[NetBehaviour] The Mona Lisa as Medical Theory, Practice, Mirror, and Map

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Mon Apr 13 18:42:43 CEST 2020


Hi Cassie,

Always happy to comment!  Thanks for reading and for your excellent comments in reply, which highlight many ideas I hadn't thought of and articulate others much better than I've been able to.

My writings are usually too long, but yes to: infographic instruction, videoconference portraiture, seeing what's gone, and the possibly garment-like layer of our woven screens.  It makes me wonder that if Covid-19 will change the course of art history, how will it, and what impact can our choices have on that change?  What is not set in stone?  Can we see Ovid's Metamorphoses fully so to speak, or is the name just another four-letter word?  When we don't make time to dwell on anything, we dwell nowhere.

Also I admire and agree on the great importance of the social work aspect you are implementing; it is so often ignored, easy to theorize about but taxing and under-admired daily work to actually do.  I am part of a multidisciplinary research group working to integrate both the theory and implementation of neuroscience, meditation, and art in a network context with a Hippocratic mission.  The physician in the group is so busy with changes to the profession that I can barely imagine the workload.

I will try to keep my posts more concise, and any questions, topics, or requests related to Hologram please do share!

Very best wishes and regards,

Max


________________________________
From: Cassie Thornton <futurething at gmail.com>
Sent: Monday, April 13, 2020 8:56 AM
To: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>
Cc: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Subject: Re: The Mona Lisa as Medical Theory, Practice, Mirror, and Map

Hi Max,
I love the idea that the pandemic keeps us from seeing the painting that we maybe never properly looked at in the first place. That now we have time to look at what we have overlooked when it was right in front of us. It's so funny how we can often only 'see' what has been taken away.

I'm so grateful for your feedback, for both of them. I'm wowed and find myself reading and rereading. I'm in the phase of this project where I am doing so much administrative and social work that I can easily forget the huge rhizome of ideas and influences underneath and all around the project. Thank you for the reminders. I am thinking about how to use the Mona Lisa and her Landscape for the Hologram. In some way, maybe it really acts like an infographic or an instruction?

I'm running this course for the Hologram right now and I feel like each person, on their 28 little screens, represent a whole world: of context and how the human has come through it, and reproduced it in and around themselves. The bridge and costume is in every view we have of the person in their bedroom. Maybe the river is in their glass of water and the bridge is the couch or bed in the background. We're making a lot of portraits on our screens right now. It's nice to think about how to un-see and re-see them with the curiosity and symbolism with which we would view a significant painting. I'm thinking of how to bring this into the course.

Thank you for your whimsical prying, mixing, weaving!
c








On Sat, Apr 11, 2020 at 9:36 PM Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com<mailto:maxnmherman at hotmail.com>> wrote:

Hi Cassie,

I just listened to your interview with Marc on the "news from where we are" podcast and found it really thought-provoking.  The proliferation of global crises and their highly interconnected nature really does change the calculus it seems for solutions being modular, scalable, adaptive, and participatory as you describe, in many aspects of how we live but also in health care.

It also makes great sense to me that you locate the fabric for this participatory, improvisational, and collaborative adaptation at least partly within an aesthetic framework.  This allows for the greatest versatility of practices I think, embraces the network reality of our times, and synergizes with the human instinct for social care and expression as having intrinsic beauty.

Last week I received an article from a Leonardo scholar in the UK in reply to my question about the meaning of the landscape in the Mona Lisa.  To my very great surprise, the article's second paragraph centers on a medical reference:

"In his article on the Mona Lisa published in 1952, Charles de Tolnay made the suggestion, so far as I know, that the painting has cosmological significance.  He calls the figure the 'personification' of the landscape; he cites Leonardo's use of the phrase '[the hu]man is the model of the world.'  Kenneth D. Keele, in his article 'The Genesis of Mona Lisa,' 1959, then made the first sustained attempt to see the picture as a kind of philosophical statement.  Using passages from [Leonardo's] Notebooks together with his own, specialized knowledge of the practice and history of medicine, Keele argued persuasively that the Mona Lisa represents 'Leonardo's conception of the formation of the earth and the analogy so vital to him of the macrocosm of the world and the microcosm of [the hu]man.'  Martin Kemp has reaffirmed this interpretation in his recent book on Leonardo, remarking, again, on certain parallels between what Leonardo says in his notes on the human and terrestrial bodies and how in the picture he relates the figure-microcosm to the landscape-macrocosm."  (Webster Smith, "Observations on the Mona Lisa Landscape," The Art Bulletin, June 1, 1985.)

