‘MONA LISA TO MARGE, How the World’s Greatest Artworks Entered Popular Culture’ examines examples from Antiquity to mid 20th Century (the last one comes from 1964) of 30 art works that have become part of the canon. The authors Francesca Bonazzoli and Michelle Robecchi capture the making of an icon in each case by introducing captivating, often surprising, stories of the works.

In the preface written by Maurizio Catellan, who doesn’t believe in the sacredness of image, we read:

Perhaps not all of the artists in this book would be proud to see their work reproduced on mugs or slippers, but this is basically how they achieved immortality. Mass society has adopted these masterpieces and transformed them into advertising campaigns and merchandise. This is how they become familiar, a public and everyday legacy. It's like taking a phrase overheard in conversation and repeating it in a different context. It’s a question of language, a journey in which ongoing exchanges of information enrich every stage.

If entering the popular imagination results for art works in enrichment or trivialization it’s disputable and depends highly on the context or the final result, the way the authors describe the mechanisms of becoming a recognisable part of popular culture is absorbing and tells a lot about visual sphere in general. There are numerous factors why an art work transforms into an icon. Mona Lisa became famous after it was stolen and recovered in 1911. Hokusai’s woodcut print The Great Wave emerged thanks to the fact that the Impressionists were fascinated by the Japoonisme and popularised it. The beautiful portrait of a girl with a pearl earring painted by Vermeer wouldn’t have been noticed if not Tracy Chevalier’s novel fantasizing on the relationship between the model and the painter. Luncheon on the grass gained popularity after Manet was refused to display it at the Salon. Warhol’s Factory conquered modern imagination having artist’s eccentric personality as a weapon. “The recipe of success is complicated” – remarks Bonazzoli and she points out a fundamental role of the revolution of the 1960s with its mass production and the wake of consumerist culture. “It was during the 1960s, when there was an explosion in consumer goods, that they give and take between advertising and art became truly circular, with art appropriating advertising in turn.” This exciting dialogue last till today causing often heated discussions.

“The painting’s value as an icon can be measured precisely through the multiplicity of interpretations and meanings, whether popular, political, or epistemological, and with varying levels of accessibility.”  (Francesca Bonazzoli) Some reincarnations of art works can result either in playful use of ideas or trivializing and oversimplifying them. I’ve just bought myself a tote bag featuring Andy Warhol’s flowers (the collaboration between MoMA NY and Uniqlo) and I really enjoy a good concept and nice implementation, which is also a case of the book published by Prestel. Enjoyable read, making aware of many mechanisms of visual culture. 


MONA LISA TO MARGE, How the World’s Greatest Artworks Entered Popular Culture, Francesca Bonazzoli, Michelle Robecchi, Preface by Maurizio Cattelan, Prestel