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’s. Andy 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.
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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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