"If the notion of glamour still has any validity it must be attached to the Mona Lisa both for the painting's supremacy as a work of art and for the spell it has cast upon successive generations" (S. Preston, remarking on the Mona Lisa's U.S. debut at the Metropolitan Museum in 1963, quoted in "'Mona Lisa' Opens Run in New York", The New York Times, 8 February 1963).
When the Mona Lisa first traveled to the United States on loan from the Louvre on December 14, 1962, Andy Warhol remarked, "Why don't they just have someone copy it and send the copy. No one would know the difference" (A. Warhol, quoted in The Mona Lisa Curse, by Robert Hughes, film aired on British TV's Channel 4, 18 September 2008). The Mona Lisa was exhibited first at the National Gallery in Washington in early 1963, and then for three weeks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Commentators considered it the first "blockbuster" exhibition; an estimated 1.6 million viewers paraded past da Vinci's painting, which was protected by temperature and humidity controls, a thick layer of glass and armed guards. Crowds formed at 4:30 in the morning, with lines wrapped around the block. Warhol foresaw the level of celebrity that the Mona Lisa achieved when it was exhibited. Spectacle surrounded her arrival, similar to the celebrity cult that had so fascinated Warhol in his paintings of Marilyn, Liz and Jackie. Da Vinci's painting was the most copied and most reproduced art object (not to mention the most expensive). This further fascinated Warhol and he would continue to be obsessed with her likeness for the rest of his life. He completed his first painting using her image, Thirty are better than one in 1963. Between 1978 and 1980, he would devote an entire series to the Mona Lisa, of which the present work is a supremely beautiful and complex example.
The Mona Lisa debut at the National Gallery was presided over by President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie lauded the painting as if they were present-day Medicis, presiding upon her debut at the National Gallery. His administration saw the painting's loan as a way to improve ties between the U.S. and France. Countless photographers could not help but juxtapose the Mona Lisa's mysterious smile with Jackie's own. A seminal moment: Warhol must have been obsessed and fascinated by the rendezvous of Jackie Kennedy and the Mona Lisa. Just a few months later, her husband John F. Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, and Warhol would complete the Jackies in 1964, just one year later.
Warhol used the Met's brochure illustration of the Mona Lisa as his source for the present painting, transferring the image into silkscreen and quadrupling it. By replicating the image onto canvas, Warhol not only makes the viewer immediately aware that they are looking at a copy, but also drives home this replication by showing a copy of a copy of a copy. Like his seminal Four Jackies of 1964, he presents four Mona Lisas, each created from the same image, but each radically different in execution. Warhol had reached a peak with the silkscreen technique by this time in his career. He reproduced the famous image with crispness and accuracy, ease and facility, of a level not found in his earliest works. Warhol handles each screen differently, presenting four different Mona Lisas, each with an entirely different expression. The Mona Lisa of the upper right quadrant nearly copies the original, the winding road stretching behind her and details of her dress still visible, while the figures in the lower half of the painting are the most mysterious of all. With the flick of his screen, Warhol leaves some details out, their existence fading into memory. Perhaps the most important feature affected by Warhol's rendering is the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile, reproduced four times, but different in each panel. Melancholia pervades the painting, which Warhol reinforced by presenting her likeness monochromatically, overlaying it with judiciously applied blue paint. Since he relied so much on repetition and silkscreen technique, we rarely see evidence of Warhol's hand, as we do here. The paint's lusciousness lends richness and sumptuousness to the work, while sealing the Mona Lisa in a mysterious blue shroud.
Co-opting the Mona Lisa was a modern gesture, beginning with Marcel Duchamp's L. H. O. O. Q., a postcard-sized reproduction of Leonardo's masterpiece upon which Duchamp drew a mustache and a thin goatee. Duchamp's Mona Lisa equates a museum standard with vulgar vandalism and cheap reproduction, and it subverts high art into low commodity. Duchamp's title is the work's most subversive element. When pronounced in French, L. H. O. O. Q. sounds like "Elle a chaud au cul," which means (roughly) "She's got a hot ass."
Duchamp may have been the first to "vandalize" the Mona Lisa, but he also hints at something deeper - the "aura" surrounding an object that powerful and rare. Water Benjamin, in his legendary essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," suggested that photographs and copies could not capture the aura of an original, believing that they even tended to rob the original of its authority as a unique artwork. But Warhol's Mona Lisa series points to a different conclusion. It is only because the Mona Lisa has been reproduced that she has attained a powerful celebrity and cultural currency she could not have achieved without it.