Mona Lisa, Revisited: History’s Symbol and Muse

Naoto Nakagawa, paintings from the “Mona Lisa Series” (2017–19), acrylic on canvas, each piece 30 x 21 inches, the same dimensions as those of the original “Mona Lisa” (c.1503–19) by Leonardo da Vinci (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Japanese-born, New York-based artist Naoto Nakagawa has been thinking about human thinking for a long time, both deliberately, through focused reading and research, and spontaneously, often in reaction to the unpredictable news of the day.

Nakagawa, who grew up in Takarazuka, a town near the port cities of Osaka and Kobe in south-central Japan, first came to New York as a young man in 1962 to study and pursue a career as an artist. He stayed in the United States and made the city his home. Just a few years ago, as he explained during a series of interviews conducted at his downtown Manhattan studio, he created his Earth Series, a group of about 15, mostly large-format, acrylic-on-canvas pictures. Their subject matter, which he depicted in his signature, realist style — stars, planets, and galactic cascades of flowers or swarms of monarch butterflies — collectively called attention to the vastness of space and time, and to the presence of the Earth, its inhabitants, and the larger galaxy of which they are a part within a greater, unfathomable universe.

Subsequently, since 2017, Nakagawa has been developing a new group of thematically related paintings that, as he tells it, emerged unexpectedly out of his work on the earlier one. Now, in this Mona Lisa Earth Series, the painter puts its central, mysteriously grinning, easily recognizable subject through a ringer of styles and technical treatments, as well as symbolic uses, in complex images whose ambitious artistic and intellectual reach echoes that of his earlier pictures. Each of these new acrylic-on-canvas paintings is exactly the size of Leonard da Vinci’s original Mona Lisa, which is on permanent display at the Louvre Museum in Paris — 30 inches high by 21 inches wide.

The artist Naoto Nakagawa in his studio in downtown Manhattan, spring 2019, with paintings from the “Mona Lisa Series” (2017–19), acrylic on canvas, each piece 30 x 21 inches

However, if Nakagawa’s Earth Series aimed to capture a sense of the ineffable — to prompt viewers’ awareness of the nature of consciousness itself — his newer Mona Lisa paintings, rather than reach for the sublime, more often rummage through the cupboards and drawers of the messy, human mundane.

Over the past several months, Nakagawa generously allowed this visitor into his studio to observe his creative process and watch as some of the complex compositions in the Mona Lisa Earth Series evolved and found their form. Referring both to their broader thematic concerns and to the approach he now takes as a mature, experienced painter, he said, “They’re about life, philosophy, and what we are searching for — and about finding that for which we are searching.”

The character of the art he is making nowadays, he noted, as well as the attitude he brings to creating it, “is not about optimism or about tragedy; it’s just about being alive.” He said, “It’s about being, and I think that’s where my state of mind is right now. I see things so much more clearly, and that’s important to me.” For Nakagawa, “seeing” means comprehending what he perceives in and about the world — those things to which he bears witness.

Naoto Nakagawa, “Mona Lisa Series: Gun and Silence” (2018), acrylic on canvas, 30 x 21 inches

He recalled, “With the Earth Series, I began focusing on the theme of human endeavor, of our human history — where we came from, where we’re going. I was interested in the origins of the universe and of humanity, and in the health of the Earth. After all, in the past, in a related way, a lot of my work had depicted nature.” He added, “I painted satellites and the Hubble Space Telescope, because they represent the kinds of tools we use today to search for information and truth” — at a time, he noted, when the very notion of truth is disputed.

Nakagawa’s Earth Series quotes such well-known images from Western art history as Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” (completed circa 1511-12), Titian’s “The Rape of Europa” (1562), and even Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” (1912) to evoke a sense of humanity’s perseverance in the face of timeless natural forces. With his Mona Lisa Earth Series, he also notably refers to Western art history — but his collage-like compositions also bring together a myriad of different sources, from ancient Egyptian pyramids and atomic-bomb mushroom clouds to Madonna performing in her cone bra. References to the 11th-century Chinese ink-wash painter Guo Xi and to James Montgomery Flagg’s iconic “I Want You” U.S. Army recruitment poster also appear in these new works. Nakagawa has indicated that he would like to produce a total of 100 paintings in the still-unfolding Mona Lisa Earth Series.

Naoto Nakagawa, “Mona Lisa Series: Hello, A.I.” (2017), acrylic on canvas, 30 x 21 inches

Among the canvases he has completed so far, “Gun and Silence” (2018) features Mona Lisa surrounded by clouds, with a big pistol aiming at her chest and an adaptation of a well-known news photo of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, walking in arms-to-shoulders, single-file formation following the mass shooting that took place there last year. In “Hello, A.I.” (2017), robots flank a Mona Lisa whose skin has taken on the look of lush vegetation, while the mechanical creatures’ eyes, set at the same height as hers, suggest, Nakagawa hinted, an equivalence between them and their human makers.

“Touching Deep Space” (2018), with its melting Salvador Dalí clock, shows Leonardo’s enigmatic sitter emerging like a celestial apparition among the stars and planets, with a painted QR Code that links to the website of the Hubble Space Telescope. The mountainous landscape in the background of “Double Your Pleasure” (2018) comes from a Guo Xi painting; the artist has also included a dinosaur (a tyrannosaurus) and three playful young people, painted twice, who give the picture its title, which comes from the old advertising tag line for Wrigley’s Doublemint chewing gum.

If the wide range of subjects that appear in the Mona Lisa pictures seems like just another postmodernist pastiche, Nakagawa would argue that, together, they represent the totality of the history of the human mind and spirit — and the prospects for its next chapters to come.

Naoto Nakagawa, “Mona Lisa Series: Touching Deep Space” (2018), acrylic on canvas, 30 x 21 inches

“As soon as I made the first paintings featuring Mona Lisa, I knew that I had found a powerful thematic tool,” he recalled. “I felt that I could speak through her, and that she could become a symbol of who we are as humans.”

Nakagawa refers to his mode of painting as “conceptual realism.” Each of his new works is, of course, an essay in what a contemporary painting can be — in what it can address and what it can say, and in how it may convey its messages. Nakagawa cites his close friend, the late, Japanese-born conceptual artist On Kawara (1932-2014), who became well known for his paintings of single dates rendered in white lettering against black backgrounds and for sending postcards to his friends reminding them, in simple phrases, of his existence.

“Just as Kawara’s works amounted to a record of his daily encounter with existence, for me, my Mona Lisa series has become my own personal kind of journal,” Nakagawa observed.

Naoto Nakagawa, “Mona Lisa Series: Double Your Pleasure” (2018), acrylic on canvas, 30 x 21 inches

Examining his sketches for works in progress, whose imagery had been plucked from recent headlines (and literally depicted some newspapers’ front pages), and also included a burning sun, an aardvark, and the justices of the US Supreme Court, he seemed to savor his effort to pack as much into his new paintings as each one can hold. “Maybe I have something to say right now about this world, this universe, this big jumble of ideas, history and information,” he said modestly, both questioning and affirming his current enterprise.

But will 100 canvases be enough to accommodate the symbolic-aesthetic workout through which he is putting his ever-smiling subject and muse?

Nakagawa put down his pencil, counted the Mona Lisa canvases he had produced so far, and replied, “Well, maybe I’ll have to make as many as 1000!”

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