What is the Mona Lisa Doing Here?

It was a cold winter day in Washington, DC, and the lines to get into the National Gallery of Art snaked all around the huge building. The year was 1963, and President Kennedy had managed a diplomatic coup by getting the French government to loan the Mona Lisa so that Americans could see the most famous work of art in the world.

The crowds to see it were unprecedented. One had to stand in line for hours and even overnight. A little boy was among the thousands who flocked to see the painting. Bundled up and shivering from the cold, he grew excited as his place in line finally got inside the building, and eventually into the very gallery where Leonardo’s masterpiece hung.

But being a short little kid, he had to wait until he could place himself squarely in front, just a foot or so from the canvas. And then he did something astonishing.

Unbuttoning his winter coat, he revealed his dog, whom he had been carrying secretly all this time.

“I wanted my dog to see the Mona Lisa,” he explained matter-of-factly to the startled guards.

How many dogs can claim to have accomplished such a feat?

Photograph: President Kennedy, Mme Malraux, French Minister of Culture André Malraux, Jackie Kennedy and Vice President Johnson at the unveiling of the Mona Lisa, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 8 January 1963
© Photo © Robert Knadsen, White House / John Fitzgerald Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston


Everything I Know Is Wrong

This video of an elephant painting is astounding. Yes, there is Cheetah the artist chimp, but let’s face it: that’s abstract art. But making representations of three dimensions onto two dimensions, with aesthetic considerations–didn’t we all learn that’s something only humans can do?

Well step aside, Janson. Time to add this elephant to the history of art.


Actor, Painter, Chimpanzee

cheeta.jpg While I was working at the National Gallery in London, the artist in residence was Peter Blake, who became famous to many because of his cover of the Beatles album, Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.As is the custom, the artist mounts an exhibition at the Gallery at the end of his stay. Peter Blake regarded another painter as his partner and collaborator, so he wanted that artist to share equal billing in the exhibition. The stage was set, then, for a historic first.As Britain’s foremost old masters museum, the National Gallery featured this artist, a chimpanzee, in the exhibition entitled Now We Are 64. The introductory wall showed photos of both artists, Peter Blake and Cheetah, with biographies. Indeed, they were both 64 years old, and like Blake, Cheetah had spent much of his life painting, especially after he retired from the movies.But what did the two artists have in common, really, I wondered? While Blake’s paintings showed subjects from pop culture, Cheetah’s were abstract: bold swaths painted for the sheer joy of movement and color. Was Blake deliberately poking a finger in the art critic’s eye? A chimpanzee at the National Gallery, home to the most accomplished masters: Vermeer, Van Eyck, Leonardo, Rembrandt–and now Cheetah? 


Mozart’s Starling

Starling stare, originally uploaded by Suzanne takes you down.

Now for my favorite historical animal story.

In 1784 the composer Wolfgang Mozart visited a pet shop, where he heard a starling sing of song of 17 notes.

Mozart immediately bought the bird, and for the next three years the two were constant companions.

The starling would sit on Mozart’s shoulder while the composer would create his scores. Many researchers have surmised that the bird would naturally have mimicked the music. But starlings subvert what they hear, abruptly halting a song in the middle, mixing up tunes and syntax in a way that must have amused Mozart to no end.

When his beloved starling died, Mozart was inconsolable. He staged a full funeral and burial, complete with priests, and wrote a poem dedicated to his feathered friend.

Six days later, he composed “A Musical Joke” (“Ein Musikalischer Spass”). With its humorous and unorthodox musical grammar, many believe that Mozart was honoring his departed pet. And two days after that, he made a change to the finale of a concerto (K 453) he was writing.

He added the starling’s 17 notes that began their friendship.


Madrid’s Dogs

Goya’s Dog (Prado)

Have you noticed that when you travel to a foreign culture you are thrown into an almost strictly visual mode for gathering information? I am in such a mode because I am in Madrid for the first time ever. When I arrived I went for a stroll, then settled into a sidewalk cafe that faced an open public area where ordinary people were strolling. I figured I would see an introduction to Spanish life. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Almost immediately I noticed how many people were walking their dogs. It was a week night, so I imagined that these folks were home from work and the dogs were enjoying a well-deserved time outside with their favorite person. And indeed, the dogs were smiling. You know that upward curve their mouths have when they are really happy.

So many dogs! And they were utterly devoted to their companions. Some waited patiently while their human chatted with friends. One was overjoyed to chase a ball its human would throw, ever further away. Some dogs greeted one another as well-known friends or adversaries. But what struck me was that no matter how foreign a culture may be, the relationship between dogs and their companions is universal. What a comfort when one is feeling alone and, well, foreign!

And today, I went to the Prado, where I discovered an unusual proportion of paintings that somehow had dogs prominently in them. And yes: whether with kings, nudes, crucifixions, or private visions, there was a dog, being its self: sleeping in the sun, begging for food, scratching and sniffing.

But in one memorable painting by Goya, a dog appears as the protagonist. It is alone, with only its head visible, a golden background taking up the rest of the painting’s space. This dog must find its own meaning, and so must we. Critics and historians are mute on this haunting image.

I return to this painting several times, searching for its meaning, unsettled by the dog’s eternal loneliness. Do I see faces in the golden background? Like me, is the dog seeing these shadowy figures above–or is it a cruel trick our minds play to convince us that we are not alone and devoid of significance?


Animals Need Great Artists

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, 1638, San Diego Museum of Art

An important function of art is (and always has been) to bear witness.

The 18th century seems to have been a time in which the idea of animal rights was beginning to take root in some minds. The artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s imagery may strike us as neutral that way–neither dismissing nor advocating that animals have their own lives and legitimate perspectives.

But that the debate of animal rights was very much in the air at the time was made clear in a shocking set of prints by artist William Hogarth, The Four Stages of Cruelty from 1750-51. What a vast difference in mentalities between these two contemporaneous artists!

While Oudry was painting for his courtly patrons, Hogarth was making prints for popular distribution–visually to assert that cruelty to animals is on the same ethical continuum as cruelty to one’s own species.

Of course words can help to bear witness too, as Matthew Scully did in his recent book, Dominion, where he gains access to the hellish world of factory farms, whaling, and commercial safaris. But such books can be easily avoided. What ethicist Peter Singer points out, so rightly, is the need for artists to expose what is otherwise hidden: the 100 billion animals who suffer unspeakably in the US every year because of factory farming.

We need the vision of artists, including photographers (similar to the Depression’s Dorothea Lange) to expose the horror deliberately hidden from sight.


Problems You Never Imagined Artists Having

A friend and I took a course in conservation as part of our graduate work in art history. We had to make 3 kinds of paintings: a manuscript page, an egg tempera panel, and an oil painting. The panel was tough: you had to sand it endlessly, boil rabbit skin, coat it with red bole, sand some more, add finicky gold leaf, and paint with an egg-based tempera.

Just as we were finishing after weeks of labor, my friend came to class with a sheepish look on her face, muttering to our instructor: “You know how dogs love eggs? Well, mine licked the entire coat of egg tempera clean off the panel, so all my work has vanished.”

Now I like to think that perhaps the young, struggling Duccio once similarly slinked into his master’s workshop with the world’s first “the dog ate my homework” excuse.