[NetBehaviour] Notes on “The Work of Art in the Age of Network Reproduction: a question about the Mona Lisa”

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Fri Nov 22 23:06:04 CET 2019

“The Work of Art in the Age of Network Reproduction: a question about the Mona Lisa”

Notes on the above topic, focused on the painting itself

Max Herman, 11/22/2019

[PS -- my address-book is acting funny, apologies for erroneous sendings in advance]


First you notice the face.  It's nice enough to look at, and well-painted, arresting so to speak, but it's unclear what it means, how to interpret.  So it activates our face-interpretation part of our brain, which is a subtle and complex network structure in the brain.  It's activated, but it says "facial meaning unknown."  So, we are directed to look for other clues -- context.

Second you might say we get an overall impression of the colors, light/dark, etc., but they are vague and nothing jumps out.

Third (could be a guess) but we look at the chest, to see if it is a male or female.  Female, but abstract or neutral -- not for ogling.  Maybe, then back to the face.

Fourth, to get a sense of the body and gestures, threat interpretation, etc., we check the hands.  Very nice, very human, but calm.  Neither approaching nor retreating.

Fifth, we now have a very strong sense of a very engaged human in front of us, but still; very active but calm.  So, this reinforces the "arresting" effect.

Sixth, the garments.  We might sense the overall body outline, roughly triangular, dark and stable with the three features (face, breast, hands) lighter.  The hair and veil are sort of one, a semi-garment, saying nothing too particular and in harmony with the garments and the tone of the features.

Seven, after assessing this person fully, we still have our question.  What is this interaction about?  Why am I interacting with this person, this painting?  What is the observed, what the observer, how do they interact, how am I feeling, what am I noticing?  This would be a fine place to end.

The reverence for and quality of the craft in the painting, or its high status, suggest that we find some deeper purpose.  There is a natural sense and perhaps a brain reaction that there is probably something important here that we should pause and look for.  In art terms, this might mean we have gone to view the painting a second time, or that we study art, or that art is revered in our social group.

Ninth, we start to look for clues beyond the sitter's person.  What do the people around us say, those in the salon or viewing room?  What have we read, or brought to it?  Could be a lot or a little, convincing or unconvincing, could be anything.  So, we might go into some tangents of our context that are not in the painting per se -- like a teacher, docent, or friend with us, books we read, etc., or, other paintings we have seen, knowledge of Leonardo, etc.  We might execute some instructions we have learned for the interpretation of paintings.  We might end there and leave, which is fine of course.

Tenth, we might say "what my friend says is all well and good, but does the painting itself, the paint, have any context in it?"  This to me is where the painting truly becomes a map or narrative, even though each person (as we see in our interpretation of the sitter) is a map and narrative in its own right.

Eleventh, if we are checking the non-sitter elements we see there is a rather vague landscape background, a bit of wall and two pillar bases (as on a balcony) and the end of a chair's arm.  Not much.

Twelve, we ask "what is in the landscape background?"  Usually at the time this was painted, there was much more clarity and detail, perspective, precision.  This background is vague and stormy, even messy or poorly painted.  But this must be on purpose, since the face is painted so well.  We might also know that Leonardo could paint nature and backgrounds very well.  Is this just unfinished, or done by an apprentice?  Maybe.  But what if not?  We don't know.  It's unsettling, arresting, yet far off and distant too.  No rush to know.  We can just say "weird vague intense background, cool" and leave.

Thirteen, we might look at the contents of each background section (left and right) in more detail.  The left has rocks or mountains in ocean or sea, rocks or mountains on shore, and a river leading inland.  No plants or buildings.  Odd and primordial.  Frustratingly empty and vague, so we might quit looking here.  No harm done, and mission accomplished for the painter, because we are still unsatisfied and frustrated, and might return to view again, or say "I don't get it," all designed into the experience I think.

