The Enigmatic Meaning
They call her “The Enigmatic Woman,” yet the painting at first glance is quite banal. It looks a lot like any run of the mill portrait with the subject positioned in the center while she sits facing and staring directly at the viewer. Even the colors are boring in this painting with its abundance of earth tones with different mellow shades of faded green, brown, blue, and burnt orange. The picture itself is only 30”x21” which is about double the size of the average college textbook. With all of the hallmarks of a picture that most people would discard, it is quite an enigma as to why the world has been obsessed with the “Mona Lisa” for over 500 years.
In “Ways of Seeing” John Berger, an art historian and novelist (only a tiny sample of the different ways I could title this Renaissance man), offers his readers a way into understanding the moment captured in paintings, especially mysterious paintings like the “Mona Lisa.” He suggests that viewers ask questions about and to the painting as way into entering into a sort of dialogue with the artist and his or her subject. By asking the appropriate questions, I was able to get a bit of a grasp on exactly why this enigmatic woman’s gaze has been capturing the rest of the world’s for so long, but I was also left questioning Berger’s theory. Berger encourages everyone with an interest in art to complete this process in order to fight against the “mystification” of classic paintings, but sometimes mystification is part of the experience of enjoying art and there is merit in that as well.
As the title of the essay hints, Berger believes that “Every image embodies a Way of Seeing” (99 My Italics), meaning that every image also includes the perspective of the artist to the subject. Once a reader can start to grasp where the artist is coming from in relation to what he is painting, then the image may start to make sense. As an example of this process Berger examines “Regents of the Old Men’s Alms House” by Frans Hals, which is depicted below:
Berger contextualizes the pictures by first inquiring into the artist’s social status at the time. During the commission of the painting Hals was “an old man of over eighty, [and] was destitute” (101). These wealthy men that Hals depicted gave him “three loads of peat” (101), or rotting vegetation, for this portrait. With those facts in mind, Berger comes to the conclusion that there is a sense of bitterness in the perspective of the painting, which may be why Hals depicted the third man from the right as being drunk. Berger argues that the man’s expression and hat are not necessarily a result of facial paralysis and fashion as art historians argue, but part of the “drama of these paintings” (102) which in this case is an old pauper struggling with his feelings of these men while trying to stay objective in his depiction of them; therefore, he let a glimpse of the truth out, a glimpse at these regents’ corruption.
So, how does one begin to ask questions about the “Mona Lisa”? Perhaps it is best to start the same way that Berger does, by understanding who the artist was at the time of the painting. According to the Louvre’s official website, (the museum where the painting hangs) the painting is believed to have been painted between 1503 and 1506. Leonardo da Vinci, the artist, would have been just over fifty at the time.
Kenneth Clark from The Burlington Magazine explains that “after he had lingered over it four years, [he] left it unfinished.” In 1516 the king of France invited him to work on a project. BBC contributor Bob Chaundy believes that da Vinci took Mona Lisa with him to continue working on it until his death in 1519. So what we have is man nearing the end of his life working on a seemingly personal project (since he took it with him everywhere), a project that he felt he never finished.
The next obvious question: who is the woman? According to the Louvre, the model was Lisa Gherardini who was by all accounts an average Italian middle-class mother to five children. Her husband, Francesco Giocondo, commissioned da Vinci to paint the portrait as a way to celebrate the new Giocondo home and the arrival of their second son. Essentially, Mona Lisa, My Lady Lisa, is a housewife put on a pedestal. She is arguably the most glorified housewife of all time.
With an understanding of the artist and the subject, it is time to ask, “what is the perspective here?” What point of view was da Vinci trying to give his audience? Knowing the information that I do, it is hard to even suggest that there was an audience for the painting. The accounts suggest that da Vinci painted and gave what he was commissioned to Gioncondo, but he kept one of the original sketches to keep working on.
In other words, the Mona Lisa the world knows today was really for da Vinci’s eyes only. The portrait is an intimate depiction perhaps of someone who baffled da Vinci’s sensibilities. Of all the different subjects and models da Vinci painted, it was a middle-class mother who captivated his attention. Perhaps da Vinci could not even wrap his own mind around why she was so enthralling and so spent the rest of his life trying to capture that “it factor” she seemed to exude. In a sense, da Vinci was trying to capture the feeling of love at first sight, the feeling of being completely attracted to someone and not knowing why.
So how does this feeling of awe-inspiring adoration flow over into the other stylistic elements of the portrait? Most people tend to comment on her eyes and her smile, and if you notice, they do not really seem to correspond to each other. If you only look at her eyes and cover her mouth, the eyes give a sense that she is giving a much broader smile than she actually is since the eyes are wrinkled and upturned. The high placement of the cheekbones also lend to this interpretation.
The rest of the portrait with the conservative colored clothes and pose do not exude the sense of joviality that the eyes give. Those eyes that seem to contradict the other aspects of the portrait are also paradoxically the focus since many people comment on how Lisa’s gaze seems to follow you wherever you go. Her eyes tell you one thing, and the rest of her tells you another. She feels two emotions simultaneously, and that is mysterious.
Many people also tend to comment on the background since it is not based on any real location (BBC). It is almost other-worldly, alien in that sense. In the same way that she can feel two emotions at the same time, it is as if she can be in two places at the same time since she is posed in between two manmade columns on a balcony; she is simultaneously human and extraterrestrial. The colors of the background also give this sense since they are split into two. The top half is bluish green in its depiction of the sky, water, and trees while the lower half is brown and orange in its depiction of the land.
Finally, her equilateral triangle pose really seems to seal this reading, for what is a triangle but the convergence of two opposite points on a single point? Mona Lisa is that point of convergence. She is place where two emotions can converge. She is the place where terrestrial and extraterrestrial converge. She is the point where a mundane housewife converges with an iconoclast of the world. She is the epitome of mystery since she cannot be pinned down to just one thing.
Mystery, though, is what John Berger is fighting against. He wants to take what he calls the “bogus religiosity” (109) that mystifies art out of the equation by giving people the tools they need to make meaning on their own. He believes that art critics and historians mystify by “explaining away what might otherwise be evident” (103); in a sense they try to confuse interpretations that might be obvious through academic discourse and elitism. But what happens when the point is mystification? When the point of the painting is to leave the viewer confused? Is not there a place for that in art also? If it was not for this mysteriousness that Lisa creates, would anyone care? I think not.
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