The Mono Lisa: Politics of Sexuality
By Pauline Joelle Panetta
Edited by Dorothy Louise Zinn
The object of analysis central to this essay is Cynthia Karalla’s photograph Untitled (Mona Lisa), 2003. Shot in Italy, this piece belongs to a project carried out by the New York City-based artist between 2002 and 2003, Humanity, which tries to investigate religious themes and subjects from the history of Art, while simultaneously witnessing the artist’s own experience with Catholicism (Gavioli, n.p.). Untitled is a half-analog, half-digital photograph of a relatively aged man embodying the protagonist of the original Mona Lisa, painted by the Italian Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci at the beginning of the sixteenth century. As Karalla’s work of art carries multiple levels of awareness and chronologically follows an established tradition of Mona Lisa reinterpretations, one could read it through innumerable theories.
In the present inquiry, a formal analysis of Untitled (Mona Lisa) will be carried out in the light of the original Gioconda by Leonardo, with the aim of scrutinizing shared characteristics and possible differences between Karalla’s work of art and its renowned model. Furthermore, discourse analysis is employed as efficient tool to gain a better understanding of the discourse encircling the original Mona Lisa and its innumerable modern revisions, thus to investigate the relation between Untitled and this discourse and its position within it. This approach will not consider the Mona Lisa’s discourse from a Marxist perspective, despite the fact that much could be said about the commodification of this masterpiece and its appropriation by consumerist society. Instead, it deploys gender theory inasmuch Untitled strongly addresses gender construction, performance and representation, with the possible effect of radically overturning the conventional representations of feminine beauty.
The conclusions drawn from this tripartite analysis suggest that Karalla’s Untitled in some respects belongs to the modern tradition of Mona Lisa reworkings and gains its powerfulness from its affinity with this discourse, though unlike many recent works of art that relate or refer to the Mona Lisa, the “Mono” appears to maintain the solemnity and ‘prestige’ of a Renaissance painting, which at the same time reinforces its authoritativeness and increases its satirical inclination. I would suggest that this piece ironically subverts the stereotypes of feminine and masculine beauty by revising the iconicity of the Mona Lisa in a dignified manner and simultaneously portraying masculinity and femininity playfully, as unfixed and interchangeable.
When approaching Karalla’s Untitled, the viewer can contemplate the well-balanced fusion of analog and digital technology, which, together with its formal characteristics, provides this image with an almost atemporal painting-like effect. Gently twisted to the right, the half-bust of the human figure dominates the piece as it occupies a central position in the equilibrium of the composition; the natural inclination of the shoulder makes the linear perspective visible; furthermore, the face is gracefully rotated towards the viewer, while the deep and enchanted gaze veers to the left. Thus we can recognize a first difference between this work of art and the Mona Lisa painted by Leonardo da Vinci, notorious for its enigmatic frontal gaze that seems to be following the viewer as she or he moves, a scientifically investigated perceptual illusion applied as artistic effect. (Harris, p.555; Koenderink, et al., p. 526). Despite the fact that it does not share this property with its model, the dark gaze of the Mono still seems to convey a profound and recondite sensation of mysteriousness, difficult for the observer to decipher.
A second striking difference between Karalla’s work and its model is the absence of background in the Mono, in comparison to the richly metonymic aerial view behind Leonardo’s subject (Marani, n.p.). In a personal interview, Karalla stated that she willingly decided to neglect the evocative natural landscape, or any other elaborate background, in order to give relevance to the psychology of the person she portrayed, as this should be the main point of focus of her piece (Karalla).
For this same reason, the dominant colors, namely velvet brown, dark blue-gray and green-black in the background, are harmoniously organized in order to highlight the luminosity of the skin tone. Likewise, the intense darkness of the velvet and voile Renaissance clothing, of the shoulder-length ringlets and of the draping backdrop contrasts with the lightness of the skin, with the effect of drawing the viewer’s attention to the face, the conspicuous chest and the hands.
