The Mona Lisa is an oil portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, painted in the first decade of the 16th century. General opinion holds that the image is of a Lisa Gherardini, a young Venetian woman and wife. The sitter is presented against an imaginary landscape and is painted in a reserved manner which is frequently described as enigmatic. It is often thought to be precisely the enigmatic quality of da Vinci’s subject which has led to the picture becoming the most famous and instantly recognizable work of art in the world. The question concerning the precise reasons for the popularity of the Mona Lisa is of interest to artists, art historians and to anyone who is exposed to the dominant culture of the Western world. Indeed, ascertaining reasons for the popularity of the picture is often seen as enabling one to understand the manner in which art is viewed and received in popular culture. If there is nothing especially important about the image as a work of art, then its popularity may be put down to the massive amount of exposure that it receives in popular culture, something that suggests that the status afforded to purportedly “great” works of art is entirely reducible to the status that received opinion affords them. If one considers the reception of the image, it is possible to argue that its immense fame is due both to popular consensus and to the manner in which the image has been used in contemporary advertising.
When discussing the popularity of the Mona Lisa, Donald Sassoon makes use of an instructive analogy. He insists that the experience of attempting to view the picture is reminiscent of watching a crowd gathering around “some celebrity, a renowned personality from the world of cinema, television, fashion or music or a member of a major royal family” (2003, 3). Importantly, Sassoon notes further that the majority of the crowd are individuals attempting to themselves take a picture of the picture itself, something that would provide incontestable proof that they themselves had seen it and that they could therefore gain the possible amount of cultural capital from having done so. In this sense, it is clear that the popularity of the image is, in some sense, clearly the result of its presence in popular consciousness.
Rather than a work of art to be viewed or experienced in itself, the Mona appears to exist as an object to be consumed, and to be documented. This makes is strikingly different from other works. That the people who do view the image do so because they participating in an image-cult around it suggests that its popularity cannot be reduced to its quality as an art-work. Indeed, according to Sassoon, it is precisely this quality which is ignored by the vast majority of individuals who experience the picture. As such, if one were simply to discuss the picture in terms of way in which the majority of people respond to it, it would clearly seem to be case that its popularity is essentially a tautology: the Mona Lisa is picture that is popular picture simply being popular because it is famous and famous because it is popular. Both of these qualities feed into and amplify the other and do so to the extent that the portrait is now essentially the most famous celebrity in the word, although as an image may have no more artistic merit than thousands of other works which are no where near as famous or as instantly recognizable.
Indeed, the “celebrity” status of the work is something which is also continually played with and amplified by the advertising industry. The use of Mona Lisa in advertising frequently relies upon both the image itself and the fact that the viewer of the advert is able to recognize it as the most recognizable image in the world. In this sense, advertising has added a level of hyper-reflexivity to the experience of the picture. For example, one advert by Lego presents a purple pixellated image of the portrait in which only the outline is visible, with the “LEGO” brand mark in the bottom right hand corner (Cheong, 2014). Were this to be any other image in the world, it is unlikely that the viewer of the advertisement would be able to recognize, however the fact that it is the Mona Lisa means not only is the image instantly recognized but the fact of this inevitably recognition becomes a key part of the commercial’s humor.
Everyone knows the Mona Lisa, which is precisely the point. In a similar manner, a television commercial by Orange plays on the famous reputation of the Mona Lisa as “enigmatic” by staging a scene in which the portrait is rigged to be winking at the people who see it. Again, the commercial functions by joking about a well known aspect of the picture’s construction, in this case the fact that is widely regarded as enigmatic, and this joke can be seen to play a key role in the development of a hyper-reflexive view of the work.
In conclusion, it is possible to argue that this hyper-reflexive mode of viewing the picture, as exemplified by the advertising, is responsible for the final shift in the Mona Lisa’s reception. Not only is it both a picture and a celebrity, but it is now also famous for being famous, something that is frequently both referenced and amplified in its appearances in popular culture.
- Cheong, Rebecca. “The Best Commercials That Use Famous Art.” UK Complex. 2013. Web. 16th July, 2017.
- Sassoon, Donald. Becoming Mona Lisa. New York: Harvest, 2003.