The Man Behind the Female Joker, or Where He Gets His Ideas
By Scott Martin
posted: 01-26-10
Leonardo da Vinci, Codex on the Flight of Birds (ms page)
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Critical and popular prurience surrounding the career of Leonardo da Vinci has reached the point where art historians have asked permission to exhume the artist's earthly remains and compare the parameters of his skull to the features of his famous Mona Lisa, a somewhat literal-minded attempt to ground the "sources" of a work of art in biography and ultimately genetics. At stake is the supposition that Mona Lisa's famously enigmatic allure derives from the figure's origin as a transvestite self-portrait of the artist himself; this androgynous undertow (rendered explicit by Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q.) is viewed as the key to the painting's fascination under the conventional male gaze: is this love or narcissism?

Art history has long concerned itself with similar attempts to see the face of the maker of art buried in the work itself, but the question of La Gioconda's paternity may not be a simple matter of digging up a skull for a computer to map. Is the artist the mother, the father or the midwife of the work? What role does the audience play -- are we attracted to the famous smile because she reminds us of ourselves, or of the artist lurking in the background? Or in the final analysis, is it just the grin on the girl in itself?

In any event, the investigators face the daunting task of determining whether the skull interred as Leonardo's is "really" his and not the brainpan of some less famous person. Meanwhile at least one fairly well-documented self-portrait exists for reference.


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