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Home » Challenge #12 The Art of Appropriation and Parody II

Challenge #12 The Art of Appropriation and Parody II

In the previous challenge we have seen artists taking over well-known paintings to express new ideas. And art directors hijacking works for advertising purposes to convey their message more effectively.

Why not then apply such a process to create your own style? Or simply take the appropriation out of its artistic domain by inviting it into the public space or into your plate?

But which work to choose? What is the potential of a well know art work in terms of hijacking?

During this new journey, we will focus on works that are often diverted, wondering why and how the artists proceed. Among them, the Mona Lisa and the birth of Venus. It will also be an opportunity to discover some particularities of our visual system.

All of this is done in order to come up with new creations in which a few tricks will have been integrated. Color will of course be our ally.

Result of Challenge #12 “Michal in Pierre and Gilles style” (cc-by-sa V.Lacroix)

Why is the Mona Lisa so fascinating?

The Mona Lisa is popular for her smile, the legend that surrounds her, and as the creation of a Renaissance genius, Leonardo da Vinci. Three good reasons to transform the painting.

Its legend was partly forged around the mystery of its disappearance from the Louvre in 1911. An incredible story that will travel around the world. The thief, an Italian glazier whose job was to protect the museum’s most beautiful works, kept it hidden for two years before offering it to an antique dealer on his return to Italy. The police were alerted and the painting was returned to the Louvre in 1914. So for three years, despite the general mobilization to find it, only a nail testified to the existence of the painting. Only one art work was missing and the Louvre was depopulated.

Her enigmatic smile might be the result of a conflict of interpretation between the different paths taken by the visual information passing through our brain. A little scientific diversion.

Different vision systems

In the Challenge #8 devoted to the colors of the night, I mentioned the difference between day and night vision systems. In addition to the fact that it does not distinguish colors, the night system has less sharpness.

On the other hand, the acuity of the daytime system is not uniform on the retina. In fact, we see much more details in the area we are looking at than in the periphery; it is only by changing the point of attention that we are able to reconstruct our environment with precision.

Our brain therefore receives two pieces of information at the same time: a fine description of what is in the center of the image and a coarser description of the periphery. Both types of information are transmitted through different pathways in the brain.

Leonardo da Vinci, “Mona Lisa” (around 1517)

According to neuro-biologist Margaret Livingstone, this is where the mystery of the Mona Lisa’s smile lies. Look into the Mona Lisa’s eyes, the rest of her face becomes blurred, and you see a broad smile (see the photograph on the left below). Look at the mouth: her rather sad pout will contradict the previously conceived feeling (see the picture on the right). The fact that the perceived expression varies according to the distance from the painting and the point of view would make it intriguing.

On the left: the face of Mona Lisa as seen by the peripheral visual system; on the right the fine details are seen from the central visual system and in the middle a representation of what the average system sees (courtesy of Margaret Livingstone)
Leonardo da Vinci, “Saint John the Baptist” (between 1513 and 1516)

The smile of Saint John the Baptist, however, although just as charming, does not have this particularity when looked at closely. Judge for yourself.

Mona Lisa transformations

Were there any appropriation of the Mona Lisa of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) before that of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)? Not to my knowledge, but since the artist adorned it in 1919 with a moustache, a bear and the letters “L.H.O.O.Q.” (which reads in French “Elle (L) a chaud (HO) au (O) cul (Q) ” – literally: She’s Hot on her Ass), the whole world has been working on it.

Mona Lisa and advertising

Among all these appropriations, here are four that have been taken up by advertising. All of them take up Leonardo’s palette. The first of “” proclaims “Nevermore single” and associates Mona Lisa with a man strangely resembling Saint John the Baptist. The second from the Italian foundation ANT says that “Tumors change life, not its value”. The third, an initiative of a museum for the blind, encourages people to touch the works on display – but certainly not the Mona Lisa painting!

Three hijackings of the Mona Lisa seized by the advertisement

Appropriating one or more works of art in one’s own style is an additional feat.

Artistic director Marco Sodano achieved this in an advertising campaign for Lego. Discover here and there all the portraits he transformed in this way. Pixelization using legos respects the original palette while reducing it to a strict minimum. This process exploits the ability of the visual system to recognize faces despite the little information available.

Marco Sodano, The Mona Lisa in Lego (2014) (courtesy of the artist)

The Mona Lisa in Rubik cube

The street artist Invader (born in 1969) has been installing mosaics on the walls of Paris since 1996 and soon on those of the whole world. More than an appropriation, the artist conceives his work as an invasion, like a virus he wants to spread, making art accessible to all. The tile becomes pixel, the image seems to come out of a video game. Well inscribed in reality, it settles on a planetary scale.

After having taken possession of the public space, Invader hijacks the Rubik cube to invent a new style: “Rubikcubism”. This is how his first object paintings were born. Like Banksy, after conquering the street, the artist seduces the galleries. In February 2020 his version of the Mona Lisa was sold at auction for €480,000.

