Why Did "Mona Lisa" Become an Icon?: New Book Examines How History's Most Famous Images Went Viral

Why Did "Mona Lisa" Become an Icon?: New Book Examines How History's Most Famous Images Went Viral
Pascal Cotte, "Mona Lisa digitalmente restaurada", 2009
(Cortesia Pascal Cotte)

What turns a painting, or a design, or an everyday consumer object into a cultural touchstone capable of lasting in the popular consciousness across generations? This is the question addressed by Oxford art historian Martin Kemp’s latest book, “Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon,” published by his longtime collaborators Oxford University Press.

The illustrated book is a departure for Kemp, a Leonardo da Vinci scholar celebrated for his X-marks-the-spot discoveries of lost masterpieces — most famously Leonardo’s so-called “Bella Principessa.” (He played a role in rediscovering the great “Salvator Mundi,” too, which is now the star of the blockbuster Leonardo show in London.) But Kemp, an expert in scientific history who also writes a regular column for Nature magazine, has an extraordinarily broad purview, and his new book is a nice synthesis of the many hats that he has worn.

Intended for a popular readership, “Christ to Coke” is easy to read, written in a thoughtful but conversational style (thankfully avoiding jargon that can be off-putting to lay readers), and loaded with gorgeous images. Over the course of the book, Kemp discusses how an image — either a single image, like the “Mona Lisa,” or a basic image format, like the cross — becomes iconic, gaining international recognition far outside the confines of its initially intended constituency.

The approach is a series of relatively short mini-monographs on the following: Christ, the Christian cross, the heart, the lion, “Mona Lisa,” Che Guevara, Nick Ut’s indelible Vietnam photograph “Villagers Fleeing along Route I,” the stars and stripes, the Coke bottle, the double-helix shape of DNA, and the equation E=MC2. This may seem at first like a random assortment, and Kemp says at the outset that the book is not intended as a scholarly piece. Those wishing for something more rigorous (or more footnoted) should look elsewhere. But those curious about how images “go viral,” to borrow a contemporary term, will find themselves hooked.

Each “icon” is presented alongside a mini-biography of the image, often relating the key moment, either intentional or unintentional, when the image escaped the confines of its time and place. And, as Kemp explains, “The accumulation of myth is in direct proportion to the fame of the icon.” It is easy to understand how as Christianity spread, images of Christ and the cross spread with it. Other images answer the unspoken call for an icon around which to rally.

The myth of Betsy Ross creating the first flag (history suggests that she created an early flag, but not the original, nor the design for the original) is an appealing American story of generations uniting behind a common cause — of a little old lady from Philadelphia crossing paths with the great George Washington and putting her stamp indelibly on a corner of American history. The original American flag in fact had the stars decked out in the form of a constellation (not a circle nor evenly scattered as they appear today), but that didn’t catch on.

The equation E=MC2 is recognizable even to those who don’t know what E, M, or C stand for. It has become a catchall for the glories of theoretical science, mathematics, and physics, associated with Einstein but otherwise rarely linked to its real meaning. As for the print of Che Guevara — to this day taken as a standard by revolutionaries around the world, as well as peevish college students — itself was taken from a photograph by Alberto Korda. Kemp deftly explains how a cropped photograph became a screen print, and how those who identify with it often know nothing of Che Guevara other than his name — and would be surprised to learn that, by his own account, he was a nasty executioner who took pleasure in dealing death and pain, facts that Kemp notes were carefully edited out of the films about Che’s life, but appear in his own diary.

Some of the specific choices might be seen as random. I had been unfamiliar with the Nick Ut image that Kemp chose as his iconic work of photography, and was surprised that it was selected above even other Vietnam photos that are more widely known, at least among my post-Vietnam generation. (Edward Adams’s harrowing “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon” is the one that immediately came to my mind.) But Kemp’s “biography” of the image is enlightening, and he makes a good case for his selection.

Kemp is at his best, unsurprisingly, with his concise but enlightening chapter on the “Mona Lisa.” This is a topic that Kemp could be forgiven for feeling that he’s gone over once too often. But this book’s format, adopting the tone and approachability of a public lecture, allowed him some new freedom and insights, and will tide over those who appreciate his Leonardo scholarship until he finishes the next book he’s working on — a book called “Living With Leonardo,” a memoir of his career deciphering the Renaissance master.

Noah Charney is a best-selling author and professor of art history. He writes a regular column for ARTINFO, “The Secret History of Art.” His latest book is “The Thefts of the Mona Lisa.”