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|Mona Takes Tokyo
by Meg Threadwell
|One step into the gallery, you are surrounded by classic portraits of a woman with that famous, enigmatic smile. But wait. How can there be 16 Mona Lisas, all equally beautiful, but each a bit different from the other? One has red curly hair, the other fuller cheeks, and still another sits before a chillier, bluer landscape than you remember.
Satomi Honda, there with three friends from her Tokyo high school, cannot stop giggling. "I didn't imagine that a Mona Lisa exhibit could be this funny," she says. Actually, it wasn't meant to be. "Les 100 Sourires De Mona Lisa (The 100 Smiles of Mona Lisa)," on at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum through March, is a serious, comprehensive survey of the efforts made for five centuries by artists all over the world to reproduce, print, parody and make fun of Leonardo's famous painting.
In fact, Leonardo da Vinci's original portrait of the noble Italian lady is about the only thing missing in the show. The Leonardo did visit Japan back in 1974, but has never since left home.
Mona Lisa, now regarded as a French national treasure, was also instantly a masterpiece in the 16th century. European painters copied it for their patrons. In the 19th century, Jean-Francois Millet borrowed Mona Lisa's pose for his Portrait de Pauline-Virginie Ono (1841-42).
Atsushi Miura, a University of Tokyo art historian who jointly organized the show with French curator Jean-Michel Ribettes, thinks the mysteries surrounding the portrait is the key to Lisa's staying power. To this day, nobody knows who and where she was, why she was dressed so plainly, or even if she really existed. Having inspired hundreds of artists and scholars to interpret it in their own ways, Mona Lisa now is "undoubtedly the world's most reproduced picture," says Miura.
As a result, in the 20th century, Mona was both a symbol of beauty and an easy target for free-spirited artists. Probably the notorious of all is Marcel Duchamp, who drew a little mustache on a little Mona Lisa postcard and called it "L.H.O.O.Q," which, in French, sounds out "she has a hot in the ass." It has become a classic in its own right; other artists went to copy that one.
Fernando Botero's chubby Mona Lisa at the Age of Thirteen (1959) and a wild La Joconde (1948) by Jean Dubuffet are both artists' characteristic portraits. Arman's Many Lisas (1993) installation of 20 postcards bluntly displays what a cheap, consumable item Lisa has become. In 1965, Jan Voss stuffed Mona Lisa into a sardine-tin. In a funny East-meets-West fashion, Erro covered her lower face with Chairman Mao's in his collage, Mao Lisa (1974). And by painting only the famous landscape, Sophie Matisse, Matisse’s great-grandchild (and Duchamp's step-granddaughter), gave Mona a break and let her disappear in Back in Five Minutes (1997).
The few Japanese artists included in the exhibition seem to harbor romantic feelings toward the lady in black. Yasumasa Morimura, best known for humorous self-portraits based on the world's most famous paintings, typically morphed himself into Lisa in Mona Lisa in Its Origin (1998). Miran Fukuda's Modele qui se repose (1999) depicts her resting in a couch.
As in Europe, the Japanese fascination with the Leonardo portrait has a surprisingly long history, dating back to the late 19th century. Kanzan Shimomura, a leading traditional Japanese-style painter in the Meiji era (1868-1912), based his famous portrait of Kannon, or the Goddess of Mercy, which, unfortunately, is not in the show, on Mona Lisa. And one of Japan's most influential modern authors, Ogai Mori, is noted for his description of Mona Lisa's smile in a 1912 novel.
Mona Lisa represents the western art the Japanese have adored since the Meiji era," says Miura. In 1974, 1.51 million people, queued up to see the legendary painting, a number that is still a record for an exhibition in Japan. (I was just a kid, but was there, and saw mostly the back of my fellow-visitors heads!)
The Japanese still love Mona. Since January, Fuji Television Network has aired a popular weekly drama series that follows a sexy auctioneer in pursuit of "the second Mona Lisa." Called Mona Lisa's Smile, the show alleges that Leonardo had secretly painted another version, which now is in Japan. Clearly, Mona's "smile" still mesmerizes the Japanese audience.
"The 100 Smiles of Mona Lisa" remains in Tokyo through Mar. 26. The exhibition subsequently appears in central Japan at the Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art (Apr. 4-May 11, 2000) and the Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum (July 15-Aug. 20, 2000).
MEG THREADWELL writes on the arts in Japan.