Mona Lisa Images for a Modern World - 7

Mona Lisa Wrapped in a Mantle of Fable
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Gary Larson: Mona CowWhen Gary Larson took on the subject for the front cover of The Far Side Gallery 3 (Kansas City, Andrews and McMeel, 1988.) the human Mona is replaced (characteristically) by the ever-approachable Larson Cow. Larson uses these uncomplaining stolid animals as foils against which human idiosyncrasies are cast -- where the strange activities of the human species are recorded against a backdrop that brings the human silhouette into clear focus. And here, by rendering an essentially anonymous bovine-mona, that common human conceit -- the need to be individualized and recorded for posterity -- is exposed. But, while the Larson version of our famous picture obviously parodies Leonardo's Mona Lisa, it also reveals debts to several Western portrait conventions. For instance, quite curiously, Larson's Mona is not seated in Mona's famous chair, but plainly is standing in front of a rather prominent parapet, beyond which the landscape rushes to its infinity. [Note: Gould.] Clearly, Mona's "arms" do not rest on the arms of a chair, but on what appears to be the capital of a small column. By employing this device, Larson seems to be alluding to a conventional standing portrait type of the sort sometimes used by Van Dyck, Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough or others, the purpose of which is to invest the sitter with an appearance and demeanor of aristocracy amid attributes of learning. In this way the contrast between lowly cow and self-important upstanding human is thus heightened. Like so many of Larson's animals, this one inhabits human space -- a space that contrasts markedly to the expanding landscape beyond; this cow is no longer grazing about in the meadows and hills (such as they are), but finds itself propped up for portraiture. Is it possible that hidden in the iconography of this upright mona-cow is a doubly ironic twist on the old dairyman's joke: "Our cows are outstanding in their field?" But this one seems to be standing out in front of her field -- not unlike Leonardo, himself.

[Note: Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, in Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (New York, Harmony Books, 1998, p. 31), also thinks of the Mona Lisa as standing. He says: "La Gioconda stands on a balcony overlooking a complex geological background of flowing waters..."]

In literature, the use of animals to express human values is certainly as old as Aesop, who, if he existed at all, was probably just a codifier of earlier lore or a name used as a metaphor with which to unite a class of literature. Among indigenous peoples, the oral tradition of telling moral animal stories is spread worldwide. In the imagery of medieval Europe, animals are given human tasks in the bas-de-page of countless illuminated manuscripts. It is in our own time, however, that they acquire the traits of human personalities. Animals acting out human dramas, certainly precede the illustrations of Beatrix Potter, but they are never portrayed more sensitively than they are in her works. Potter's civilized menagerie must be credited with clearing a path for the manner in which even Gary Larson uses animals to draw out human peculiarities. Dressed as humans, acting and toiling as humans, it would not be long before animals could take on surrogate human roles as subject in art.

Meyerowizy: Mona GorillaIndeed, animals seem to be drawn to the Mona Lisa -- magnetically, as it were. Illustrated in Mary Rose Storey's Mona Lisas are two such works: a poster from 1971 by Rick Meyerowitz called Mona Gorilla (p. 51), and a miniature in oil on hardboard from 1977 by Rita Greer, who depicts Mona as a mouse (Mona Lisamouse, p. 63).Monalisa Mouse To this writer, the intent of both works is contrary to the tradition of Beatrix Potter. These artists are not primarily interested in creating a universe parallel to that inhabited by humans; but, rather, their purpose is to shock the onlooker when confronted by the disparity between the expected icon and the image in front of him. The first of these depicts a gorilla, a gorilla quite satisfied to be playing the role of Mona. While not something ferocious and untamed, this gorilla glories in the conceit of replacing a life of high regard and a smile of consummate mystery with his clever mocking monkey-shines. The second image, well, makes makes Leonardo's self-satisfied Mona into something mousy.

[Note: Mona Gorilla is derived from a National Lampoon traveling exhibition: "The Gorilla in Art" and was used on the cover of the National Lampoon issue (March 1971, Vol. 1, No. 12) dedicated to culture. The traveling exhibit is described as follows: "The reconverted bookmobile will also display such masterpieces as Duchamp's Gorilla Descending a Staircase, Picasso's Gorillica, the original manuscript of Kant's Critique of Pure Gorilla, a recording of Schubert's Unfinished Gorilla and a videotaping of Sir Kenneth Clark's cultural series Gorillisation. Gorilla my dreams, I love you..." (http://www2.bitstream.net/~marksim/natlamp/issues/7103.html). Along the same lines may be placed The Guerilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art," Penguin Books, 1998. The Meyerowitz poster also appeared in "The National Lampoon Art Poster Book" (15" x 11"), Harmony Books, 1975. -- In a letter dated April 11, 2005, Rick Meyrowitz informs me that the "Gorilla in Art" exhibit was written by one of the founders of The National Lampoon, Henry Beard, who also conceived the idea of posing a Miss Piggy as Mona. See below. Readers may be interested in consulting Rick Meyrowitz's upcoming website: http://www.rickmeyerowitz.com/ ]

