Aaron T Stephan has drawn the Vermeer painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring” about 10,000 times. “I bet I could do it right now with my eyes closed,” the Portland artist said. “I’ve almost trained my body to do it without thinking about it.”
Stephan’s copy of the painting is part of an experimental exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art that’s designed to engage visitors in nontraditional ways. Stephan’s piece, formally titled “Girl with a Pearl Earring – Tangled in Process,” is on view with Andy Warhol’s “Mao” and the museum’s copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”
The show, “Me, Mona, and Mao: Art, Fame, and Visual Culture,” explores the unlikely relationships among these three works, the traditions of copying in the art world and the celebrity of image. On view on the museum’s third floor, the small show is part of the PMA’s museum-wide effort to reach visitors in different ways, experiment with narratives and create relationships among artworks that appear unrelated.
This exhibition should spur participation, with visitors encouraged to make their own drawings of “Mona Lisa” and to talk about the art on camera so other visitors can hear what everyday folks think about it. More important, the idea is just to get people to talk and ask questions, said Jennifer DePrizio, who directs the museum’s education efforts.
It’s no longer enough for museums to hang art and expect people to come see it, she said. Museums are obligated to begin conversations about how different pieces of art relate to each other and how something made in Portland in the early 21st century makes sense alongside a copy of a painting made in Italy in the 1500s. Doing so brings the story behind the art to the forefront and provides context, enriching the experience for visitors.
“Traditionally, museums present information and let people do what they want with it, and we don’t invite their voice in,” DePrizio said. “We want visitors to complete this exhibition. You look and we pose questions, and it’s more about posing questions than giving answers.”
Thus the name, “Me, Mona, and Mao.” The “me” part of the exhibition is far more important than the other two, DePrizio said, because “me” represents the first-person experience of viewers. “We need to have people come in and be a part of the conversation with the museum, even questioning how we as a museum make decisions about putting works on view and why these three are on view together,” she said.
The answers to those questions lie in the history of the pieces themselves.
We’ll start with the copy of “Mona Lisa” by an unknown artist, although the museum sometimes attributes it to da Vinci. It is titled “La Gioconda,” and may be a preparatory study for the “Mona Lisa” by da Vinci or a copy by one of his assistants or admirers. Henry H. Reichhold, a summer resident of Prouts Neck, gave the painting to the museum in 1983. Conservators determined the painting was made before 1510. The “Mona Lisa” that hangs at the Louvre in Paris was made between 1503 and 1507. They could not confirm da Vinci’s involvement in the painting but noted similarities, including a left-handed brushstroke.
Artists have historically copied famous paintings as part of their education and training. The “Mona Lisa” on view in Paris is one of the most copied works of art in history. The copy owned by the PMA directly reflects the original, and with obvious differences: It has a richer background, creating a relationship between the subject and her landscape, and it’s painted on canvas instead of panel.
Andy Warhol’s “Mao” from 1972 is the artist’s attempt to contextualize the Chinese leader in pop culture. For many years, a single photo of Mao was used to depict him. Warhol transformed the image into silkscreen prints, and in doing so raised questions about fame and the use of images to perpetuate image in contemporary culture.
Stephan’s piece, from 2012, combines elements of the other two. The piece demonstrates Stephan’s interest in making pictures that refer to other artists and images, while appropriating pop culture in such a way that it alters our ideas of the original artwork.
He chose “Girl with a Pearl Earring” because it’s such an iconic image and has been so widely reproduced that when we see an image of it, we often don’t think of the original painting. Its pop-culture afterlife has become bigger than the painting itself.
“I had been doing quite a few of these drawings previously, and all of them dealt with taking an iconic painting that had some meaning to me and repeating it over and over and over. At a certain point, I settled on ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ because it’s an image you have seen. You may have seen the painting or an image of the painting on a mug or a calendar. Around that time, they had the movie with the same name with Scarlett Johansson, and so you may have seen that too.”
He made it for a solo show at the PMA. His piece began as an etching. He substituted the image of Johansson from the movie as a stand-in for Vermeer’s model, further making the point that the image has taken on meaning since Vermeer created the original in the 17th century.
Stephan is curious how his piece will stand up alongside the others.
“It’s an interesting juxtaposition,” Stephan said. “I’m really curious to see how these three pieces interact.”
So is Andrew Eschelbacher, the museum’s assistant curator of European art. “We want to see what happens when we put three distinct works of art together that at first blush don’t appear as typical exhibition fodder,” he said. “What can we learn?”
He called the exhibition an experiment. If people respond – if they ask questions, express their opinions – “Me, Mona, and Mao” could provide a template for future installations, he said.