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March 11 1999 4:53 PM

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After TheNew Yorker ran Dean Rohrer's melded image of Monica Lisa (or the Mona Lewinsky) on its February 8th cover, there sprang up a fierce little boomlet in letters to the editor from, and feature stories about, other artists who claimed to have harbored virtually the same idea considerably earlier on. Richard Alden, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, claimed to have assigned precisely such a blended image as a project for the eighteen students in his visual communications class last October and had consistently been selling out T-shirt versions of the most successful rendition (by a sophomore named Alysia DeAntonio) at a local bagel shop ever since. John Cuneo, who had indeed published an ink-sketch cartoon of a mustachioed Monica as Mona Lisa a month prior in the Wall Street Journal, faxed a friend in TheNewYorker 's art department, "If this was my concept, and if she didn't have a mustache, and if you could copyright ideas, you people would be hearing from my lawyer (if I had a lawyer)."

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Rohrer, for his part, insisted, entirely credibly, that the idea had occurred to him independently (sparked, he explained, by the naggingly familiar smile plastered across the face of a single particular newsphoto of Ms. Lewinsky). "It's one of those ideas," he assured a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, so obvious "that, when you think of it, you say, 'Why didn't I think of it before?'" Evidently many people had, though David Remnick, The New Yorker's editor, insisted this was the first version he'd ever encountered. And anyway, as Remnick noted, "The only artist with any claim here is Marcel Duchamp, who started the whole joke of messing around with the Mona Lisa a long time ago."

Remnick's comment reminded me of a recent spate of research by the artist Rhonda Roland Shearer (detailed in the February 1999 Art News). Shearer has fairly conclusively shown that Duchamp's infamous gesture in affixing a mustache to the Mona Lisa was never as simple as it first appeared; that in fact Duchamp had subtly superimposed a photo of his own strangely feminine face onto Da Vinci's portrait, before penciling in the wicked little mustache and goatee. Shearer's intuition in turn dovetails neatly over decades of prior academic speculation to the effect that Da Vinci had superimposed a version of his own face (minus the beard and mustache) onto that of his mysterious female sitter.

All of which is kind of neat. But here's where things get really weird. Because TheNew Yorker's cover had already been on the stands for almost a month when the real Monica Lewinksy, the actual person, was required to sit for a sort of official portrait, alongside Barbara Walters, as advance publicity for their celebrated televised interview of March 3. That photo in turn ran in newspapers and newsweeklies around the country. And look at the part in her hair, look at the slope of her shoulders, the dark dress, the conspicuously Monaesque smile. Look at those hands!

Years ago, the British art critic John Berger pointed out how the Bolivian officers and soldiers who captured and slew Che Guevara all subsequently knew exactly where to stand in relation to their felled prize for the photographer; and the photographer in turn knew precisely how to frame them: the authority figure and his cohort arrayed officiously behind the naked corpse, which was spread along a slab. The proper postures had been hotwired, as it were, into their consciousnesses by their exposure to Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson--a painting so famous even a Bolivian peasant would know it. An almost identical process--a sort of cultural/journalistic feedback loop--would seem to be at work here as well.

--Lawrence Weschler

(Photograph of Barbara Walters and Monica Lewinsky by Virginia Sherwood/Reuters.)