Leonardo and Sfumato
It’s not that I don’t think the Mona Lisa is beautiful.
I suppose I actually do. It’s more that I just don’t find her all that attractive.
I would not, probably, ask her out on a date. And that’s not just because she’s not alive.
There is something mildly unnerving about her. I can say that now — mildly unnerving — because I am a grownup, and I’m able to remind myself that she’s a painting, not a person with flesh and blood. As a child, I found her to be far more than unnerving. She frightened me. That strange quality of her eyes that followed a person around the room. (I don’t actually know if that was a real thing, or if that was a Scooby Doo cartoon holdover. Either way, it had a lasting impression.) Her smirk, like she knew something important, even something dangerous, but preferred her own amusement more to your safety. Her cool demeanor, hands calmly folded at her lap, unflapped in the face of whatever peril might await you.
It is possible that my childhood discomfort and adult ambivalence toward the lovely Mona Lisa have roots in the same mystery that others have found in her presence. Walter Pater, a scholar of the time and of the painting, wrote that she is “a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by little cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions.” Michael Gelb, author of our book club selection How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, says that “Mona Lisa’s smile lies on the cusp of good and evil, compassion and cruelty, seduction and innocence, the fleeting and the eternal. She is the Western equivalent of the Chinese symbol of yin and yang.” She is, Gelb writes, “Leonardo’s supreme expression of paradox.”
So perhaps it is not any unique quality of her face that is unnerving, but the very aspect of ambiguity that she, in this fleeting moment captured on da Vinci’s canvas like a Renaissance version of a Polaroid, embodies.
Gelb describes one of the qualities essential to a person who wishes to experience something of da Vinci’s genius: the painting technique of sfumato, the “essence of paradox.” He cites E. H. Gombrich, who studied the effect of this paradox in the painting, suggesting that the “blurred outline and mellowed colours … allow one form to merge with another always leaving something to our imagination.” Gombrich explains that, like any other portrait, the image’s “expression” is captured by two features: “the corners of the mouth and the corners of the eyes. Now it is precisely these parts which Leonardo has left deliberately indistinct, by letting them merge into a soft shadow. That is why we are never quite certain in what mood Mona Lisa is really looking at us.”
A person just really can’t ever know what she’s thinking.
And that, for some of us, is mildly unnerving.
Even just this week, a new study was released that argues her smile was disingenuous, with some suggesting da Vinci brilliantly did it on purpose. This ambiguity, this sense of unknowing, is a reality with which Gelb argues we must become more comfortable. “In the past, a high tolerance for ambiguity was a quality to be found only in great geniuses like Leonardo. As change accelerates, we now find that ambiguity multiplies, and illusions of certainty become more difficult to maintain. The ability to thrive with ambiguity must become part of our everyday lives. Poise in the face of paradox is a key not only to effectiveness, but to sanity in a rapidly changing world.”
Gelb writes that a path toward increased comfort with ambiguity might lie in the eyes and smile of Mona Lisa herself. “Sit with Mona for a while,” he says. “Wait for your mind to calm down and breathe in her essence. Note your responses.” To take it a step farther, you could also try on her smirk yourself. “Experiment with embodying Mona’s facial expression, especially the famous smile.” He suggests observing how you feel when you’re wearing that famous Mona Lisa smile, and then considering a question or situation that causes you anxiety and exploring whether your thinking on the question changes when you “look from Mona’s perspective.”
I still have mixed feelings about this painting, about this beautiful woman. I still don’t like the way she looks at me. But I’m going to try it. I’m going to see what happens when I smirk back at my life’s most perplexing questions.
Photo by Davide Gabino. Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Will Willingham.