Take a Trip Through the History of Modern Art with the Oscar-Winning Animation Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase

The artis­tic mor­ph­ing is already under­way before the very first frame of film­mak­er Joan Gratz’ 1992 Oscar-win­ning ani­ma­tion, Mona Lisa Descend­ing a Stair­case.

Most view­ers will rec­og­nize the title as a mashup of Leonar­do Da Vinci’s famous work and Mar­cel Duchamp’s mod­ernist clas­sic Nude Descend­ing a Stair­case, No. 2.

What fol­lows is a con­stant­ly mor­ph­ing, chrono­log­i­cal trip through the his­to­ry of mod­ern art, begin­ning with Impres­sion­ism and pass­ing through Cubism and Sur­re­al­ism en route to Pop art and hyper-real­ism.

The seam­less tran­si­tions were cre­at­ed by painstak­ing­ly manip­u­lat­ing small pieces of oil-based mod­el­ing clay on a sol­id easel-mount­ed sur­face, a tech­nique Gratz devel­oped as an archi­tec­ture stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon.

Van Gogh’s self-por­trait recon­fig­ures itself into Gaugin’sAndy Warhol’s Gold Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe becomes Roy Lichtenstein’s Woman with Flow­ered Hat—a far trick­i­er tran­si­tion than had Gratz start­ed with Picasso’s 1941 Dora Maar au Chat, the orig­i­nal inspi­ra­tion for Lichtenstein’s 1963 work.

As Gratz told Olivi­er Cotte, author of Secrets of Oscar-Win­ning Ani­ma­tion:

The tran­si­tions were the most inter­est­ing aspect of the work. A great deal of what they show con­sists of pro­vid­ing infor­ma­tion about the style of the paint­ings…. The rela­tion­ship between the images depends on the era, the artis­tic move­ment and the inter­con­nec­tion between the artists.

Thus the work is not just about cap­tur­ing the 55 select­ed images, but also their tex­ture, from the Expres­sion­ists’ thick impas­to to the post-painter­ly slick­ness of 60s pop artists.

The paint­ings were cho­sen over near­ly eight years of research and plan­ning, but not the minu­ti­ae of the tran­si­tions, as Gratz pre­ferred to impro­vise in front of the cam­era. Just as in more nar­ra­tive clay­ma­tions, each painstak­ing adjust­ment required her to stop and shoot a frame, a process that end­ed up tak­ing two-and-a-half years, fit in around Gratz’s sched­ule for such pay­ing gigs as Return to Oz and the fea­ture-length clay­ma­tion, The Adven­tures of Mark Twain.

Giv­en the spon­ta­neous nature of the trans­for­ma­tions from one paint­ing to the next, the exact length of the fin­ished film was impos­si­ble to pre­dict. When it was at last com­plete, com­pos­er Jamie Hag­ger­ty  and sound design­er Chel White were brought in to pro­vide fur­ther his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al con­text, via music, envi­ron­men­tal sounds, and con­spic­u­ous use of a digeri­doo.

See more of Gratz’s clay paint­ing tech­nique in the music video for Peter Gabriel’s “Dig­ging in the Dirt,” and ads for Coca-Cola and Microsoft.

Read Olivi­er Cotta’s analy­sis of Mona Lisa Descend­ing a Stair­case, includ­ing a longer inter­view with Joan Gratz here.

Mona Lisa Descend­ing a Stair­case will be added to our list of Ani­ma­tions, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New Ani­mat­ed Film About Vin­cent Van Gogh Will Be Made Out of 65,000 Van Gogh-Style Paint­ings: Watch the Trail­er and Mak­ing-Of Video

Van Gogh’s 1888 Paint­ing, “The Night Cafe,” Ani­mat­ed with Ocu­lus Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty Soft­ware

Hear Mar­cel Duchamp Read “The Cre­ative Act,” A Short Lec­ture on What Makes Great Art, Great

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. She’ll be appear­ing onstage in New York City this June as one of the clowns in Paul Young’s Faust 3.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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