Andy Warhol first made silkscreen paintings of Mona Lisa in 1963 (fig. 1), at the time of an exhibition of Leonardo's masterpiece at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was one of the first blockbuster exhibitions of the post-war era; crowds lined up for hours to see the painting, and reproductions of Mona Lisa were sold in nearly every conceivable form. The exhibition had exactly the mix of high culture and mass appeal that so often fascinated Warhol. Mona Lisa was a star, a darling of the media, just like Marilyn or Jackie.
But, of course, Mona Lisa is also a masterpiece of the greatest magnitude. Legendary ever since it was made, 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, Mona 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 is like Mao and Marilyn, only on a higher plane, untainted by irony and tragedy. Five-hundred years after having her portrait painted, Mona Lisa lives on, thanks to the picture's fame. Mona Lisa is an embodiment of fame and an outstanding example of the power of an image, two central concerns in Warhol's art.
Moreover, thanks to Duchamp and L.H.O.O.Q. (see lot 513), Mona Lisa has a place in twentieth-century art theory. Duchamp wanted to attack some central notions of high art, including the significance of originality, the "aura" of unique works of art, the importance of aesthetic contemplation and so on. Duchamp was not alone in producing satirical versions of Mona Lisa. But she retains her mysterious, aloof beauty, no matter what happens; she is indestructible.
Walter 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 the original; indeed, he believed that they even tended to rob the original of its authority as a unique work of art. Duchamp and L.H.O.O.Q. have often been interpreted in relation to Benjamin's theory. But Warhol's Mona Lisa series appears to point to a different conclusion. It is only because it is reproducible that Mona Lisa has become eternal and ubiquitous; the painting has attained a currency it could never have had without being copied. Myths live because they are retold over and over again; in much the same way, images live by being reproduced. Leonardo made Lisa Gheradini famous by "copying" her in a portrait; and the reproductions and illustrations have made Mona Lisa famous by copying her; it is reproduction that confers mythic status.
Leonardo as an artist, no doubt, also interested Andy Warhol. Leonardo is the most famous homosexual artist in the history of western civilization. His homosexuality has been investigated and popularized by Freud and many others. Indeed, it has even been rumored (falsely) that Mona Lisa is a man in drag, perhaps even a self-portrait of Leonardo as a woman. The transvestites Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis were part of The Factory, and Andy Warhol in 1981 made a series of self-portraits in drag.
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. Both Warhol and Duchamp emulated Leonardo's capacity to transform his life into art.
Warhol made a series of silkscreen paintings of Leonardo's Last Supper beginning in 1985. Warhol's Shadow series is also related to a tradition in western art that starts with Leonardo and chiaroscuro. Warhol began the Shadow pictures in 1978, the same year that he made the present version of Mona Lisa.
At the time that Warhol made the present work, he was reexamining his Pop imagery in the Reversal and Retrospective series. About this period, David Bourdon has written: "In summarizing his most familiar motifs, Warhol once again took a cue from Jasper Johns, who continually reused familiar themes-American flag, the light bulb, and so on-to generate new compositions. Very likely, Warhol also had in mind Marcel Duchamp's La bote en valise, that artist's limited-edition 'portable museum'... By ransacking his own past... Warhol revealed himself to be one of the shrewdest of the new wave of post-modernists" (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 380).
Please note this work has been promised for inclusion in the upcoming exhibition entitled Andy Warhol: The Factory, to be held at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao; Fondao de Serralves, Porto and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, fall 1999-summer 2000.
(fig. 1) Andy Warhol in front of the present painting
(fig. 2) Andy Warhol, Mona Lisa, 1963
Joseph Helman Gallery, New York