The re-iteration and repetition of iconic personalities and consumer products had long been the very cornerstone of Warhol’s practice – with the renewed conceptual vigor of the Reversals and Retrospectives, this artistic project reached its apotheosis. Roberto Marrone contended that, “Warhol’s ‘appropriating’ of his own imagery in the Reversal and Retrospective series ran parallel to the then current aesthetic of irreverent undermining of the traditional canons of art history and its hierarchical divisions between so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.” (Roberto Marrone in Exh. Cat., Zurich, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Andy Warhol: Big Retrospective Painting, 2009, p. 32) 12 Mona Lisas carries this concept of ‘appropriation’ a step further still. Herein, Warhol’s decision to employ the Mona Lisa does not purely allude to Leonardo da Vinci’s sixteenth-century masterpiece, but also to Marcel Duchamp’s wittily acerbic L.H.O.O.Q. from 1919, in which the delicate and enigmatic face of La Gioconda is jokingly defaced by a moustache. Duchamp’s doctored version posed questions regarding conventional assumptions of gender whilst simultaneously imbuing the Mona Lisa –an unassailable and iconic beacon of chastity – with sexual provocation: Duchamp’s choice of title makes reference to a sexual pun in French. With 12 Mona Lisas and its greater series as a whole, Warhol thus explicitly exposes the Duchampian nature of his project: not only does he identify Leonardo’s painting as a readymade to be appropriated and manipulated for a new artistic dialogue, he also identifies his own work as fair game. Taking his cue from a long tradition of artists who have adapted, varied and transformed the art of their predecessors, Warhol, in an act of post-modernist brilliance, expropriated material from his own infamous repertoire of images, transforming his classic Pop iconography with surprising painterly techniques and compositional reconfigurations.
Initiated in the late 1970s, Warhol’s Reversal series signalled a new period of productivity for the artist. Hand in hand with the contemporaneous Retrospectives corpus, the Reversals rejuvenated a sense of conceptual vigor. Roberto Marrone has noted of these series that “All the images Warhol used in the Retrospectives and Reversals ranked among his most memorable and commercial icons… These were the images that had made him famous – the icons, symbols and brands through which he had made his own name and which had therefore to some extent become associated with his own life, history, career and myth. In repeating these same images in a new ‘reversed’ and negative form in 1979, Warhol now bestowed upon them a new and altogether darker and more sombre mood reflective of the respective distance in time between their original use and the later moment of their re-creation.” (Ibid., pp. 23-4) Narrating a moment of repose and personal reflection, Warhol stood at the end of a decade creatively dominated by his celebrity portrait practice: flamboyant images that came to encapsulate an era. Prophetically heralding the final decade of Warhol’s life, the late works possess an undercurrent of poignancy and gravity. The psychological shadows and physical effects of Valerie Solanas’s attempted assassination in 1968 linger on in these late works. As prevalent in 12 Mona Lisas, the ghostly color palette and delicate impression of the screening appears almost miraculous, possessing a spiritual quality that runs counter to the stark black and white contrast of his antecedent Mona Lisa paintings.
Eighteen years earlier in 1962, Warhol encountered the original Mona Lisa firsthand when the painting travelled to New York for exhibition. Universally considered the most famous (and thereby expensive) work of art in existence, the occasion of the Mona Lisa’s first official tour outside of Europe roused unprecedented attention from the press. Her arrival in America was a major media event, and the exhibition tour to Washington's National Gallery of Art and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art was covered by wave upon wave of photographers, both amateur and professional, each hoping to capture the enigmatic essence of her fame. The press devoted vast column inches in attempting to analyze her beauty and celebrity as the world's most famous work of art. Her arrival to the United States was unveiled by President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, as a way of reinforcing Franco-American relations and, indeed, many of the photographers juxtaposed the radiant smile of Jackie with the 'enigmatic' one of Mona Lisa. She was a media star in the truest sense of the word and by the end of her trip over 1.6 million people had seen her. Amongst them was a young Warhol, on the cusp of wider creative recognition and embarking on a career which would see him become one of the most famous and celebrated artists of the Twentieth Century.
Warhol was immediately captivated by the Mona Lisa and incorporated the legendary image within his own oeuvre for the first time shortly after its iconic exhibition in 1962. The small corpus of seven preliminary paintings executed between January and February of 1963 denotes Warhol’s first serialization of an art historical work; moreover, the Mona Lisa was to remain the only painting appropriated in this way until the 1980s. Though unimpeachable as a landmark of art history, it was her status as a celebrity and priceless commodity that undoubtedly caught Warhol’s artistic attention. Possessing an unrivalled degree of iconicity and instantly recognizable stardom, the Mona Lisa seems tailor-made for Warholian veneration. Allegedly the portrait of a little known Florentine lady, 'Monna' Lisa Gherardini, painted by Leonardo circa 1503, today Leonardo’s image represents an archetype ingrained within the mass consciousness. Possessing a unique ‘brand identity’ the Mona Lisa enjoyed fame to match the movie stars and celebrities revered by Warhol and a symbolic status to equal the ubiquity of consumer products. The painting’s fragile and precious nature has ensured that it has rarely travelled: her fame being spread almost solely through mechanically reproduced facsimiles. As the most photographed and reproduced work of art in the world, the fascination with the Mona Lisa 'brand' extends its legend through replicas and souvenirs as well as books and postcards. She has attained an eternal and immortal status somewhat removed from the humble beginnings of the original painting. Warhol’s decision to utilize the image within his own celebrated corpus further perpetuates the myth and legend of the Mona Lisa.
Within 12 Mona Lisas, Warhol depicts the Mona Lisa in much the same way as he had portrayed major female celebrities of his era, notably Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor, instilling La Gioconda with the ‘star quality’ of an internationally celebrated actress or First Lady. These female subjects were united by a megawatt public persona that arguably hid private sorrow: Warhol's portrayal of them thus united his twin obsessions with celebrity and mortality. Just as Marilyn, Jackie and Liz led glamorous public lives that were tainted by personal tragedy, Mona Lisa's infamous smile seemingly conceals a sadness hidden within the depths of her mystifying expression. Intensified in 12 Mona Lisas (Reversal Series) by a ghostly yet effervescent color scheme, the reprisal of Mona Lisa in negative form sees Warhol examine, like an x-ray, his abiding concerns with haunting and elegiac candor.
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