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Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon [Paperback]

Donald Sassoon


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A YOUNG WOMAN IS SEATED, her right hand upon her wrist, her left hand on the wooden arm of the chair, gripping its edge. Read the first page
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars NUMBER 779, STUDIED FROM ALL ANGLES! 31 Oct 2001
By Bruce Loveitt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Mr. Sassoon sets out to discover why the "Mona Lisa" is the most famous painting in the world. By the end of this book I don't think we have the answer, but that's not Mr. Sassoon's fault. I really don't think that question can be answered satisfactorily, but no matter-Mr. Sassoon gives it his all and provides us with an entertaining trip through the history of "La Joconde", as "she" is known in France.
We learn many interesting facts along the way: The painting was acknowledged as a masterpiece even during Leonardo's lifetime. One reason was Leonardo's use of the "contrapposto" position, which shows the model's torso in a three-quarter view, while the face looks in a different direction. This is meant to bring movement to what, in a full straight-on view, would otherwise be static. Surprisingly, there was nothing special about "the smile." Smiles were common in Renaissance portraiture. What would have been unusual would have been someone looking sad in a portrait of the time. Interestingly, Leonardo tried that in his portrait "Ginevra de'Benci". That model was also "prettier" than the model for the "Mona Lisa", at least by current standards. But that painting is nowhere near as famous as the "Mona Lisa".
Mr. Sassoon takes us through all the hoops in trying to explain why the "Mona Lisa" is most famous. Besides the fact that Leonardo painted it, the author mentions the fact that the painting is in the Louvre; that it was stolen in a famous theft just a few years before WWI; that the advertising industry has latched onto the painting ad nauseum, etc. We reach the end of the book not really believing that any of this is sufficient to explain the superstar status of this painting. Mr. Sassoon himself points out that there are many other paintings by equally famous artists; many such paintings in the Louvre; many famous paintings that have been involved in famous thefts, etc. So, why the "Mona Lisa".....
So, just read this book for the interesting history of the painting and for the author's trenchant observations on the "art world". It helps that Mr. Sassoon has a great sense of humor about the whole thing, also. What other painting could inspire a man to sell his business so that he could take a job as a Louvre guard? This is what a man named Leon Mekusa did in 1981. He explained that he considered "being able to greet the 'Mona Lisa' before anyone else in the morning as such a privilege that he had asked not to be paid."!! People even write letters to the painting, care of the Louvre....
Oh, by the way, in case you're wondering about the title of this review; The "Mona Lisa" bears the Louvre inventory number of 779. That's one mystery cleared up anyway...
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not Just the Painting, but the Popularity 30 Nov 2001
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
What question gets asked most often by visitors to the Louvre? There is one question that tops the existential query, "Where am I?" The question is, "Where is the _Mona Lisa_?" This reflects the importance of this particular icon. A famous cartoon in the _New Yorker_ made the matter sharper. It showed a middle-aged American couple rushing into the Louvre and asking the guard: "Which way to the _Mona Lisa_? We're double-parked!" That's an exaggeration, but not much of one. According to Donald Sassoon's _Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon_ (Harcourt), the crowd around the masterpiece, some illegally taking flash pictures, is like a crowd around a pop star complete with paparazzi. Sassoon has taken on the task of explaining how it is that this work has a reputation as The World's Most Beautiful Painting. That title, of course, is arguable, but it is certainly the most famous painting, and how this came to be makes a great story.
Of course Mona is good-looking, but that doesn't explain it. Leonardo painted other female portraits of handsomer women. For centuries, _The Last Supper_ was his more famous work. It was only when a cult of Leonardo rose among the romantics in the nineteenth century that his work loomed over that of, say, Michelangelo and Raphael, who were far more prolific and influential. Leonardo was busy doing other stuff, and mostly failing. His gadgets stayed on the page and his experiment with oils on the _Last Supper_ doomed it to precipitous decay. In the romantic imagination of a century and a half ago, however, dreaming big and failing was heroic, and he looked the part, although his bearded, god-like visage is probably not the self-portrait everyone assumed. Gautier and Pater wrote purple prose about the lady, and if she had hired a publicity agent, she could not have achieved greater success. In 1911 she made headlines because she was stolen, and she has been a steady focus for fiction during the twentieth century. Sasson has listed many, many references to her, such as Nat King Cole's famous song.
When in 1919 Marcel Duchamp drew a beard and goatee on a postcard of her, and exhibited this naughty French postcard under a saucy title, he continued a trend of including Mona in popular art, something that Malevich, Dali, Magritte, and Warhol have all done as well. There are good send-ups and bad, some that expand our ideas of the realm of this icon, and some that are just gross. All get included in this remarkably inclusive and wide-ranging book. Witty and lucid, it is not so much about a painting as it is about fashions and history, and the role chance plays in our search for objects of fame.
5.0 out of 5 stars What has made the Mona Lisa so famous? 6 Jun 2012
By Ralph Blumenau - Published on Amazon.com
Sassoon shows with statistics that he Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world; yet a survey of people who have seen the painting in the Louvre "reveal a deep frustration": they want to know WHY it is so famous. Sassoon's answer is that even a great work of art achieves world-wide iconic status because it receives "appropriate political, ideological and technological support". His book will set out to explain, not only the history of that painting, but the history of that support. He amply and brilliantly fulfils that promise, positioning the attitudes to the Mona Lisa in the context of cultural developments, especially from the mid-19th century onwards. THE PARTIAL REVIEW THAT FOLLOWS IS TO SOME EXTENT A SPOILER, BUT IT DOES NOT DO JUSTICE TO THE AUTHOR'S DEEPLY RESEARCHED, WELL-WRITTEN AND EXTRAORDINARILY RICH AND WIDE-RANGING SUPPORTING MATERIAL. The bibliography runs to 26 pages.

