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On a cold January night in 1963 nearly two thousand people waited in Washington, D.C. to witness the unveiling of one of the world’s greatest paintings. At the request of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, the Mona Lisa—Leonardo Da Vinci’s 16th century masterpiece—had traveled three and half thousand miles from her home in the Louvre in Paris to meet her adoring American public. During her two month long visit to the United States, first at the National Gallery of Art and then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the exhibition garnered a deluge of media coverage, with her face featured on the front page of dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country and over one and a half million people waiting in line to witness her enigmatic smile.
An avid consumer of popular culture, Andy Warhol would undoubtedly have been aware of the Mona Lisa’s visit, and in 1963 he produced a discreet series of mainly black and white canvases featuring Da Vinci’s famous painting. Fifteen years later, 1978, Warhol turned his attention again to the famous painting and produced Blue Mona Lisa, a bejeweled canvas featuring four images of the most famous face in art history. Arranged in 2 x 2 grid, Warhol used a pair of different screens; one a full length version of the painting complete with her folded hands and the other comprised of a shorter, cropped version showing a more detailed rendition of Mona Lisa’s face. In stark contrast to his earlier Mona Lisa’s which Warhol screened onto a plain white ground, this later version has the black silkscreen ink applied directly on top of an effervescent surface of multi-toned blue hues. By using a wide brush, loaded with blue and white paint, he mixed together gigantic sweeps of pigment producing a surface that not only comes alive with a boundless sense of energy, but also produces an expansive range of color accents that range from pure white right through the blue spectrum to delicate shades of purple and mauve.
That Warhol returned to the Mona Lisa as a suitable subject for his painting after a sojourn of more than a decade speaks to the admiration he had both for the painting itself and also for his Renaissance counterpart. Legendary ever since it was produced, the Mona Lisa is perhaps the most famous image in the history of art; in some contexts, it even personifies high art. Moreover, it is through the power of art that Mona Lisa has attained universal fame and eternal life. No one would remember the sitter, Lisa Gherardini, were it not for Leonardo’s portrait. But far from forgotten, she is among the most recognizable woman in the world. She has reached the kind of immortality only possible when someone is turned into an image or symbol; in this regard she belongs to Warhol’s pantheon of female icons such as Marilyn, Jackie or Liz, only on a higher plane, untainted by irony and tragedy. Five-hundred years after having her portrait painted, Lisa lives on, thanks to the picture’s fame, and becomes the embodiment of fame and an outstanding example of the power of an image, two central concerns in Warhol’s art. Leonardo may have interested Warhol for another reason as well. Leonardo was a brilliant courtier who achieved intimacy with the rich and famous solely by the power of his charm and genius. (When Leonardo died, King Francis I was at his bedside.) Furthermore, Leonardo’s life was a work of art, greater than almost any of his paintings and as such Warhol emulated Leonardo’s capacity to transform his life into art.
The Mona Lisa’s iconic status meant that Warhol was following in an honorable tradition in using it as the subject for his own appropriation. The earliest known example appeared in 1887 when an illustrator known as Sapeck (Eugène Battaille) depicted the famous lady smoking a pipe. This was a play on words referring to a group of artists known as the fumists (literally translated as the Smokists), of whom Sapeck was a leading light. In 1914, a year after the painting was returned to France after having been stolen, Kasimir Malevich produced a scathing commentary on the cult status that the painting had achieved. His collage, Composition with Mona Lisa placed the painting tucked away in the corner of the composition with a large red X over her face and cleavage as a comment on what Malevich saw as the false artistic consciousness that the painting evoked. But perhaps the most famous example was the one produced by Marcel Duchamp, whose L.H.O.O.Q was executed in 1919 when he adorned a cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a moustache and a goatee. When read out loud, the title of Duchamp’s parody sounds like “Elle a chaud au cul” which literally translates as “She has a hot ass.” In 1954 Salvador Dalí painted Self Portrait as Mona Lisa and as late as 1960 René Magritte painted La Joconde in which he characteristically did not paint the image known to the world but nonetheless managed to evoke her essence with a pair of curtains draped to mimic her voluptuous figure and, using a recurrent Magritte motif, a ball with a horizontal slit that mimics the painting’s enigmatic smile.
One of the most striking of Warhol’s later portraits, Blue Mona Lisa shows that the artist had lost none of his power to encapsulate and commemorate the essence of his subjects within the scope of his canvases. Yet here Warhol also challenges Walter Benjamin assertion in his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that modern photographs and copies challenge the celebration of the “original” as they rob it of its authority. But with Blue Mona Lisa, Warhol points to a different conclusion; that it is only because she has been reproduced so many times that she has attained her celebrity status and her universal cultural currency could not have achieved without it.