Mona Lisa Images for a Modern World - 2

I: Monalisiana

Introduction:
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"In 1983, a Japanese artist made a copy of the Mona Lisa completely out of toast." This curious fact and many more like it may be found on the "Fun Facts" World-Wide-Web page put out by the Northville Michigan Arts Commission (http://tln.lib.mi.us/~nort/yourpge4.html LINK DEAD 4/02), characterized on their web page as "a highly dedicated group of volunteers chartered to encourage, develop, and promote activities in all of the Arts." This identical piece of trivia is quoted word for word in no less than fifty other locations on the World Wide Web, where it is classified under a variety of demeaning and deprecating titles and rubrics such as "Amusing irrelevant facts," or "Useless (and unsubstantiated) facts," or "Totally useless facts." The list, in each of its iterations, is repeated item by item, with little variation, so that not infrequently, this seeming factoid about a toasted Mona Lisa directly follows the one about the child Albert Einstein who could not speak, or the one about the fellow who found a tooth growing out of his toe.

[Note: What may be the largest of these lists may be the one at the following URL: http://edisto.awod.com/gallery/rwav/wadem/dunno.html LINK DEAD 11/04. Here, the "facts" are presented "To help you through this absurd, twisted and some times silly world." In addition to the report of the Mona Lisa made of Toast, this list includes a notice reporting that Leonardo spent twelve years painting Mona Lisa's smile. This "fact" is repeated no less than 18 times on the Internet as of October 1998 under such titles at "Useless Trivia," or "Stuff No One Should Really Know. The following links to related trivia lists were supplied 10/04 by Carol Selkin:
http://nitro.biosci.arizona.edu/humor/useless.txt -- http://www.amusingfacts.com -- http://members.aol.com/Stargazyrr/facts.html -- http://www.unblog.com/useless_facts.html -- http://www.goyk.com/text.asp?id=52 -- http://www.tealdragon.net/humor/facts/facts.htm -- http://raybromley.com/guf/foodGUF.html ]

Reports and illustrations of strange occurrences, prodigious events, wonders and other shocking truths have a long history in Western culture -- dating back (if we ignore Homeric and other ancient legends), certainly to medieval travel-books and tall tales about far-away places and the people who inhabit them. Fixed in place among so many bizarre rumors and curiosities, where, as in ancient time, fact and rumor may well be indistinguishable, the report of a "toasted" Mona may seem to be just another one of those pseudo-facts (or factoids) intended to be read indiscriminately as "strange, but true," or "strange and not true" -- as you prefer. One thing is certain, however; in the lists of oddities, the story of a Mona Lisa in toast is robbed of context and offered to the public as something thoroughly meaningless and useless, an example of the worthless excesses of man in general and of modern artists in particular. Damned by association, vilified to insignificance, cited without the name of a maker, there is no way in such a context of contempt and derision to rescue the work (should it exist) and to demonstrate any meaning, substance or significance it may or may not have. Such stories have political purpose -- to undermine our efforts to understand the varieties of human creations and thought.

The work, in fact, is real, and is the product of artist Tadahiko Ogawa of Kyoto. The Mona as Toast does not always bend to the forces of ridicule, however. In an on-line edition of the Japan Times dated 1997, it is reported that a "Mona Lisa" whose image is burnt into slices of toast is Tadahiko Ogawa. Mona as Toast, ca. 1984displayed in an exhibit on "food as art" that was put up by the Tempozan Contemporary Museum. The above notwithstanding, it is not surprising, therefore that the permanent home of this work is the Orlando Florida exhibition hall of Ripley's "Believe it or not!" -- a collection of museums not known for their dedication to making sense of the world, but famous for showing its non-sense. Indeed, on the web-page of the Orlando Museum, the Mona as toast is cited as one example of work done by people "with too much time on their hands." What is the difference, we may ask, in accepting such an object as a serious or valid work of art and exposing it as a "useless" curiosity? Depending upon one's point of view, this is either a product of wasted time or one of certain ingenuity and verifiable industry. One thing is certain, this kind of criticism reveals more about the author than it does about the maker of the object. In this age when it is so easy to admit that cuisine can be aesthetic and hard to comprehend how art can be eaten, nobody seems to have noticed that the "Mona as Toast" looks surprisingly like a typical Leonardo brown ink drawing, squared off for transfer.

[Note: Japan Times: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/list/museums/1997/museumk6.html (Exhibit: "Delicious Art.")] LINK DEAD 4/02

[Note: From the Ripley's Orlando web page: "Then, there are exhibits which seem to scream 'some people have way too much time on their hands!' - a 1907 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost car made to two-thirds scale from more than a million match sticks, a family portrait made from dryer lint and the Mona Lisa from inch-square pieces of white toast, to name a few." (http://www.iloveorlando.com/ilo_ripleys.htm LINK DEAD 4/02). A telephone call to the Orlando museum provided the name of the artist, the date of acquisition (1984), and the fact that it was made of 1426 slices (or pieces?) of toasted white bread. But note Walter Benjamin's apt rejoinder to this materialistic assumption: "the fruits of idleness are more precious than the fruits of labor," (as quoted in Michael Kimmerman, "Museums in a Quandary: Where Are the Ideals?" The New York Times, August 26, 2001.)]

The "lists" do not tell us that Toast is in Orlando. It could easily be viewed as a fabrication of urban legend. It may be seen, illustrated, in an article from an unidentified magazine, where we are told that it is composed of 1,426 slices, and where, in the tradition of the lists, it is likened to other bizarre curiosities from the Orlando Ripley's: to a portrait of a Chinese emperor made from a laundry shirt and a reproduction of a Van Gogh self-portrait made from 3,000 postcards of the artist's paintings (also in Orlando). The caption begins: "From the ridiculous..." and only gets "to the sublime" when it mentions the Van Gogh. It is difficult to imagine why a Van Gogh made of 3,000 postcards is more sublime than a Mona Lisa made of 1500 slices of toast. Ostensibly, in the hierarchy of applied values at work here, postcards carry more weight than toast, or 3000 is more divine than 1500. These are not aesthetic criteria, of course, these works are being judged materialistically.

Is this the finale of one of the Western world's most revered works of art: to be ridiculed, commercialized, trivialized, and made ripe for any sort of exploitation? Do these stories indicate how far reverence for Leonardo's masterpiece has fallen since the 19th century, when it came to stand as a hallmark and embodiment of Renaissance beauty and accomplishment -- as the quintessential document expressing the relationship between the artist and his subject? Is the Mona Lisa toast (to borrow modern parlance)? Does this fall from the Renaissance tradition signify a re-death of the classical/naturalistic hold on representation? Or are these manifestations indicative of something else -- of a process by which modern society re-invents itself and comes to terms with its own past while it defines the path that lies ahead?

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