He begins by setting out the many theories about who the sitter was; even now her identity is not securely established. But from very early on other painters were clearly inspired by her pose; and this is illustrated with a number of reproductions. It is, however, very odd that neither these nor larger images I have called up on Google reveal the details that Sassoon describes: "barely perceptible columns" framing the Mona Lisa" (p.34 - this should surely be "the barely perceptible edges of the bases of columns"); "the recognizable Florentine urban background" (p.40) of Rafael's Maddalena Doni (the background is rural); the blemishes on Maddalena Doni's face (p.40); "the landscape [in Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine] is not interesting" (p. 125; there is no landscape).

After the Mona Lisa passed from the possession of the Kings of France to that of the nation and the Louvre was open to the public, copyists streamed in; but in the first half of the 19th century, the Mona Lisa was not yet the centre of attention and between 1851 and 1880 was copied a good deal less frequently than were works by Murillo, Correggio, Veronese, Titian, Greuze or Proud'hon; and in 1852 it was valued at less than a quarter of Rafael's La Belle Jardinière.

In the middle of the 19th century, Italian Renaissance artists were, for the first time, regarded as being as worthy of admiration as the Ancient Greeks and Romans; but even then the biggest names were initially Rafael and Michelangelo. The cult of Leonardo began later, and at first centred on his scientific and mechanical drawings. But then he became celebrated as the universal genius, the archetypal "Renaissance man". Even then, it was Leonardo's Last Supper, popularized through prints, rather than the Mona Lisa which was by far his best-known work. The first good print of the Mona Lisa was produced only in 1857. Around this time she is interpreted as the mysteriously smiling and dangerous woman by a number of Romantic writers, foremost among them the novelist and influential art-critic Théophile Gautier, who also obsessively portrayed femmes fatales in many of his stories. Walter Pater, in his famous passage of 1859, played down, if he did not wholly to abandon, the idea of a sexual threat emanating from the Mona Lisa. He saw her as emanating age-old experience and knowledge and as reflecting something of all women - whether ancient or modern, pagan or religious. Sassoon says that this passage propelled the Mona Lisa decisively towards becoming the most famous picture in the world, and will be alluded to or parodied by writers for the next half century or so. Leonardo and the Mona Lisa now figure in novels and in plays about them. In 1910 Freud interpreted her smile as evoking in Leonardo the smile of his mother.

In the following year the theft of the painting from the Louvre made for sensational headlines in the popular press, and the image of the painting, its history, the interpretations of it and reiterated references to the "enigmatic smile" now became familiar to the masses who had previously been ignorant of or indifferent to it. Huge crowds visited the Louvre to contemplate the space where the painting had once hung, while others bought satirical postcards or listened to cabaret songs about the theft. All this was repeated when the painting was recovered in 1913. The story became the subject of novels (four of them published as late as the 1990s), a film and even an opera. Over the years, minor sensations were created by stories that the painting returned to the Louvre was not the original, which is now claimed to be in the possession of such and such a person. When the original was lent to the United States for eight months in 1963, more than 1.6 million people were shepherded past it to catch a glimpse of it - even if only for a few seconds; and when, eleven years later, she was lent to Japan, the viewing time allowed to each visitor was even shorter.

Now that she was so popular, some cognoscenti (the art historian Robert Longhi, Bernard Berenson, T.S.Eliot, Somerset Maugham) began to be sniffy about her. And Dadists, Futurists and Surrealists take up the idea of satirizing the painting, partly as a deliberate attack on museum art. When Warhol painted multiple images of her, he conveyed the idea that, just like Marilyn Monroe or Campbell Soup Cans, she had become an icon of mass consumption. She became the subject of pop art, of two musicals and a slew of pop songs (one of which hit the No.1 spot in the US charts in July 1950). The last chapter overwhelms the reader with a depressing torrent of the image being exploited by advertisers, and being vulgarized by an avalanche of painters - one authority lists nearly 300 - from the 1950s onwards. Articles in some medical journals have claimed to detect all kinds of diseases in the sitter - but to me this last chapter suggests that the disease is in our age.
1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book About a Mysterious Painting 15 May 2005
By Deeyar - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Everyone In the World Knows that Mona Lisa Is the Greatest Painting of all time. Buy this Book and Learn how that masterpiece was made.
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