A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


la Joconde

What's Mona Lisa been up to lately?

Part 2

9 March 2012

Visitors to the Musée du Louvre, where the Mona Lisa resides, ascend the spiral stairs under the Pyramide du Louvre, which was designed by the architect I. M. Pei  and serves as the main entrance to the museum.


After our quick look, in Part 1 of this blog entry, at some historical details concerning the Mona Lisa (la Joconde in French; la Gioconda in Italian; the painting having connections to both countries), I thought it would be worth noting the dialogue, for the moment assuming voluntary participation on all sides, that this painting seems to be having with the arts, sciences, and, in general, the culture at large today.

This singular portrait pervades our civilization almost without our noticing it. The image of Mona Lisa is found on wristwatches, key chains, neckties, socks, T-shirts, greeting cards, and ads for hair products, bicycles, automobiles, airlines, cameras, light bulbs, printers, pens, bottled water, and restaurants.  The name of the painting, in one form or another, is used for chocolates, cookies (Le Biscuit Joconde), soap, a crater on Venus, a cruise ship, a song by Nat King Cole, a Doctor Who alien organism, a cyberpunk novel by William Gibson, and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles character (Leonardo and Mona Lisa are but two of the many eponymous characters featured).  An American pop and R&B singer-songwriter has even assumed the name for herself.


The Mona Lisa restaurant in San Francisco.


Amilcare Ponchielli’s opera, La Gioconda, I should note, has nothing to do with the Mona Lisa painting, despite the title being the same as that of the painting in Italian.  The opera simply has to do with, its title being translated, "The Happy Woman."  However, in yet another instance of a work of art caught in the embrace of popular culture, you may find that you have trouble disentangling this opera from the dancing ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators in Walt Disney's Fantasia, and I would certainly understand.

Speaking of operas, the theft of the Mona Lisa has inspired one of those:  Mona Lisa, Op. 31, by the German composer Max von Schillings.  Likewise, a film about the theft, Der Raub der Mona Lisa (The Theft of Mona Lisa ; 1931), was directed by Géza von Bolváry.

And then, there are the parodies.  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Mona Lisa — of all the great works of art — has the busiest Obsequiousness Accounts Receivable Department.  We are all familiar with Marcel Duchamp’s 1919 "readymade" version of Mona Lisa, resplendent with penciled-on moustache and goatee.  Even before that, in the 1883 "Les Arts Incohérents" exhibition in Paris, the world was bemused by Le rire (The laugh) by Sapeck (Eugène Bataille), in which the figure smokes a pipe.


Le rire (The laugh; 1883) by Sapeck (Eugène Bataille)

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


The French word used in the title of this early parody, rire, plays on the painting’s salient characteristic, the sourire (smile), which, according to the Latin root of the latter word — subridere ("under, or almost-laugh") — suggests that a smile is in fact a laugh to a lesser degree along the continuum.

Sapeck's takeoff opened the door for practically everyone to have a laugh at the iconic painting.

Since that time, Mona Lisa has been subjected to everything that Dadaism, Constructivism, Surrealism, Pop Art, and what may affectionately be called Anti-art, could throw at her, demonstrating what the French engineer Jean Margat has coined Jocondoclastie (Mona-Lisa iconoclasm), a term defined in the Paris publication Bizarre as, “the playful misappropriation (and willful defacement) of the Mona Lisa.”

Indeed, the poor girl has been caricatured, satirized, lampooned, spoofed, distorted, made fun of, twisted, exaggerated, ridiculed, and sent-up in innumerable works, including Jean Dubuffet’s Technicolor La Joconde (1948); Salvador Dalí’s Self portrait as Mona Lisa (1954), which, in effect, is a parody of a parody, although the moustache in this case is even longer than in the Duchamp version, the arms possibly a little hairier, and we all know that those gold coins in her hands ensure the artist’s livelihood; Fernando Botero's chubby Mona Lisa at the Age of Thirteen (1959); Weegee’s (Arthur Fellig) surrealist, photographically distorted images of Mona Lisa, (late 1950s); Andy Warhol’s (following on the heels of his photo-silkscreened Marilyns and painted Campbell’s Soup Cans) serigraph prints of multiple Mona Lisas, Thirty are Better than One (1963); Tadahiko Ogawa’s recreation of the Mona Lisa from bits of burnt toast (1983); Gary Larson’s Mona Lisa as a cow on the cover of The Far Side Gallery 3 (1988); Sophie Matisse’s whimsical The Monna Lisa (Be Back in 5 Minutes) (1997) — in which the familiar landscape and loggia are accurately depicted but Lisa is missing (Sophie is Henri Matisse’s great-grandchild and Marcel Duchamp's step-granddaughter, by the way); Karen Savell’s Mega Mona (1999), billed as the ‘World's Largest Paint-by-Number Mona Lisa’; Eric Harshbarger’s Mona Lego (2000), using more than 30,000 Legos; Karen Eland’s Mona Latte (2003), created by using coffee as paint (this painting by the former barista should not to be confused with the 20-feet-by-13-feet Mona Lisa rendition produced from coffee cups filled with varying amounts of milk at a festival in Sydney, Australia, in 2009); Devorah Sperber’s After the Mona Lisa 2 (2005), made of 5,184 spools of thread and viewed through an acrylic viewing sphere; and last but certainly not least, using 3-D graphics and sound-recognition technology, an animation of Mona Lisa that talked and waved to visitors at Beijing's Planning Exhibition Hall (2009).

Perhaps the most massive collection of Mona Lisa parodies ever assembled was exhibited at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in 2000.  The show was aptly titled, "Les 100 Sourires de Monna Lisa” (The 100 Smiles of Mona Lisa).


The Musée du Louvre itself is not above parodying art when it deems it a noble cause.


Parodies notwithstanding, the fact that the painter of the Mona Lisa, being your typical Renaissance guy, was also a writer, musician, scientist, mathematician, cartographer, architect, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, and botanist, seems to be reflected in the diversity of fields represented by those who are continually poking and probing the painting in an attempt to understand its mysteries.

We’ll have a look next at some of the recent research on the Mona Lisa.



This blog entry, due to its equal relevance to Italy and to Paris, France, has been posted under both of those thread headings.

The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (France)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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