Very few paintings have preoccupied, amazed, and infuriated the art world more than Leonardo da Vinci’s La Gioconda, or the Mona Lisa. The reasons for the painting’s popularity range from the mystique surrounding da Vinci’s persona, to the mastery of his technique, to the controversy over its theft from the musée du Louvre more than one hundred years ago. The simplest, and also my favorite, explanation attributes Mona Lisa’s fame to her smile. A surprising, enigmatic half-smile in a Renaissance-era painting when portraits were a nobleman’s luxury and smiles were only depicted on drunkards and buffoons.
In fact, up until the late 1800s the Victorian rules of portraiture and stoicism dominated both painting and photography. Having one’s picture taken was a formal affair, and that, combined with the technical limitations imposed by long exposure times and the deplorable state of oral hygiene, made our ancestors look like dull, grim, extremely unhappy individuals. Even Mark Twain, one of American literature’s wittiest authors, believed that ‘a photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.’
It would take one invention, one man, and one very catchy marketing campaign to change all that forever:
In 1888 George Eastman founded a company called Kodak and commercialized dry plate photography, a novel technique that radically simplified the film development process. A few decades later, the company launched an advertising campaign for its 1$ Brownie Camera in an effort to popularize instant photography among the American middle class. The commercials featured snapshots of people in everyday scenes wearing delighted grins, and the tag line read: ‘These are the moments. Kodak moments.’
The campaign was so successful that camera sales went through the roof and the phrase ‘a Kodak moment’ became a neologism meaning a situation or event so perfect that it should be preserved forever.
Today, Kodak moments are at the heart of happy-go-lucky Western culture, from our instagrammed Starbucks frappuccinos to our thousand-time liked duckface uploads on Facebook. Every aspect of our lives - our bodies, our careers, our marriages, our secret-recipe chocolate raspberry soufflés - is carefully engineered into picture perfect moments and then smilingly uploaded for our ‘friends,’ the world, and posterity all to see that we are happy.
There is a scene in the movie ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ in which Kirsten Dunst, her perfect marriage collapsing around her, looks at an image of the Mona Lisa and says:
‘She’s smiling. Is she happy?
She looks happy, so what does it matter?’
We are not perfect. We cannot all be thin, we will not all be rich, and not everyone can bake. Lovers will cheat, the economy will falter, cellulite will appear. At some point, in front of or behind the camera, we will fail. And that realization terrifies us.
Atelophobia: the fear of ‘not being enough.’
And so we try harder. We beat ourselves up over everything that is out of our control: We bite our nails. We smoke. We kiss strangers in bars and down tubs of ice cream at two o’clock in the morning. We cut and we take pills. We develop eating disorders, drug and alcohol addictions. And we pray no one ever finds out; it isn’t exactly Kodak moment material.
Rock legend Elton John began struggling with drugs, alcohol, and bulimia in the 1970s. It was around that time, in 1972, that he composed and recorded his favorite song: ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.’ Lyricist Bernie Taupin apparently wrote the words after a gun went off near his hotel window during his first visit to New York City. There is no single interpretation to this sad song’s cryptic lyrics, so I will let you draw out your own:
While Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters
Sons of bankers, sons of lawyers
Turn around and say good morning to the night,
For unless they see the sky
But they can't and that is why
They know not if it's dark outside or light.
Of course, back then very few people knew just how much the singer was suffering. He seemed to have it all: fame, critical acclaim, talent, and wealth. But one unlikely person did know the truth: Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. She never judged; she was bulimic too.
A people’s princess and a knighted homosexual rock and roll star. A Mona Lisa and a Mad Hatter.
Life is hard, whatever the battle each of us is fighting. The greatest battles are the silent ones. And yes we will be brave, and we will try. And we will fail, and it will hurt. And then we will try again, and smile for the picture, for we are so much more than our failures.
Most people will not understand. But this post is not for them anyway. It is for those who have loved me in between Kodak moments. Like you mon chéri.
I thank the Lord there's people out there like you.
– Elton John, from the song.