Invader, The Mona Lisa in Rubik cubes (2005)
Acturial: video of the announcement of the sale of the Mona Lisa in Rubik cube by Invader

Rubikcubism is limited by the colors of the cube. Nothing to do with the Mona Lisa’s initial palette. And yet it is recognizable.

If the hue is not respected, the lightness is relatively faithful: the dark tones of the painting are associated with blue, the darkest color of the cube. The very light tones logically become white. Next in order of lightness come yellow and then orange. Finally, in fairly close spacing, red and green follow.

Clarity is the most important property for our visual system. It is sufficient to convey essential information. The Fauvist and Expressionist painters knew this: they did not hesitate to put blue or green on faces where dark tones were to exist, thus making volume and lighting plausible. But here the demonstration is even more powerful: with only six levels of brightness Invader succeeds in making us see Mona Lisa!

The birth of Venus

The birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) is also one of the must-haves of artistic hijacking.

Sandro Botticelli, “The Birth of Venus” (ca. 1485)

The painter François Boisrond (born in 1959) has appropriated a series of paintings by transforming them in a very personal style. Although far removed from the original works his creations seem familiar and new at the same time. Brighter colors, a simplified facture and a graphic writing give a youthful touch to Moïse saved from the River by Poussin, to The Luncheon on the Grass by Manet (as you know, so inspiring for hijacking!), to Diane Charesse (from the school of Fontainebleau), and to The birth of Venus shown below.

François Boisrond, “Françoise en Vénus” (1994) (courtesy of the artist)

Artist-photographer Frieke Janssens, for her part, hijacked Botticelli’s Venus for the weekly cultural supplement of the newspaper LE SOIR. Her instagram account will introduce you to her surreal and sometimes politically incorrect world. I love it.

Frieke Janssens, “Rendez-vous” (2007) (Courtesy of the artist)

A photographic style

Alexey Kondakov has made the appropriation of characters from ancient works his trademark. Projected into our contemporary world, their beauty, so well integrated, dazzles us and their discrepancy with the surrounding makes us smile. The magic of his photographs also lies in the mastery of color and light. The visual harmony between the characters and the scene is a key to the success of these diversions.

© Alexey Kodakov (Courtesy of the artist)
© Alexey Kodakov (Courtesy of the artist)
© Alexey Kodakov (Courtesy of the artist)

Bringing art into the kitchen

The FOVEA agency has produced a series of well-known paintings in the form of appetizers. The article published in 1988 even gave the ingredients for the twelve recipes. Below is the chef’s result. One or the other picture of better quality (but in mirror version) can be seen on the website of Guido Pretzl, the photographer specialized in culinary photography who made them.

On the left Joan Miro “Bird in the night”; on the right Piet Mondrian “Composition with blue, yellow and red” (FOVEA Agency, photographs by Guido Pretzl)
On the left Jackson Pollock “Odour”; on the right Keith Haring “Don’t touch my buddy” (FOVEA Agency, photographs by Guido Pretzl)
On the left Paul Klee “Song of a young girl”; on the right Lucio Fontana “Concetto Toastiale” (FOVEA Agency, photographs by Guido Pretzl)


Art appropriation and hijacking are processes I love to use.

Challenge #5 already offered you two greeting cards, one in the Lichtenstein style (borrowed from Long shot) and one in the Alighiero Boetti style.

Long before, I transformed a Tintin cover Objectif Lune (Destination Moon) into Objectif Tune (Destination Money) for a colleague who was looking for funding. For another who was a fan of the film Les petits mouchoirs (litterally, The little handkerchiefs but translated Little White lies), I designed a special pack of tissues for his PhD thesis defense.

Original birthday cards, diversions of newspapers, travel guides, advertising messages, etc., are ideal opportunities to exercise one’s creativity and to please friends and relatives.

For example, below, I hijacked a box of medicines as a pretext to cite all the qualities of a friend.

All you have to do is take the dimensions of a common box, use the same colors, adapt the typography, and finally fill in the different fields adequately.

Vinciane Lacroix, Medicine box for Marek

This one above is a hijacking of a French medicine box. Adapting to the design of medicine sold in your country should not be difficult.

Here, I was inspired by the style of Pierre and Gilles to create a series of coasters to offer to friends.

The appropriation of the Pierre et Gilles style for the creation of coasters (cc-by-sa V.Lacroix)

Go ahead!

In periods of lock down, social networks abound in all kinds of hijacking. Add your own.

Turn your favorite products into gifts for your loved ones: transform a bottle of whisky, a box of medicine, a collection of books, etc. Play with the color palette and typography to make the hijacking as explicit as possible.

Develop recipes for your next pizza party where your guests will be asked to guess the artistic styles you’ve parodied.

If you go beyond family and friends, even if the parody is accepted, pay attention to legal aspects: mention your sources; preferably use royalty-free images.

And above all, have fun.

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