Appropriation of Renaissance Art in Contemporary Art
I’m about to drop some knowledge on you that might shatter your preconceptions about art history, so I’ll give you a second to prepare.
The Renaissance wasn’t some great, completely unprecedented period in history. It’s all based on stuff that happened about a thousand years before the earliest Renaissance artists were even born. There, now you know. But hey, thanks to the Renaissance, art was able to advance as if it had never been interrupted by the limitations of the Dark Ages (but that’s a conversation for another post). Even though artists today do crazy things that seem to have no basis in the otherwise fluid progression of art history (e.g. feces as an art supply), the Renaissance is still super relevant. An artistic technique called “appropriation” allows artists to use familiar Renaissance art in Contemporary art.
Take, for example, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa: it was painted around 1503, but that famous face has been popping up in art ever since; to a much lesser extent, the same goes for Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, painted even earlier in 1486. Let’s look at some examples.
Here are the originals for reference. Mona is on the left, Venus on the right.
Modern and Contemporary Artists Appropriate Mona Lisa
Marcel Duchamp, LHOOQ (1919)
First, let’s look at Marcel Duchamp‘s Dada piece LHOOQ from 1919. Not contemporary art, per se, but whatever, it’s an important piece of art and I’m gonna show it to you anyway. Mr. Duchamp and his Dadaist comrades were into adding elements of absurdity to their art, and I think this piece nicely sums up the movement. Mona Lisa is widely regarded as one of the finest pieces of art ever, and Duchamp decided to slap a mustache on it, thereby reviving it for a new audience 400 years later. And in case you were wondering about the title, it’s a play on words in French: when you say “L-H-O-O-Q” out loud, it sounds like you’re saying “She has a fine ass” in French (“Elle a chaud au cul“).
Banksy, Mona Lisa Shows Her Bum (2000s)
Speaking of Mona Lisa and her reportedly prefect posterior, here we have a piece by world-renowned street artist Banksy. Since we can’t actually see Mona’s behind in Leonardo’s original painting (a huge oversight on his part, in my opinion), Banksy’s done us the service of imagining it up for us.
Lillian Schwartz, Mona/Leo (1987)
In non-butt-related Mona Lisa news, contemporary artist who work in digital media also make use of that famous face. Lillian Schwartz, one of the pioneers of computer-based art, investigated the resemblance between Leonardo and Mona Lisa in a piece from 1987 called Mona/Leo. She took one of Leonardo’s late self-portraits and juxtaposed it with the Mona Lisa by way of digital manipulation to achieve a pretty cool and thought-provoking result.
Matt Sheridan Smith, On the parameters of an image… (2009)
Matt Sheridan Smith, another digital artist, played with Mona’s appearance in his comprehensively-titled On the parameters of an image, literal and otherwise, in four parts (brightness, halftone, hue/saturation, contrast) from 2009. Smith used some pretty basic photo-manipulation techniques you can find in image editors as rudimentary as the one in Microsoft Word to completely alter the way we perceive Mona Lisa.
The Birth of Venus in Contemporary Art
Alright, enough about Mona. I promised you Botticelli, so I will give you Botticelli…Okay, so maybe it’s only one example, but it’s a damn fine and important example of an artist appropriating Renaissance art in Contemporary art. You know Andy Warhol, right?
Andy Warhol, Birth of Venus (1984)
Warhol got pretty famous for turning commodities and celebrities into art, but his Birth of Venus from 1984 flips the formula by turning art into celebrity. Warhol used the exact same style he had used in his Marilyn and Jackie series, placing the ancient mythological goddess on the same level as those 60s idols. It totally helps that Botticelli already gave Venus the disaffected, vacant-eyed celebrity look.
As genius as a lot of Renaissance artists were, they were totally ripping off the Classics, and contemporary artists have no shame in doing the same thing with Renaissance art. Next time you’re browsing a collection of new art, keep an eye out for appropriation of Renaissance art in Contemporary art. Which piece is your favorite? Have you ever seen this kind of thing before? Are you totally tired of Mona Lisa’s smug face? Because I am. Let’s talk it out in the comments below.