Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Mona Lisa - Leonardo's Enigmatic Smile

*In 1956, US psychologist Leon Festinger became instantly famous by giving us "cognitive dissonance" - the theory that humans could not tolerate two conflicting perceptions; one would have to go!

Besides the possibility that Mona was probably Leonardo's lover and the fact that she has no eyebrows, she is also possibly one hell of a bitch because she presents a problem that begs to be answered by many men: "How does she know where I am?"

May I present - The Mona Lisa. Leonardo's enigmatic smile. A work of art that challenges our perceptions.

The Mona Lisa is a portrait where the object in the art is NOT supposed to be the point of view.

Looking at her eyes as she looks at me, I notice that I cannot focus on any particular eye whilst observing them as a pair.

Her gaze is directed at me but looking past me, to somewhere beyond. Each time I look at her eyes as if to engage her in conversation, I discover that I can never be far enough away from her or close enough to her. There seems not to be a place where her focal point meets my attention.

In fact, her gaze makes me feel uneasy.

It is not the uncomfortable feeling left by her knowing, cheeky smile and the false comfort it leaves, but the discomfort I feel because I am unable to focus on her gaze.

I keep flicking my eyes back and forth between her eyes as if trying to get her attention.

So I decide that the portrait delivers its message in two ways and for two different reasons. I am overwhelmed by the physical challenge and compromised by the mental perception of reality presented to me by her gaze.

Whilst watching her face I am almost hypnotized to dream, because my attention will never hold while I am so busy trying to get her attention. That is what is so enigmatic. The painting attracts me because I keep trying to get HER attention instead of giving her MINE.

To actually look at her face I need to try to locate the viewing triangle of body language - the familiar habit of looking at a person's face during conversation, that is, the inverted facial pyramid of eyes-nose-mouth.

But then I notice the unreality of the situation. I am trying to engage in dialogue with this woman and I am not able to get her attention. Does not this seem a strange way to look at a painting?

Yes it is, and that is exactly why Leonardo painted it like that - to compromise your sensibilities.

As I look at the portrait, I keep trying to get her attention, but the way she gazes back at me makes my eyeballs flick left and right as I constantly try to make eye contact.

By merely observing the portrait, I am drawn into a semi-conscious spiral of awareness that flips me back and forth between EMOTION and REACTION, and that demanding mental exercise continually threatens to break my concentration.

Which of course, begs the question. How did Leonardo paint the eyes to send such a powerful message?

The answer lies within the realm of geometry!

Here is how he did it!

The pair of eyes is actually composed of two pair of eyes. Each eye is seen as one of a pair, but not belonging to the pair in the painting. They belong to TWO pair of eyes but they do not belong with each other.

The portrait is painted as if the model posed twice, on each occasion looking in the same direction but with a different point of focus. It is as if she first looks at Leonardo and then focuses on a point just short of him, and then switches her gaze to focus on a point just past him.

The artist then composes the face as a left/right montage of the eyes.

The eyes seem to look in my direction but also seem to look neither beyond me or before me. The instant I try to discover how she is looking at me, my attention is diverted as I try to look for her point of view and and ask of just where or what is her focus.

I begin to feel that she is not quite looking at me and I become worried as to why I cannot seem to get her attention. In fact, the portrait has got my attention because the observer becomes the observed. It is the paradox of this point of view that my mind tries to reconcile.

It is impossible for me to be physically far enough from, or close enough to the portrait to be in a position to look at the focus in her pair of eyes.

The enigmatic smile is a puzzle, a conundrum. The perfect cognitive dissonance.

It confuses my perceptions and it prompts me to ask myself where I must be positioned to actually be within the focal distance of her gaze at the moment she sees me.

The question of the puzzle is to consider 'points of view' as perceived by the artist:

* The eyes seem to follow me because each of them is looking elsewhere.

* The difficulty of perception is that I cannot look at her or into her eyes as I would a live person and that she is purposely depicted in this manner.

* The observer must keep moving, physically and mentally, to or from the picture in order to meet her gaze (is she looking 'this' way or 'that' way)?

The method to solving the puzzle is:

* The observer must find the POSITION of the ARTIST as he was when he painted. That is, the exact place he was when he caught her focus.

The answer to the puzzle is another question:

* How far away from the picture hanging on the wall do I have to be to catch the gaze of both eyes simultaneously?

That is why the portrait is so small - Leonardo is observing HER catch HIS attention from a great distance.

The observer is me. I am the point of view and Mona Lisa is asking where I am!