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Da Vinci Masterpiece Is Japan's Eternal Sweetheart

May 29, 2000

Modèle qui se repose (Miran Fukuda)

Ask any Japanese person what the most famous painting in the world is, and chances are they will say the Mona Lisa, by the sixteenth-century master Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Though La Gioconda, the woman in the painting, has captivated people worldwide throughout the ages with her inscrutable smile, the Japanese seem to have a particularly deep affection for her.

100 Faces of the Mona Lisa
Now touring Japan is a huge exhibition titled Les 100 Sourires de Monna Lisa (The 100 Smiles of the Mona Lisa), which sets out to trace the history of the painting through the works of artists from around the world who have copied, referenced, and parodied it over the past five centuries. The exhibition includes over 100 paintings, photographs, prints, installations, and other works.

Monna Lisa in its Origin (Yasumasa Morimura)

During the 50 days the exhibition was held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, where it remained until the end of March 2000, it attracted about 110,000 visitors. A museum spokesperson expressed surprise at the exhibition's popularity. It is extremely unusual for an exhibition that showcases copies and parodies of a painting, not the original, to draw such a crowd. The exhibition is at the Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art through early June, and will move to the Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum for July and August.

According to Atsushi Miura, an assistant professor at the University of Tokyo who is overseeing the exhibition along with its French curator, Jean-Michel Ribettes, the Mona Lisa's attraction lies in the many riddles that surround the painting's subject. Art scholars have put forth various theories regarding the identity of the model and the meaning of her enigmatic expression and simple clothing, and there are many different opinions. The fact is, nobody knows the real truth. That new theories continue to crop up all the time is testament to the Mona Lisa's universal quality, which defies easy interpretation. It may also explain why the painting continues to captivate people and why it is the world's most copied work of art.

The "100 Smiles" exhibition encompasses works by artists from all over the world, including Japan. Yasumasa Morimura has embedded his self-portrait into the Mona Lisa, while Miran Fukuda has painted a reclining Mona Lisa titled Modèle qui se repose (Model Taking a Break).

The Mona Lisa in Japan
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Japan was flooded with images representing Western culture. It was at this time that Japanese people first fell for the Mona Lisa. Many Western images became the subjects of cartoon-like distortions. But judging from the "100 Smiles" exhibition, copies and caricatures of the Mona Lisa by Japanese artists show more respect for the original than those by artists from other places.

Japanese artists have a longstanding relationship with this portrait. Gyoran Kannon, a work by Kanzan Shimomura, a leading painter of the Meiji period (1868-1912), is clearly patterned after the Mona Lisa. (This painting does not appear in the "100 Smiles" exhibition.) And in his novel Shinju (Joint Suicide), Meiji-era author Ogai Mori describes the enigmatic expression of one female character as a "Mona Lisa smile."

Miura of the University of Tokyo calls the Mona Lisa "one of the Western paintings most admired by the Japanese since the Meiji era," and Japan's romantic feelings for the Mona Lisa never seem to fade.

The Mona Lisa's Influence
The "100 Smiles" exhibition does not include the actual Mona Lisa. The original painting did, however, come to Japan in the spring of 1974. After being displayed at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park, the painting returned, by way of Moscow, to Paris, where it has remained in the Louvre museum ever since. France has designated the painting a national treasure.

Some 1.51 million visitors streamed through the turnstiles to see the 1974 Mona Lisa Exhibition, a record for art exhibitions in Japan that has yet to be broken. That same year, a succession of restaurants and teahouses bearing the name "Mona Lisa" opened for business.

Perhaps because of the "100 Smiles" exhibition, there has been a new flare-up of Mona Lisa fever in Japan this millennium year. A TV drama called Mona Lisa no Bisho (Mona Lisa Smile) aired from January through March. It is a mysterious coincidence that the "100 Smiles" exhibition and the TV drama appeared at about the same time. This mysterious coincidence is enough to put a Mona Lisa smile on the face of any La Gioconda admirer.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.