One could speculate a great deal about the symbolism of the subject’s finger position, which in Christian imagery traditionally encompasses multiple meanings, such as the dualism of good and evil caused by human operation, creation and divine intervention, benediction, drawing attention to a speech, or an action, and emphasizing its relevance (Wilhoit et al., p.286; Ostraka, p.95). In the context of Karalla’s project, imbued with religiosity and temper borrowed from the Christian tradition, one could suggest that the two fingers of the Mono symbolizes the duality of interpretative levels: outwardly, the Mono is a satirical reproduction of the Mona Lisa as it employs a male subject to allude to the same universal values as its prototype; inwardly, this portrait brings power to the subject as it allows him to personify the Mona Lisa, which in the artists understanding is an icon of self-awareness, self-control, self-esteem and responsibility for one’s own actions (Karalla). In regards to this second semantic interpretation, the Mono can be seen as an exemplification of the process of “hermetic alchemy”, understood in a metaphorical sense, that is, the sublimation of a common human being and its transformation into an empowered superior presence, like the Mona Lisa herself (Karalla).
As the famous intriguing smile of Leonardo’s masterpiece attracts the viewer to the woman’s visage, the mysterious sneer of the Mono, accentuated by the gloss of the lips, represents another gateway into the subject’s psyche, as it reinforces its aura of preeminence and hints at the presence of a deeper, unrevealed meaning. In fact, Karalla’s work makes reference to the long tradition of psychoanalytic research concerning Leonardo da Vinci’s homosexual orientation, which began with Sigmund Freud’s 1910 publication, Leonardo da Vinci and A Memory of His Childhood, and which has brought to the formulation of many uncertain theories about the sexual identity of the Mona Lisa (Karalla).
Nevertheless, it is indisputable that Leonardo’s Gioconda symbolically represented the traditional notions of absolute and immortal feminine comeliness until the nineteenth century, as it alludes, in the mindset of a Renaissance man, to the changeability and continuous mutation of Beauty and of the universe (Marani, n.p.). The Mona Lisa maintained this authoritative status in the arts until, at the beginning of the twentieth century, its reception split in two different trends, corresponding to distinct sites of audiencing: on the one hand, with its theft in 1911, it gained worldwide popularity as the media of the time — chiefly the newspapers, which were accessible to almost anyone — took great interest in this incident and increased the circulation of images of this work of art; on the other hand, the modernist progressive elites disregard it as benighted symbol of cultural obsolescence and advocated for new standards of artistic perfection (Marani, n.p.).
Despite the controversies regarding the relevance of Leonardo’s masterpiece in an ever-changing system of values, where modernity coincides with the obliteration of antiquated morality and traditionally dominant discourses, since the twentieth century the Mona Lisa has been object of a myriad of artistic reinterpretations and widely known pastiches in both high and popular culture, such as Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q.(1919), Salvador Dali’s Self Portrait as Mona Lisa (1954), Andy Warhol’s numerous re-elaborations of the Mona Lisa, Alfred Gescheidt’s Mammary Lisa (1972), Fernando Botero’s Mona Lisa (1977), until Bansky’s Mona Lisa Rocketlauncher (2007-2008). As Walter Benjamin puts it, to understand the discourse surrounding this chef-d’œuvre, one should take into account that “the history of the Mona Lisa, for instance, encompasses the kinds and number of copies made of it in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (p.552).
Hence, even the Mono could be understood as belonging to this same discourse, not merely because it is a formal photographic reproduction of the original Mona Lisa, but also for the undoubtedly ironic character which it shares with many of its predecessors. Most importantly, its meaning and existence seem to partially depend on the presence of the pre-established model, as the lack of notoriety and ample diffusion of the Mona Lisa would have undermined the Mono’s referentiality. In other words, it could be argued that Karalla’s rereading of the Gioconda gains part of its context and significance from the twentieth-century discourse surrounding the Mona Lisa, while, at the same time, it distinguishes itself from its predecessors for strongly implicating politics of sexuality and gender representation. Indeed, Karalla’s Untitled has not been the first revision of the Gioconda that ironically plays with sex manipulation, though most Mona Lisa-inspired works, known and appreciated for their jocular and sarcastic spirit, do not directly tackle issues of gender politics, but address the discourse of subversion of the dominant standards of fine art and beauty in isolation.