Slyvia Long: Rabbit MonaCloser to Potter is the rabbit-Mona by Sylvia Long (1993) that appears in a greeting card put out by Peaceable Kingdom Press of Berkeley California. Here a rather domestic Mona sits contentedly in a landscape that more closely resembles the high peaks and friendly brown hills of California than the treacherous forbidding and unfathomable vista of Leonardo's Mona. Sylvia Long's "Mona" is a direct descendant of the carefully civilized rabbit society created by Doris Susan Smith in her intriguingly illustrated series about J.B.Rabbit (The Travels of J.B.Rabbit, 1982, and The Country Live of J.B.Rabbit, 1989). Content in her Peaceable Kingdom and relaxed, the tension between sitter and observer that animates Leonardo's picture -- a tension somehow wound into her cryptic smile -- is gone in this rabbit in repose, who, if anything, surveys the observer with serene queenly dignity.

Jim Henson: Monna PiggaWhile most animal Monas turn a portraiture tradition into a device for depicting generic (and therefore universal) subjects, there are exceptions. In the Kermitage Collection of the Jim Henson Studios may be found a portrait of the irrepressible Miss Piggy, Mona Pigga, a character from the creator's Muppet series. Miss Piggy, of course, is not the passive cow that Gary Larson illustrates, but, rather, more aggressive, more assuming and more pretentious than even humans, yet not particularly conscious of herself. Miss Piggy, who deludes herself into thinking that she is sexy, and who seems to believe that the world exists solely for her pleasure and comfort, is immune from knowing defeat and is invisible to insult. In this picture, true to form, she hams for the camera, but in so doing the picture indicates that she is cognizant of the observer in a way that reminds us that in Leonardo's version, so much more subdued, of course, Mona's smile beguilingly draws the observer into her secret world and aesthetic spaces.
[Note: Rick Meyerowitz reports (4/11/05) that the Miss Piggy project was conceived by Henry Beard (of the National Lampoon) and "was carried out by the great art director David Kaestle and photographed by John Barrett."]

In the photo of a painting of Snoopy as the Mona Lisa at right, accompanied by photographer Joe Farace, we are confronted with a mélange of Mona symbolic attributes. Farace entitles this snapshot, "My artistic influence." To this writer he might be referring to the dual nature of the Snoopy-Mona portrait. On one hand it represents the so-called "high art," of Western Civilization, while on the other it heralds just plain Snoopy. Is the photographer telling us that his aesthetic roots lie in these dual polarities, or is he just making fun of the obvious fusion of types within the photo (which might, in the end, be the same thing)? If the former is true, then we might liken this dual image to Duchamp's LHOOQ, where an example of "high" art infamously is equated to one of "low" manufacture. (See MONASV12.htm#Duchamp ). There is, yet, another way to read this photo. People enjoy being photographed in the company of things or people they respect or with witch they would like to be identified. From snapshots of tourists standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, to souvenir photos of politicos shaking hands with presidents, or ordinary folks hugging movie stars, the photograph has served as a symbolic pathway to exhibiting the subject's ersatz prestige. This photo may serve as an ironic inversion of what we might call "the proximity photo" -- one that plays on the tradition's triviality. [Addition of 6/13/2007.]

If Larson's cow makes humans seem self-important, in contrast, Henson's Piggy turns humans into docile cows, but in her excesses we see ourselves reflected, and by laughing at her pretensions we can laugh at our own. But Mona Pigga refers, as well, to another convention applied to modern Monas -- the use of the Mona Lisa as a frame in which to pose celebrity, the function of which directly opposes the use of the mona formula to elevate insignificant animals to the realm of portraiture.

Dali-Halsman: Dali as Mona (Dali as Duchamp's Mona)It is difficult to determine when the Mona Lisa first began to be used as a setting for the portraiture of other individuals. During the sixteenth century, as has been frequently shown, Fontainebleau court portraits sometimes followed the Mona Lisa type, but these early images were not cast specifically to invoke the Mona Lisa. The idea to make portraits self-consciously refer to the Mona Lisa may be a result of the hot-house of 19th-century Mona Lisa criticism (at first an idea with no image) that was transferred to modern portraiture some time later. Among the theories that had gained favor by the end of the 19th century, of course, was the idea that the Mona Lisa was, in fact, aMarcel Duchamp: L.H.O.O.Q. disguised portrait of Leonardo, himself, or that the Mona Lisa was a portrait of the artist's mother. Without discussing these notions (They are referred to, below.), one should note that the Mona Lisa served as a self-conscious frame of reference in portraits of notables such as Josef Stalin, Salvador Dali, Barbara Streisand, Golda Meir, Jackie Kennedy, and many others. Of the above, only the self-portrait of Dali may be said to be "commissioned." Dali, of course, is appropriating the framework of fame to flaunt his own image. The other works, I imagine, are intended as parodies of celebrity and fame, juxtaposing a recognizable likeness with that of the Mona Lisa -- the generic code -- the modern-day emblem, for fame. One wonders if it is the fame of the Mona Lisa or the notoriety of Duchamp's defaced version to which he aspires.

[Note: For portraits, see Storey, pp. 47, 48, 49 and, above fig. 23, row 5, nos. 2 and 3.]

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