Tuesday, 25th February 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Mona Lisa On My Mind

Posted on 30. Mar, 2010 by in Curious Travel

Mona Lisa On My Mind

Vietnamese artists search for that enigmatic smile


She has many identities and genders.
She was kidnapped, maybe by Picasso.
She lived in the Palace of Versailles.
She spent time in Bonaparte’s bedroom.
Nat King Cole, Cole Porter, Santana, Bob Dylan and Britney Spears sang about her.
She appeared, twice, in The Simpsons.

She has no eyebrows or eyelashes

She is the world’s most famous painting.  Created by Leonardo da Vinci in the early 16th century, the Mona Lisa (called La Gioconda in Italian and La Joconde in French) has been subject to the highest form of flattery – painters the world over have copied her likeness.

And ground zero for Mona Lisa copies is Vietnam.  In the hothouse commercial atmosphere of Ho Chi Minh City and, to a lesser extent, Hanoi, Vietnam’s artists churn out hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mona Lisa paintings a year.

Kha, a soft-faced 29 year-old artist in Ho Chi Minh, takes about three days to paint a Mona Lisa.  “I can do a Monet, Dali, or Van Gogh in one day,” he says over soft drinks at a café, “but the Mona Lisa has more details.”  Working as an in-house artist at a downtown art shop, Kha paints about 30 Mona Lisas a year, which sell for around USD 50.  There are perhaps a hundred painters in Saigon creating Mona Lisas, he estimates.

Visitors to Ho Chi Minh City, can hardly walk 50 meters without passing in front of an art shop.  On the walls hang copy paintings of Botero’s fat people with small heads, Warhol’s Marilyn, Van Gogh’s sunflowers, and Dali’s melted watches.  Like “copy-watches” and “copy-golf shirts”, copy-paintings seem to be just another commodity to be sold in this over-heated economy .  But while the latest Hollywood movie or Swiss watch is protected by copyright and trademark regulations, a painting by, say, Rembrandt, is free game.

Few pieces of art have been the subject of so much artsy-analysis.  For example, Professor Margaret Livingstone of Harvard University used the Mona Lisa smile to illustrate her theory that the human eye uses two types of vision, foveal (or direct vision, which is good for detail)  and peripheral.  “The elusive quality  of the Mona Lisa’s smile can be explained by the fact that her smile is almost entirely in low spatial frequencies,” Livingstone said, “and so is seen best by your peripheral vision.”

Other observers have been less reverent – according to the FT’s Simon Kuper, W. Somerset Maugham described the Mona Lisa grin as “the insipid smile of that prim and sex-starved young woman.”

Like most copy artists in Saigon, Vy Vi, spends his days in the middle of a small shop, sitting on a small stool in front of an easel , copying works of Klimt and Hooper.  When he gets lucky a businessman will walk in, set down a photograph of his kids, and ask for a painted portrait that is as close to the original photograph as possible. There’s not much request for creative license in this business. Vy Vi explains that his Mona Lisa usually requires six days, but he sometimes feels uneasy working on the famous face.  “It’s so well known that people will see if I make a mistake,” he says.  He paints some 20 Mona Lisas a year, which cost USD 43, about the standard price throughout the country.

Some of the Vietnamese Mona Lisas are excellent. Some are clearly “just off” in some way – either the color is wrong or the background is too sharp or too soft, or the details on her dress too ornate, or her smile is a bit, well, just not right.

The famous Mona Lisa smile is the trickiest thing to get right, Vu Dan Thang, a Hanoi-based artist says.

The question of what lies behind her half-smile has spurred debate for centuries.  She is Leonardo’s secret mistress. She is pregnant. She is an aristocratic lady with her own private secrets.  She is following Leonardo’s mischievous instruction to “project an enigmatic image, and thereby keep precious art critics occupied for centuries.” She is Leonardo himself, in drag.

The Vietnamese artists I met acknowledged that they are simply copying art, and trying to do so in an artistically-valid way.

So where’s the line between copy-art and fake?

Michelangelo was found guilty of forging a marble sculpture of Cupid for his patron, Lorenzo di Cosimo de Medici, rubbing his newly-wrought work with old soil before passing it off as an antiquity.  Picasso was thought to have signed off on a painting that wasn’t done by him

Thomas Hoving, former director of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, estimates that as much as 40 per cent of art in the market today is either a “half-forgery,” meaning genuinely old works that have been altered to be attributed to a more valuable style or artist, or outright fakes.

Obviously, none of the Vietnam street paintings would ever be confused with the priceless masterpiece hanging in the Louvre.  But an artist takes pride in his work, and I wondered how satisfying is it to copy Mona Lisa, day in, day out.

“It’s challenging,” one Hanoi-based artist said. “But I’d rather do my own thing.”  I ask if I could see some of his paintings.  He sifts among the Gauguins and Magrittes and Renoirs and pulls out a few idyllic landscapes of Vietnamese countryside scenes.  They are attractive, although not to my taste.   Does his shop sell a lot of these scenes of water buffalo and rice fields, thatched roof houses and temples?  “A few,” he says shyly.  But not as many as these, he admits, pointing to a Klimt’s golden woman and Monet’s water lilies.

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