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Keep ’em Coming: Dickens, da Vinci and their Works Re-Done

I’ll bet that in dull moments on rainy days, you just love to curl up in an armchair and reread your favorite passages from that well-thumbed hardback edition of Great Expectations. Maybe it has an embossed cover and falls open to your favorite passage. And I’ll bet that when you go on your annual trips to Paris you stand in blissful solitude, gazing at the peaceful visage of the Mona Lisa, considering the genius of the artist who painted it. Hmm?

Just kidding. And there’s no reason anyone should be doing either of those things. There’s a lot of reading matter out there and a lot of art.

But then why is it that when you read or hear “Great Expectation” or “The Mona Lisa,” you instantly recognize them, and can probably even say that they’re the work of Charles Dickens and Leonardo da Vinci?

Maybe because the world has smacked you over the head with with references to and reproductions of both of them repeatedly since before you were even paying attention. Yep, the Mona Lisa is arguably the most reproduced image in the world, and Great Expectations is one of the most frequently dramatized works of literature.

In 1979, Andy Warhol made a silk screen that copied Leonardo’s famous portrait out multiple times at different angels and using different colours and called it Mona Lisa: Thirty are Better Than One.

Is this true? Are thirty better than one? Whether or not you think it should be true, history seems to suggest that it is.

Check it out: since the release of the first silent film version of the 1860’s Dickens classic in 1917, there has been at least one screen version released every decade. Film versions appeared (1922, 1934, 1946, 1974, 1989, 1999), as well as made-for-TV movies and serialized TV versions (1954, 1959, 1967, 1981, 1983, 2011). Add to these several stage productions, including at least two musical versions – a 1993 version features the song “Cobwebs and Cake” among others – the 1998 modern day reimagining with Ethan Hawke and Gwenyth Paltrow and “Pip,” the South Park version.

This version follows the adventures of Magwitch in Australia. Seriously.

With the Mona Lisa it’s the same deal, only with an extra 350 years on Dickens’ novel. And in this case it’s not just movies that have adapted the work. It’s advertisements, souvenir mugs, political posters, book covers, paper masks and iPhone cases. Artists from Salvador Dali to Banksy have spoofed it. Others, such including the Russian artist Kasimir Malevich used it as elements within their own creations. And the French Modernist Marcel Duchamp took a postcard of it and wrote the French acronym for “she has a hot ass” at the bottom.

Marcel Duchamp

Even in 2012, we still aren’t over either the painting or the book. In September of this year a group of Zurich based researchers claimed that another version of the Mona Lisa previously believed to be by one of Leonardo’s followers is actually an earlier version of the painting. The jury’s still out on that one, but it still caused quite a stir. On Saturday, a new version of Great Expectations will be released in cinemas across the UK, and a prequel to the book, Havisham, will come out next month.

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So why do people keep coming back? What’s the draw? When should we stop? And has this constant revisiting lessened the value of the original works?

These are mostly questions that you have to answer yourself. As usual, I think it’s best to start by revisiting the original works.

And the short answer is we keep coming back because both works are good. OK, neither might be your favorite, but each is well done and accomplished. And on top of that, each carries the mystique of an artist who was famous in his own right. In fact, even if you took away each of these works, both Leonardo and Dickens would still be considered masters of their respective crafts.

Great Expectations is emotional and painful and exciting, even if it’s not your favorite work of fiction. Dickens is trying to tell us something real and frustrating about life and the human character.

The same sort of thing is true for The Mona Lisa. If you take a moment and really look at the painting, it’s absorbing. Stop thinking about the figure of the woman for a second and think about the background. Look at the weird craggy land and how it recedes into a kind of mist. What is this place? Where does that meandering path lead? What sort of platform or balcony is the figure sitting on? Look at the depth created by placing the smooth hands of the sitter “closest” to the us, the viewers, the texture of the hair and the soft fall of the fabric over her left shoulder

Now back in the real world, consider the fact that each has a little mystery to it — why is she smiling? and does Pip get Estella in the end? What happened to Ms Havisham? and could the smiling woman actually be Leonardo in drag?

So: a revered author’s great work plus a hint of mystery. It makes sense that people want to tap into that market, bring the works to life again, try to solve their riddles or to say something about life using the power they hold.

And that’s fine. But your job as the viewer is to make a discerning judgment about the works based on your knowledge of what the remakes are remaking. And, if you ask me, the best way to do that is to put yourself back before the art.

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One thought on “Keep ’em Coming: Dickens, da Vinci and their Works Re-Done

  1. What a superb new addition to the art world we have with this blog. It doesn’t make excessively erudite demands on the reader, and it’s got a sense of good cheer and balance.

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