observer, in the first case, the open mouth is not quite in keeping with the sense of the card's text -- which tells the recipient that she is a classic -- even if old. I suspect that this card repurposes an available piece of artwork better to fit a specific situation -- the need for a birthday card. It is more likely that the artist was thinking of one of those Renaissance or Baroque scenes of open-mouthed horror, such as (but not doubtlessly) Caravaggio's depiction of Judith beheading Holofernes. In this way the horrific pose makes sense, and the Mona Lisa of the card turns out to be one in which this epitome of life and love is confronted with the sudden revelation that even agelessness must end. This is a memento mori -- a fitting metaphor for our own invulnerable times.

The Japanese advertisement brings up different issues. The observer quickly realizes that the portrait is printed in mirror image to Leonardo's Mona -- facing the viewer's right instead of left. [See Jig-saw puzzle, above.] Assuming that the reversal is not a printing error, in this case, I believe, the artist has intentionally fused a memory of the image of Caravaggio's Head of Medusa with the pose of the Mona Lisa. Readers will remember that the gaze of the gorgon Medusa would turn anyone caught in its snare into stone. Perseus, armed with a mirror shield given to him by Athena, turns the monster's power back on herself. He slays Medusa and fixes her severed head onto his shield as a frightful emblem of its power. The creator of this image, cleverly fusing two icons, has taken the image of Leonardo's Mona Lisa -- understood universally as the epitome of aesthetic accomplishment -- and has opened her mouth Medusa-like in recognition of the shock of transformation, purposefully reversing the image as testimony to the last image that the gorgon saw. In a word, the artist has created a double-edged metaphor of the artistic process, which on one level fixes reality into something still and immutable, and on the other forces the observer, qua Medusa, to confront him- or herself. In some ways the process of making art is presented as ultimately self-destructive -- so that the artist must choose between life and his art.

 

 

fig. 38d. Caravaggio.
Head of Medusa.
Florence, Uffizi.1596-1598

  fig 38e Caravaggio.
Judith Beheading Holofernes.
Rome, Coppi Collection 1595-1596

 

It is interesting to contrast the Medusa metaphor of artistic creation with the more frequently used story of artistic creation that is set as Pygmalion and Galatea. In this myth (which everyone knows in musical form as My Fair Lady), the sculptor, having grown enamored of his sculpture, prays for it to become alive. Aphrodite grants him his wish. In this way the creative process may be seen as bridging the gap between the inanimate creations of humans and the work of gods. In contrast, in the Medusa myth the gorgon creates her stone self, but destroys herself in the process. This reading -- if I am interpreting it correctly -- is a considerably more cynical view of the creative process than those to which we have grown accustomed.

[Note: Other stories about inanimate sculpture becoming alive include Mozart's Don Giovanni, and Pinocchio.]

One should not fail to mention the erotic dimension of Mona's open mouth. The gorgon, of course, was a horrific creature, described as having snakes as hair, huge wings and a round ugly face. How curious then that the artist of our advertisement chose to meld a reference to the gorgon with an eroticized rendition of the Mona Lisa. One can only surmise that the artist in this way is exploring the complimentary and contradictory natures of fear and sexual desire, of repulsion and attraction, of all-consuming beauty and repulsive horror.

Earlier, we saw that Marcel Duchamp exploited the sexual ambivalence of the Mona Lisa topos in order to play on the picture's ability to intermix opposites. In a similar manner, artist Morimura Yasumasa has also produced a triad of Mona Lisas that turn Leonardo's image and its landscape of nature's processes into a sardonic commentary on the effects of the atomic annihilation of post-war Japan.

fig 38f. Morimura Yasumasa
Monna Lisa in its Origin, 1998
from "Self Portrait as Art History"
fig 38g. Morimura Yasumasa
Monna Lisa in Pregnancy, 1998
from "Self Portrait as Art History"
fig 38h. Morimura Yasumasa
Monna Lisa in the
Third Place, 1998
from "Self Portrait as Art History"

 

Outwitted, Medusa's metamorphoses may be said to be the first self-portrait, albeit an unwitting one. Glancing back at the Japanese advertisement one senses that this image is not a variant of the Mona Lisa physiognomy as much as it is a fusion of the Mona Lisa formula with a portrait. This formula is continued in the Morimura Yasumasa pieces, above.