A complete understanding of the relevance of the Untitled, in contrast to most blunt spoofs of the Mona Lisa, can be obtained by considering this work in the context of feminism, photography and sexual politics, which Lindsay Smith discusses extensively in her work The Politics of Focus: Women, Children, and Nineteenth-Century Photography. Starting with a reflection on the concept of focus, which can be defined as “the best articulated part of a photographic image”, it appears clear that in Karalla’s Untitled the point of focus is in every respect the central human figure (Smith p.16). The politics of focus involve the long-established association between sharp focus and geometrical perspective, which translates into the implementation of “existing systems of visual representation” and decrees photography as the artistic technique that offers a true representation of reality (p.17). Consequently, the use of focus and linear perspective in photography has traditionally served to naturalize its content and thus to reinforce the “duality of vantage-point and vanishing-point”, which possesses the power of privileging certain elements and discourses over others. (p.17). The ensuing outcome of the application of focus and geometrical perspective is that it materializes and endorses the “kinship between photography and painting”, as it allows to reproduce the geometrical accounts of space dominant in traditional examples of fine art, such as Leonardo’s Gioconda (p.15).
The aforementioned aspects of the politics of focus seem to be fully applicable to Cynthia Karalla’s Mono, as this photograph explicitly attempts to replicate the Mona Lisa’s signature usage of focus and linear perspective, with the effect of both naturalizing its subject and establishing a clear correlation with the stylistic practices and optical regimes of Renaissance painting. Nevertheless, the outcome resulting from the combination of these elements in the Mono does not conform to the conventional phallocentric content of photography, but it brings about an infrequent instance of gender performance which is contemporaneously elevated by the close affinity with pictorial standards of balanced composition and charged of ironic power, exactly because of the contrast between the normative use of focus and perspective and the non-normative practice of employing a transgender model for the metaphorical representation of ethereal Beauty.
The opposite argument that one could draw from Lindsay Smith’s theory is that Karalla’s Mono, by centralizing the sharp focus onto the human figure and depicting a male subject dressed with stereotypical female clothing, propagates phallocentrism and institutes a form of sexist fetishism of its content. (Smith, 30). Furthermore, by adhering to traditional politics of focus, one could argue that the Untitled subscribes to the more recent idea of “photography in terms of disciplinary institution” by endorsing “discourses of surveillance (…) previously occupied by [discourses] of geometrical ‘truth’”(p.15). Nevertheless, a careful analysis of the process of production of the Mono and of its formal features can serve to discredit these theories and to once again reveal the innovativeness of this piece in regard to sexual politics.
In Figure 2, one can observe the two-week long process, involving more than five-hundred shots a day, that brought Karalla’s model “Joe” to perfectly personify the Mona Lisa and to embody the beauty and magnificence of this Western icon of charm and elegance. At the end of this gradual transformation, the artist opts for a lateral disinterested gaze rather than for the “authentic” frontal gaze, as the deviation of the look uplifts the subject by denying attention and consideration to the viewer, thus refusing consent for the phallocentric fetishization of the subjects allure.
From the observation of the transformation accomplished by Karalla’s “Joe”, one can recognize that this photograph does not execute an operation of surveillance of the subject; on the contrary, it elevates and empowers it strongly, a concept made even more evident from a reflection on the role of the photographer in the production of this piece of art. It is true that Karalla has initially conceived the project of the Mono and the idea of “alchemy” as a means of sublimation of the human, and that through experience and mastery of technique she has enabled this photograph to reach its final form; nonetheless, it is the subject himself that retains most of the agency and achieves an elegant inner and outer transformation, captured by the lens of the artist.
This analysis has attempted to trace the evolution of the discourse of the Mona Lisa, which started with the iconic female portrait by the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci. Developed for centuries with its appropriation by innumerable artists, its circulation and commodification by and within the capitalist market, it has perhaps experienced a new moment of subversion with Cynthia Karalla’s photographic reinterpretation Untitled. This object is of interest because it belongs to a particular artistic trend and makes reference to its predecessors, while simultaneously subverting the conventions of the dominant discourse by dignifying its satirical character and charging the subject of the portrait with reverential, almost religious respectability.
The Mono is the final result of many sittings during which the male model gradually came to personify the Gioconda by wearing period clothing, assuming her poised posture, and acquiring her grace and delicacy. In the analysis of this process, Smith’s theory has allowed various arguments to emerge, demonstrating that this piece is able to overthrow the meanings customarily associated with photographic portraits of this sort and also to make use of stylistic conventions to express a non-normative notion of gender performance. Karalla’s Mono reverentially picks up humanistic ideals of eternal beauty and universal fascination belonging to the original Mona Lisa, and it subverts them in the light of contemporary gender discourse by divesting them of their gender specificity, with the possible effect of universalizing them even further
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