What Makes The Mona Lisa So Special? Lets Find Out Why "Context" is Important to Understand Art
This may come as a surprise to you, but the Mona Lisa… isn’t actually that special.
“Fake news,” you say, “you’re just being a hipster snob!” And hey, I never said it wasn’t good art. It’s masterfully executed, it‘s painted by one of the Greats, it’s become the icon of the European Renaissance. There are plenty of other, much cooler, more dynamic paintings from that era though. “Each artwork is unique! They each have their own individual merit and it’s all very subjective!” You protest, and I agree wholeheartedly. But the Mona Lisa specifically transcends the value of fellow paintings from is time mostly because of that one time it got stolen. Back then it was but one amongst an elite set of artworks, but then it went missing, which is what put a spotlight on it. When it was recovered they upped the security for it to maximum, and in the eyes of the general public, everyone was like ‘Ooh, it’s behind like, bulletproof glass and stuff, there must be something special about it.” And so it became a Thing. ‘Emperor’s New Clothes‘ vibes.
The point I’m trying to make here isn’t that the Mona Lisa doesn’t deserve the hype. The point here is that to properly understand the Mona Lisa, to really appreciate it, it’s background is equally important as the panting itself. Did you know it’s actually incomplete? You walk into the Lourve and the guide tells you that that over there is a very famous painting, and you have no context for why he’s saying that; what are you going to think? Is it famous because the lady in it is someone important? Why doesn’t she have any eyebrows? Did people back then not like eyebrows? But then you look into the context behind it and you find out that the lady isn’t anyone famous or anything, and that she does actually have eyebrows, expect the painting is so old and so famous that no one wants to be responsible for restoring it in case they hurt it and get sued or something. So it’s just covered in centuries of gunk.
Context comprises a large part of understanding art. Art history is literally almost entirely about dissecting that context. The ‘origin story’, if you will. And it’s not just for fun, either; art isn’t just about looking pretty, it’s also an integral tool in understanding cultures, people, and society. Heck, it even gives us clues about geography and botany and stuff, and things like what people value, how connotations vary from place to place, etc.
Let’s take a very common example; weddings. We’re all familiar with the fact that ‘white’, the quintessential western bridal colour, has very different connotations in different cultures; mourning in India, virginity in the West, and death in East Asia. Wearing white to an Indian wedding is generally a faux pas because it is a colour typically associated with funerals (although with increasingly western influences dominating the globe, this is changing), whereas in western weddings, the bride is expected to dress in white. Similarly, the traditional colour for Spanish Catholic brides to wear is black, but in many cultures wearing black to a wedding is seen as inappropriate and inauspicious; black is a colour of mourning in the west. And if you’re a guest, you generally wouldn’t wear red to a Indian wedding, or white to a western one, unless your goal was to upstage the bride.
Even more confusingly, these rules typically only apply only to women. The rules for men are a completely different ball game. And lord help you if you’re non-binary, because there’s no way to know which set of rules to follow.
Now imagine you’re looking a at a painting with three characters, and it’s titled “marriage”, or “red wedding”, or “the perils of engagement” or something. One character is in red, one is in white, and one is in black. Depending on your social and cultural background, you’re likely to build different narratives, right? An American might put the white and black characters together as the married couple, and the figure in red as someone objecting to the union. An Indian might think the same thing, except with the characters in red and white, with the figure in black being some kind of spooky metaphor for the relationship being inauspicious or something. The term ‘manglik’ might be thrown around. An Afghani viewer might not even immediately make the connection, because Afghani brides tend towards green for their wedding attire.
Point being; knowing the background and context of an artwork is integral to understanding it the way it was intended to be. Now that in itself sparks the whole debate of ‘artist intention vs. viewer perception’ and which one is more valid, which is the ‘right’ way of interpreting art — but that’s a conversation for another day. For today though, I’d say it is important to at least consider the intention of the artist, and the context within which the work was created.
For example; let’s talk about contemporary art (art from the period of about 1880 to 1940-50). We’ve talked about this a little bit in our article over here. This was the period where art really became about expression, and accessible to more people to practice, ergo more opinions were being put forward, and even more were being derived from those expressions.
You’ve probably seen this artwork at least once.
Now, as a modern audience, you’re looking at it and you’re like, what’s so special about that? It’s not like it’s some great feat of skill or anything. Sure, visually it’s striking and modern. So what?
But what if I told you it was meant to be a critical commentary on consumerist culture and mass manufacturing in USA in the 60’s and 70’s? (tangentially, check out our article on Dadaism, if you too are plagued by the question ‘what even counts as art??’)
Similarly; throwback to the Renaissance. The old masters. The Renaissance created the concept of the middle class, and it’s philosophy was naturalism. Deviation from traditional medieval art - which was pretty religion oriented. But still — of the stuff those guys painted, portraits, landscapes, and religious scenes were popular subjects. The occasional table of fruit here and there. Does that mean that folks back then were particularly pious? Or did artists choose their subjects based on what they thought people could and would buy? (And by people I mean basically just the church and the aristocracy. The rise of the middle-class meant more people had more spending power, but probably still not enough to be able to afford a painting that took years to make.)
Did artists work a lot on commission? Art supplies cost a pretty penny after all, which is the main reason experimental and expressive art only became A Thing after the industrial revolution, when supplies were far, far cheaper. What does that tell us about the deeper man in behind the artworks themselves?
Or, let’s go even further back. Early man; the good old Palaeolithic era. People has just invented/discovered how to make (rudimentary) pigment. They only used browns and yellows and reds though, and it clearly wasn’t a stylistic choice. Their context was, for starters, that those were the only colours they had to work with.
“That last example was just common sense! You’re just trying to make things sound more complicated than they actually are!” Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong! The last example was based on context that you learned in second grade, when your teacher first talked about the evolution of man. It’s a simple connection to make - provided you already have a general idea of how natural pigments are made. Which lead us to my final example today; why was blue considered the colour of the heavens and royalty in so many cultures across the globe?
Context; blue pigment just straight up does not exist in nature. Except for this one butterfly.
Context; the Egyptians invented the colour blue in 2000BC and began trading it.
Context; when any particular commodity has only one supplier, that supplier has a monopoly on the market of that item, and they can set the price however high they like.
Context; Egyptian blue was expensive and rare.
Context; it could probably only have been bought by royals, and therefore gradually became the colour of royalty. And royals were ‘Vassals of the Gods‘ and basically holy anyway. Ergo; colour of the heavens and royalty. What conclusion would you have come to without knowing the context, if I showed you the following picture? Glazed with just one colour, little to no ornamentation, and frankly, a bit risqué.
Now what if I told you that’s a figurine of the goddess Isis, literally one of the most revered characters in Egyptian mythology?
A picture is worth a thousand words, after all. In this metaphor, if ‘art’ is the words, then ‘context’ is the language those words are written in.
If you enjoyed this article, please don’t forget share it with you friends! And if you hated it; there are SO many other perspectives on this topic, and I would love to hear yours. And if this sparks a debate in the comments, I would be even more delighted.
Bonus points to anyone who knows how Woody Allen fits into this argument!
Written by Sambhavi Sinha, Content Writer at Skyshot Arts and Entertainment, who will talk your ear off about anything art or literature related if given half the chance.