The article goes on to discuss a lot of interesting details about how the Mona Lisa relates to geologic, hydrodynamic, and anatomical ideas in Leonardo's notebooks.  I only started studying Leonardo last year in honor of his 500th anniversary, after visiting Florence for the first time, but find great relevance in his attempts to integrate art with science and liberate both from stultifying conditions of scholastic conventions.  However, I have been able to find only the very vaguest discussions of what I believe are two key aspects of the painting: the bridge in the background (the only human artifact in the background, but almost never discussed) and its relationship to the sitter's garments.  (The garments are briefly discussed in the Smith article, such as by Leonardo's quote "patience is like a warm garment," but not fully in my opinion.)

This could be a huge step forward in the field of Leonardo studies, and indeed of art history itself, because the painting may very well be a map and guide to finding the proper balance between humanity (exemplified by experience, creativity, and communication) and technology (a constructed fabric of engineering, accumulated learning, and historical data).  This balance, between the human and the technological, is at the core of human survival; it is therefore at the core of the human medical history in which we find ourselves so intensely implicated during the present phase of planetary economics.  To remember that our human capacities for creativity, compassion, and collaboration are still ours, neither negated by nor subordinate to the garments and ornaments of technology (no matter how all-pervading they sometimes seem), is a fundamentally health-affirming and Hippocratic message perfectly ideal for our current moment.

Below is part of an essay I'm working on to elucidate the bridge/garment idea.  If you have any thought or views as to how this might be relevant to the Hologram project I'd be very interested to hear or discuss.

Thanks again for sharing the Hologram project with Netbehavior!

Max

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What is the meaning of the bridge in the Mona Lisa?  Specifically, in the context of the ideas about science, the natural world, and the quest for beauty and truth as discussed in Leonardo's notebooks and in Webster Smith's article.  What does the bridge mean?  It is the only human artifact in the background of the painting and potentially of wide symbolic scope.  As Smith shows, the winding form in the left background is a river, not a road, thus making the landscape one of two rivers -- one bridged, the other not.  Since the bridge visually flows precisely into the sitter's garment, specifically into a twisted fabric which strongly echoes the hydrological form of the vortex, might the bridge/garment relationship reflect the following prominently featured passage from Leonardo's notebooks in which he contrasts the "borrowed robes" of academics to direct creative experience and scientific observation?  Because Leonardo was born out of wedlock, he was prohibited from attending university and learning Latin, the official language of scholarly learning in his time:

"I am fully aware that the fact of my not being a lettered man may cause certain arrogant persons to think that they may with reason censure me, alleging that I am a man without letters.  Foolish folk!  Do they not know that I may retort by saying, as did Marius to the Roman patricians: 'They who themselves go adorned in the labour of others will not permit me my own?' They will say that, because of my lack of book learning, I cannot properly express what I desire to expound upon. Do they know that my subjects are based on experience rather than the words of others? And experience has been the mistress of those who wrote well. And so, as mistress, I will acknowledge her and, in every case, I will give her as evidence."

I find this passage to be evocative of the idea that Leonardo may be presenting a highly complex map of sorts in the Mona Lisa, which is a map of nature and natural history, human biology, but also culture itself, and the history of technology as a "flow" and fabric which is comparable to those in nature but not identical.  All of these complex systems are thus integrated, and centered gravitationally on the sitter as "Experience": Leonardo's highest value in both science and art.

Experience in the painting is therefore a complex and hybrid agent, functioning as peer, subject, artist, advocate, teacher, companion, and portrait; moreover it is an interactive personification which we cannot but identify with, and indeed, communicate with in present immediate time.  This fundamentally interactive gaze is, I would further hypothesize, a powerful thesis regarding what we would now call cognitive neuroscience, including questions of intersubjective intelligence and what Francisco Varela calls "the embodied mind."

Importantly, the garment is portrayed as non-identical to the human agency being portrayed, but complementary and ultimately secondary to it.  Experience, in addition to representing empirical science and aesthetic creation, is also akin to contemplative concepts of mindfulness or grace, which are also found in indigenous philosophies of the macrocosmic/microcosmic Great Spirit.  This facet of experience in the painting is in part a pre-neuroscientific mapping and aesthetic "performance" perhaps akin to what Francisco Varela described as "enactive cognitive science" in his 1991 book "The Embodied Mind."

This interpretation seems to me to be vastly preferable to Freud's still-cited idea that Leonardo was unconsciously painting his mother, and worthy of further scholarly exploration (by contextualization with the Notebooks) as well as mass communication to the artistic public during a time when to view the painting in person is impossible due to the pandemic.

Max Herman
4/11/2020

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