that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile

I came across the most fascinating passage about the Mona Lisa while researching my Victorian ghosties. I know that the painting is supposed to be one of the great works of our civilization, and I certainly am not claiming the authority to contradict that. But once you’ve seen something a million or so times, with clever caption bubbles added, reimagined as salt shakers, or recolored in pastels and neons to resemble Warhol’s Marilyn, it’s a bit difficult to even see the actual work without all the cultural baggage of this is a great art.   

Walter Pater reframes the Mona Lisa as a culmination of our culture, not an individual representation. Here’s what he had to say:

The presence that thus so strangely rose beside the waters is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years man had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which ‘all the ends of the world are come’, and the eyelids are a little weary…Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how they would be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire she has been dead many time, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy which it has moulded the changing lineaments and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern thought has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.

I love the way this gives me a completely different way to think about an image I’ve seen so many times. Pater, who was writing in the 1850’s, puts the painting in context for his Victorian contemporaries by referencing the common points of their culture: just as Mona Lisa is “etched and moulded” by the “animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the middle age” and so on, the Victorian admirer of the painting would have been similarly etched and moulded. He makes “Lady Lisa” into a cultural touchstone, representative of the entirety–as he imagines her persistence through the ages of history, he assumes our continued existence.

Not striking stuff for us, right? The extinction of the human race isn’t really a daily worry for me. But the Victorians? They worried about that more. Scientific progress was continually complicating religious beliefs for them: geological advances called Genesis into question; Darwin was on Beagle in the early 1830’s, his letters to the scientific community introduced his revolutionary theories;  the first dinosaur bones were identified in the Victorian era, providing concrete proof of the possibility of extinction for the unadaptable. The Victorian era was unsettling, to put it mildly. 

Pater’s insistence on the mutability and perseverance of Mona Lisa reframes the religious dream of an eternal life into a perpetual life–not for the individual, but for the collective. Pretty radical, eh?  That shift in perspective seems revolutionary to me: our individual progress is worth less than that which we contribute to the group.

I came across the quote from Pater in Ruth Robbins’ article “Apparitions Can Be Deceptive: Vernon Lee’s Androgynous Specters” which appears in Victorian Gothic, a volume of articles edited by Robbins and Julian Wolfreys and published in 2000 by Palgrave. (English major. We cite.) 

Robbins quotes Walter Pater , an Oxford professor in the mid-19th century whose essays influenced the aesthetic movement of the late Victorian Britain. Oscar Wilde is probably the most commonly associated with this movement—it highlights living life itself as a work of art, that art (Art) is for sensuous pleasures, not moral or didactic conveyance.

If you are interested in a bit more information about the Mona Lisa, the Louvre has an interactive lecture that completely sucked me in. I feel immeasurably smarter, even if I did take a break from the Victorian ghosties.

Read more about the changes in Victorian thought and theology here.

Want to read more about what our changes to the Mona Lisa say about our culture? You know you do. Find it here.

*The title is, of course, from the Nat King Cole song.

Decking the walls

Early last week, as I was leaving for an exam (running late as usual, juggling my thermos and travel mug [coffee is fundamentally necessary to brain function at this point of the semester], books to study from and others to return to the library, gym clothes, ipod and study snacks), I literally tripped over this enormous branch that a recent storm had brought down in my front yard. I muttered a few obscenities (as, indeed, I am inclined to do in such circumstances), dumped my supplies for the day on the car, and turned around to throw the damn thing into the bushes.

Even after my clumsy entanglement with it, the branch was seriously the most perfect shape for decorating. It is large and flat: about 6 feet from tip to end, and about the same again from side to side, but only about 6 inches deep.

So instead of tossing it into the bushes, I propped it up in the entry way, intending to do something brilliant with it once I was done with all of my insane end-of-the-semester stuff.

And here’s what I did:


I kind of love it. A lot.

It almost doesn’t need a tutorial, but here goes:

  1. Find a branch. Flatter is better unless you plan to put it in a completely untrafficked space.  (Else you’ll put your eye out.)
  2. I used an old spool of packing twine and crocheted around a few of the branches, letting the ends of the cord hang loose. It adds kind of a random geometric element that I find very cool. I also twisted silver florist’s wire around a few branches, which I expected to be a bit shinier than it is. It is great in a close up, but doesn’t add much when you are across the room.

    Detail of accent work
  3. Hang it on the wall. I used coffee cup hooks that had been in my apartment when I moved it and just tied it up with some more of the twine.
  4. Decorate! (If you want to. I almost didn’t, it looked so designer-fabulous before- but I like it even more with some sparkle.) My jewelry finally gets a cool display, and some of my favorite Christmas ornaments are up there as well.

I had initially seen this as part of my Christmas decorating, but I love it so much that I think it is going to see me at least through the early spring.

One of the best parts? It looks cool, but cost absolutely nothing.