I am not sure I’d like to have a little chat with Mona Lisa or want her to wave out to me like some movie star. This is not about purity in art but about purity in ways of seeing. Rather than humanising, it becomes robotic.
Beijing’s Alive Gallery is doing just that. It has got a whole series of famous art works that move and talk. The Mona Lisa, for example, answers questions. In a video clip when asked if she was married, she says, yes, and her husband loves her very much. What next? “I just finished chopping onions” and the Chinese wizards will show a few tears? Or, will she explain her smile with an, “Oh, I was stifling a yawn”?
How is this interference in art any different from the Russian woman who hurled a ceramic cup at the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum? Here was real frustration because she had failed to obtain French nationality. Her rejection was what made her hit out at a truly prized work of art. Interestingly, the artist Leonardo da Vinci is not French, nor do any versions mention the model being one.
I see this as a wonderful clash of identities – Russian, French, Italian – and the attempt to be one. The sense of seeking a space. What is more valid? A mute work of art that earns billions of euros? Or a woman escaping a life she does not want?
The painting is behind a bullet-proof screen. How accessible is it, then? For all its peasant appeal, it has indeed become a distant figure of admiration. That was in all probability not the intention. While many works of art are analysed on the basis of skill, historical relevance and the ability to make a statement of sorts, the Mona Lisa – ‘la Gioconda’, the laughing one – has been personalised. The backdrop, her past, her relationship with the artist, her stance, her look, her smile. It is she who has become a benchmark for this sort of ‘seeing’.
Faces fascinate me. I do not quite recall when I first set my eyes on Antea by Parmigianino. It has been compared with the Mona Lisa and they say it is his best work. “Due to the naturalistic presentation and the gaze of the model, historians believe that the artist knew the young woman, yet her identity remains a mystery. But her real name is but one of the mysteries which surround the paintings,” I read somewhere.
As far as mysteries go, there always seems to be that hint of it added to what already appears enigmatic. However, I do not agree that the gaze and presentation should assume that the artist knew the model. Art can take liberties with these aspects. And I do not see any hint of the Mona Lisa here. This is an almost full-length portrait, Mona Lisa isn’t. This one’s expression is still, almost freezing. Mona Lisa has the hint of a smile and even the eyes are not stony.
So, what makes Antea special? Her arrogance. Her deportment. I love the way her left hand is poised, almost suggesting “It’s got to be me”. Some say that she was either a courtesan or from an aristocratic family. I go along with the first view, for I think women of royalty might have liked to sit for their portraits. And woe to anyone who might ask them to stand…well, I would not have stood that long!
Now comes the courtesan theory. She does look innocent, but that is the true art of coquetry. It is the defiance in the small tender lips, ready to purse into a sulk. She is accustomed to attention and is demanding it. The clothes she is wearing seem to fit her but are not a part of her regalia. Her skill and appeal lie elsewhere and that is how her right hand turns inward rather subconsciously.
As for the Mona Lisa, she has survived so many interpretations and infringements that she has become A Thing. Of beauty? A joy forever?
Perhaps that Russian woman’s ceramic cup must one day be able to move and talk and speak of its experience at hitting her. Forever and beauty both hurt. Yet, I wouldn’t want her to move for a fraction of a second even to hear an anguished sigh or the swish of silk or wind in her face.