In the left-most image (Monna Lisa in its Origin), the artist has reproduced a recognizable and rather faithful rendition of the Leonardo work. Only the face has been altered, and it has been replaced with that of the artist -- the leit-motif of his series "Self Portrait as Art History" (published by Asahi Shimbun, 1998). Thus, here, the pose of the body and even the landscape flowing in the distance recall Leonardo's original. In the middle image everything has changed. Mona now sits nude and pregnant on an ordinary chair -- perhaps inspired by the popular conjecture that the sitter is secretly pregnant -- hence the mysterious smile. If the artist begins with a popular mythology, he has taken it further. Now the artist's male face adds a level of sexual ambiguity as it mitigates the erotic effect of the nude body. The landscape has now been transformed in a subtle, but significant manner. Its tone and formal structure echo that of its predecessor, but what was once wild untamed nature coursing through the distance has been transformed into the urban carnage of a nuclear holocaust. What was once barely untouched by the human hand has now been destroyed by it. Just as Mona Lisa's secret in this work has been exposed, so has man's destruction of the landscape. This Mona is no longer an essay on the unity of man and nature. Instead it juxtaposes past and future. So, while this Mona exposes postwar loss and estrangement, it also seems to provide evidence of hope and recovery. Or does it?

In the third work in this triad the setting has changed. No longer set in the familiar landscape stage of the Mona Lisa, the artist has moved his figure to the wild, forbidding and forlorn locale of Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks. The last hint of civilization has now been banished from the rear of the scene. The artist qua Mona is still pregnant, but in this case another layor has been removed, drawing inspiration from one of Leonardo's famous studies of a full-term fetus in the womb. [See, especially, Charles D. O'Malley and J.B. de C.M. Saunders. Leonardo on the Human Body, New York, Dover, 1983, #210, p. 275.] Unlike Leonardo's, the image before us is not a disembodied anatomy but, rather, a full figure rendered in the form known as écorché, where the skin is peeled away to reveal what lies beneath, in this case, the underlying organs. The fetus in this picture seems full term and is in position ready for child-birth. Is the artist telling us that out of the bleak ruins of war (assuming the nuclear vision still holds) stems new life?

I am struck with the passivity of these figures -- by their reserve in the face of exposure, especially when compared with the Medusa-Mona. Yet, one should not be surprised if a Mona Lisas displays an inherited emotional stasis, but the nude and the anatomical versions before us now seem inexplicably devoid of human reaction -- as if they are mere manikins that the artist dresses (or undresses).

Pregnant Mona Lisas are not encountered frequently in the monalisiana genre; but I have encountered one example used in an advertisement for genetic testing to determine paternity! Art historians usually give no credence to the various popular theories concerning the meaning of the Mona Lisa, or the meaning of her smile. The presumption that Leonardo painted a pregnant Mona should be discounted by consideration of the longstanding fashion of showing young married women in the "fullness" of their potential -- as in Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding. In spite of their inapplicability to the original work, nonetheless, these theories are interesting, as witnessed by the service they provide to the expression of modern concerns. Thus, in the advertisement below, the paternity testing service promises to reveal what is normally hidden -- yet another example of using the Mona Lisa to signify an attempt to pierce an unfathomable mystery.

Citations:

http://www.usna.edu/Users/english/obrien/capstones.html

fig. 38i. Billboard advertisement. "Who's the Daddy"
Image supplied by Terry D. Houtz, Manager Genetic Testing
Baltimore RH Typing Laboratory (1-800-765-5170)
See this article.

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