Fourteen, we check the right side.  Same as left, but a little bridge is unmistakable.  Crude and simplistic but unmistakable.  So that's a clue maybe.  Is there a house or castle above the bridge to the right?  Maybe, but totally crude if yes and out of proportion.  It looks like there might be some trees on the right side with the bridge.  So, is that a clue?  Architecture and plants on the right but not the left.  We read left to right.  Is this a sequence, perhaps, first left then right?  No plants or buildings, then plants and buildings?  Maybe.  We might look back to the face, breast, hands to check.  Still the same expression of course, mysterious that we would look back to them!  The face now might seem encouraging, knowing, but detached.  The artist perhaps must be detached, hence should be.

Fifteen, we entertain our new hypothesis: primordial prehistory on the left, history on the right.  [We might be encouraged in this by knowing Leonardo studied a lot about erosion, water flow, geology, architecture, engineering, and such.  I noticed these like any good tourist this past June in an exhibit of Leonardo's personal library in the basement of the Galileo museum in Florence.]  Are there other pieces that fit this hypothetical map?  There's a kind of odd hill or dome in red below the bridge, is that a hillside with agriculture?  Otherwise that's it.  Rocks, ocean, rivers, bridge, trees maybe, building maybe.  We might notice that the horizon line of the ocean is off a bit, each side tilted downward a bit from center.

Sixteen we ask, how might this weird background provide context to the sitter?  Is it window dressing, or nonsense we have invented?  We are, by this doubt, implicated literally, interwoven with the work.  Perhaps even neurologically we are now interwoven.   (The etymology is "intertwined, weaved.")  Does the background relate, does our speculation about time and evolution pertain?

Seventeen we get our most luxurious clue (in my opinion, eye, and impression overall) by noticing that the bridge leads directly into the garment.  It forms a thread of the braid or wrap of the shawl, which flows like a water vortex back to the hands (of the artist? my own?) and the whorls of the sitter's right sleeve.  This is the key visual experience, in my thesis, that leads us to the deepest integrity of the work, its full network nature.  I would call this the "ecstatic" culmination of the work, its crescendo and transmutation, what Calvino might call its "icastic" form.  Prior to this, we have been surveying a work.  Now we are fully part of it, and thus part of everything, both art and nature together.  We might quit here and write a term paper; which would be fine.  But we would still be unsatisfied and would almost certainly come back to the painting at some point.

Eighteen if we know Leonardo's work, we know he delved greatly into anatomy, nerves, and veins.  These shapes he drew a lot.  So, we can see the forms of water in the curly hair, the veil, the neckline.  We see that the hill or red half-dome also balances with the shawl, almost a trumpet blast of "yes correct."  Both hands match the folds in each sleeve.  At least, this map we are seeing seems plausible, at least to me it seems so, visually.  Now I see a magical earthly cosmos with fantastic curves and geometric forms, but all steeped in majesty and not for entertainment's sake like the shiny telescopes and armillary spheres, the scientific jewelry with which the Galileo museum and other Renaissance "portraits about science" are packed.  All this still, unsatisfying, but now rigorously luminous and involved, yes with itself, but also with the sitter, and of course by now, unmistakably with me too.

So back to the human here, this sitter, person, engager, my counterpart, not unlike a mirror view (if one were to sit calmly and regard one's self in a mirror for a good while).  The face I now appreciate, a teacher, and it's still there, still engaged!  It's neither rewarding nor punishing me, threatening nor cowering.  Above all it is seeing, and I am seeing it see me, and I'm aware of this now in a more physical equilibrium, serenity, what might be called proprioception.  I see the face, and the eyes tell me "you see that this is about you now, correct?  and you understand it, you've gotten it.  And you're not done, you'll never be done, but you can be at peace even amid all this catastrophic intensity of transformation."

Finally I understand this painting more now.  It is like a fabric and map of consciousness (art, awareness, thought, vision, words, feeling, conscience) and the natural universe as a dialogue or fabric of infinite constantly transforming and blending dialogues or "flows of meaning" still united by some kind of gravitational center within consciousness.  If the face is calm and serene, the heart will be at peace, and the hands can build a proper garment for humanity and for the world.


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