Homage to the Heaven-sent Genius: Da Vinci (part 1)

“Heaven sometimes sends us beings who represent not humanity alone but divinity itself, so that taking them as our models and imitating them our minds and the best of our intelligence may approach the highest celestial spheres. Experience shows that those who are led to study and follow the traces of these marvelous geniuses, even if nature gives them little or no help, may at least approach the supernatural works that participate in his divinity.” Giorgo Vasari, The Lives of the Artists

Italy had Leonardo Da Vinci (15th Century), and we had Dr. Jose P. Rizal (19th C). These men shook the foundations of their countries with nothing but pencil (or quill) and paper (moleskine was not yet invented back then). Both are polymaths; they specialized in many things. LDR in Engineering, Painting, Sculpture, Mathematics, Music, Anatomy, Cartography, Botany, etc, while JR in Medicine, Literature, Painting, Sculpture, Agriculture, Taxonomy, etc.  Both are celebrated in as a rare occurrence and gift-to-mankind, by the same people who condemned them (before) by being such rarity.

I would want to discuss about these gentlemen and their contributions to the modern world as much as I can in a single post, but that entails me writing a term paper fit for one of my classes, plus I do not want to intimidate the readers with thousand paragraphs. Thus, this premiere Docent sans Walls post will pay homage to the one who was born first: Da Vinci.

No, I will not write a biography, nor re-post his resume. I do not have any intention of doing so. I will just share few experiences or thoughts I have that are all connected to him.

The Mona Lisa Project on Manila

Mona Lisa is everywhere, and everyone knows her. I have not yet personally seen the famous portrait, though. And I doubt most of us do. For now, I settled with versions of her produced by contemporary artists in a show last June 15 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), Manila. Entitled “The Mona Lisa Project”, this exhibit showcased a personal collection of artist Soler Santos, happens to be a gift to his wife Mona (CCP Press Release). The show had around 50 plus art pieces, most of those were paintings but some were three-dimensional pieces, each is inspired by or appropriated from Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

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Mona Lisa has been remade countless times. In fine art, it started from Coquelin Cadet in 1887, which he drew a pipe with smokes coming out of it. The most famous is Marcel Douchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q”: a mustache and a goatee on a Mona Lisa postcard. And soon, everyone else felt the urge to just have their own version of her.

Is recreating masterpieces allowed? Apparently, yes. In the fine art world, they have the term for it – Appropriations. It is the act of borrowing or copying an artwork or a part of it and present it as one’s own. Is it art? It depends. Usually, it is the gatekeepers (art institutions, museums, galleries, art scholars, etc) who determine whether an appropriated art can be considered as art or not. If they put it on show, it must be art, well, according to their standards. Further, there is a long history of appropriation arts in the West, and you cannot find an artist who do not freely admit that they have ‘appropriated’ a work. Look for Sherri Levine and read about her photographs, for starters.

Art scholars have a theory for Appropriations. For them, it is a Postmodernist critique to originality and authenticity. Discussions on this started when Roland Barthes published “Death of an Author” in 1968, where he disregarded the role of an author in the creation of a Text. In short, there is no such thing as an original idea. An idea sprang out from a preceding inspiration or “eureka moment”.

Going back to the CCP Exhibit, the curated show intended to express various interpretations of the famous sitter. Resulting works varied from apocalyptic renditions, to fattened and ugli-fied Monas, to the disappeared and erased, and to objects that do not represent her at first glance.

“For some, the project started as an attempt to “copy” but eventually disputing that same act. For others, the aesthetic philosophy inherent to the Mona Lisa provided various avenues to explore and assess. While other artists took the Mona Lisa simply as a preset format or a template to engage with using their own conceptual approach and distinct styles. Some artists opt to interpret the subject within present day conditions and concerns, either in an apocalyptic tone or in a pop and playful mood. The resulting collection is varied in style and provides a sampling of works by some of the most dynamic artists in the Manila art scene today.”  CCP (2013)

In the popular culture, there are hilarious remakes, such as Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean version, Anthony Hopkins the Shining, Voldemort, and many more. These surely made us chuckle a bit.

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Whether to make fun of her or not, this kind of satire will not affect her market value as a painting and her reputation as a humble smiling face. Da Vinci, for sure, will not take this as an insult to his artistry, for he is beyond insult. If he is alive today, he’d rather take it as a compliment,tweet about it, and continue working on his next big project (perhaps, even hired by Apple Inc.)

Lucky we are that we still have the opportunity to see Mona Lisa, whether the original at Louvre or memes at 9gag. This goes to show how the genius of the Renaissance man from Italy resonates until today, in the age of Facebook, Adobe Photoshop, and smart phones. His painting inspired many others, his inventions became the blueprint of the technology we enjoy today, his studies on anatomy and celestial are the foundations of various schools of thought.

Many books were written about him. He was featured in various historical documentaries and fictions, even a T.V. Series (part 2 of this post). He even inspired a novelist to publish a controversy, much to the ire of Christians.

Amid all the appropriations and memes, Mona Lisa will just smile at you, and LDV will just laugh from the heavens.