Saturday, March 16, 2024

Marcel Duchamp, Leonardo da Vinci, and Challenging Aesthetic Traditions of Art

By putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa, Duchamp, along with the Futurists and the DaDaists of the early 20th century, questioned the authority of the elite and the prevailing dominant groups in society to set the rules about what can be considered "art" or "high culture."  This questioning had started in the 19th century, with the Realists daring to challenge the established conventions by putting poor people (the gleaners, for example) on a large canvas - a size reserved for "historical" scenes -- heroic or religious.  The Impressionists continued the interrogation of tradition (and the hegemony of "royal societies" and other organizations to dictate what was considered to be "good" or "real." 


What I think is a bit ironic of the public's reaction to Duchamp's questioning of the dominant culture's stranglehold on "taste" and "beauty" and what it means for something to be considered "art" is that Leonardo himself was an iconoclast and not a paragon or the apotheosis of conservative, elitist ideas about art, and the appropriate subjects of art.  


If you take a close look at his famous painting, "The Last Supper," you will see significant deviations from earlier work, say, from medieval times.  Through his placement of Jesus, the disciples, the sacraments, etc. and his use of light and color, he is incorporating Renaissance and humanist values, moving away from the rigid iconography of the medieval cosmology (derived from strict, hierarchical relations).  If you want to see the perfect illustration of a medieval mindset, and notions of hierarchy (and hence legitimacy), think of the Great Chain of Being, or the layers in Dante's Inferno (and similarly, the rounds in Purgatory and Paradise). 


So what could possibly have been subversive about Leonardo’s “La Gioconda / The Mona Lisa” at the time he painted it? First, let’s take a look at what Lisa Gherardini, the wife of the silk merchant and the mother of his five children, known now as La Gioconda, is wearing. It was the norm for a wealthy man who was commissioning a painting of his wife to make sure she was adorned with all the best family jewels and pearls in their possession.  After all, this painting was intended to document their prosperity and well-being. So, let’s take a look. Do you see any jeweled hair pieces, dangling pearl and garnet earrings, bejeweled necklaces, rings, or bracelets? No. Neither do I.  Do you see fancy furs, fur trimming, plush velvets, or fancy gold embroidery?  No. Neither do I.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (image from Wikipedia)

Finally, where is Lisa Gherardini, La Gioconda, sitting?  She’s not in a palatial garden in front of an elaborate fountain, and nor is she in a room or an alcove where you might see ponderous Doric columns suggesting she is in a palazzo or a large villa. Instead, she is seated in front of a landscape so complicated that it seems to be a dreamscape or even something from a medieval notion of reality, even something you might imagine as a part of Dante’s Purgatory – winding roads requiring the presence of a virtuous woman, Beatrice, to guide you to eventual portals of Paradise.


Wives were to be the repositories of virtue in the Renaissance household.  As such, they needed to behave in a certain way. Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti asserted that young women should maintain self-restraint and a “grave demeanor.”  Mona Lisa’s smile flies in the face of that admonition.


Nor is the Mona Lisa beautiful.  Beauty was related to virtue, following not only Greek ideals, but also those of Petrarch and other Renaissance writers.  The woman’s beauty was assumed to lift a man up and unite him with the sphere of all beauty and perfection, which was God. La Gianconda has regular features, but she looks nothing like the paintings of other Renaissance artists, such as Botticelli, whose paintings of “A Young Woman” and of Aphrodite rising from the sea, perfectly represent the kind of transcendent beauty capable of lifting up the mind and spirit of a man and achieving unity with the divine sphere (and the source of divine knowledge, the making of intuitive knowledge).


So, the Mona Lisa’s smile is subversive, and her plain looks do not elevate. In that sense Leonardo subverts the notion of what kind of emotion a painting of a woman is supposed to elicit – either a serious regard for the embodiment of virtue, or a vertiginous flight of the mind to ideas of eternal, divine beauty, and by extension, knowledge and understanding.


How is the Mona Lisa posing?  She is not seen in profile or looking straight on to the painter or viewer. Instead, one shoulder is ahead of the other, and she’s seen in three-quarter view. This pose, new in the Renaissance era, draws the eye in, and makes the subject seem more approachable. The Mona Lisa was one of the first to have the sitter relaxing with her hand resting on her arm, which is on the arm of a chair.


There is a rare intimacy in the portrait, to the point that it is almost as though she is asking you to talk to her, and also accompany her as she takes you though life’s winding pathways, depicted in the fantastical landscape behind her.