Mona Lisa and the Others
“Mona Lisa and the Others is one of the best introductory art history books on the market for young readers. It’s dynamic, page turning, factual, visually stimulating, thought provoking.”
Why should Mona Lisa get all the attention? She’s not the prettiest, the oldest, the rarest, the largest, or any other superlative for that matter. Yet she commands her space, demands attention, and gets the most specialized treatment of all the artworks on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris. She even has her own ticketing system for the queue that inevitably packs her room. All this fuss and for what?
The other artworks have had enough of Mona Lisa. She’s all smirky and mysterious. What does she know that no one else knows? Harman and Blake have teamed up here to make a case for “the others.” Mona Lisa and the Others gives “the others” a chance to speak their peace. In some cases, they even explain why they should have the spotlight on themselves for a change and not perpetually on Mona Lisa.
We start off justifiably with Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa making her opening argument. First person prose allows her to speak out. She tells us that she realizes she is the most famous painting in the world, but she doesn’t think she is “snooty” about it. She claims it’s not her fault she’s all over T-shirts and mugs and posters. She’s proud to have been painted by Leonardo, but others have been, too, and they should have a turn in the headlines as well.
Mona Lisa shares a little of her history with us, like the time in 1911 when she was stolen. The police thought Picasso had taken her, but it ended up being an Italian man who worked at the museum and thought she should live in Italy and not in France. She also talks about the setting she’s painted into. It’s mysterious and a bit gloomy. Where is that exactly? She doesn’t remember. And the most common comment she hears when visitors see her is just how small she is. As if size mattered in the arts. It’s enough to make her self-conscious.
Following Mona Lisa is a “sister” painting also by Leonardo, equally captivating but relatively unknown. So unknown that it’s titled Portrait of an Unknown Woman. What does she have to say about all this? Careful now, you might get an earfull of jealous venom spewing from her mouth. “Why does she get all the attention? What’s so special about her? I’m not that different, I even have a better outfit on!” In this vein she challenges the reader to tell her what’s she got that I haven’t got. Ouch, a bit bitter are we?
Some of “the others” include a wide variety of statues: the Greek sculpture of Venus de Milo, BCE Assyrian Winged Human-Headed Bulls, Pierre Puget’s Baroque Milo of Croton, the Spanish/Muslim Monzon Lion, the marble pair of The Marly Horses by Guillaume Coustou, and an Etruscan Sarcophagus of the Spouses. Each of these characters have great personality and perspective to share. The Spouses, in particular, are hilarious, as one could imagine, since they’ve been confined together, in bed, yet on top of their sarcophagus, for nearly 2500 years.
An odd assortment of paintings were selected for commentary as well. It feels, in a way, like they’ve been pulled aside by a reporter for the evening eyewitness news and asked to share their opinions of what’s going on. Curious witnesses to the Mona Lisa fame controversy.
Examples include Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1819), Constance Mayer’s The Dream of Happiness (1819), Ingres’ The Valpinçon Bather, The Wedding Feast at Cana (1563) by Veronese, Liberty Leading the People (1830) by Delacroix, and Vermeer’s The Lacemaker (1670). Each claiming they could also have the right stuff to be as big a celebrity as Mona Lisa. Indeed, they have valid points. Cleopatra Disembarking at Tarsus (c 1643) by Claude Lorrain is persuasive, too, without even featuring the powerhouse herself. After all, what other woman in history is more famous than Cleopatra? How could Cleopatra be overshadowed by Mona Lisa? The banter here is witty, impertinent, and effective.
But wait, there’s more. Don’t forget Blake. Mona Lisa and the Others presents 32 works of art from the Louvre in a consistent layout design: A full-color image of the work; a highlighted side box indicating title, artist, date and brief description; the first person dialogue by the artwork bragging about their most important features; and . . . an illustration or two from Blake.
The most famous art in the world, coupled with the most famous illustrator in the world. Yes, it’s odd. Yet it’s an oddly endearing counterpoint to the museum treasures. The seriousness and depth of the highest fine art in existence alongside the tawdriest jealousy of the fickle and shallow personalities at odds with Mona Lisa, and Blake’s interpretations of the interplay between the two. Such a bizarre, far-fetched combination. Whoever came up with this scheme is a genius. It works. And it works well. Blake holds nothing back. He’s not intimidated by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, or Rembrandt, or David, or even I.M. Pei—the architect of the modern Louvre pyramids. His quirky humor and technical skill are in full force, and he holds his own among such giants.
Mona Lisa and the Others is one of the best introductory art history books on the market for young readers. It’s dynamic, page turning, factual, visually stimulating, thought provoking. It represents a world of diverse perspectives nestled down into something that hits personal notes. Full of drama and intrigue, it wanders the halls of the Louvre pointing out the wide cast of characters that call this museum home and, like Blake, can certainly hold their own alongside Mona Lisa.