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Mona Lisa’s smile decoded: science says she’s happy

The subject of centuries of scrutiny and debate, Mona Lisa's famous smile is routinely described as ambiguous. But is it really that hard to read?

Mona Lisa's smile decoded: science says she's happy
Photo: AFP

Apparently not.

In an unusual trial, close to 100 percent of people described her expression as unequivocally “happy”, researchers revealed on Friday.

“We really were astonished,” neuroscientist Juergen Kornmeier of the University of Freiburg in Germany, who co-authored the study, told AFP.

Kornmeier and a team used what is arguably the most famous artwork in the world in a study of factors that influence how humans judge visual cues such as facial expressions.

Known as La Gioconda in Italian, the Mona Lisa is often held up as a symbol of emotional enigma.

The portrait appears to many to be smiling sweetly at first, only to adopt a mocking sneer or sad stare the longer you look.

Using a black and white copy of the early 16th century masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, a team manipulated the model's mouth corners slightly up and down to create eight altered images – four marginally but progressively “happier”, and four “sadder” Mona Lisas.

A block of nine images were shown to 12 trial participants 30 times.

In every showing, for which the pictures were randomly reshuffled, participants had to describe each of the nine images as happy or sad.

“Given the descriptions from art and art history, we thought that the original would be the most ambiguous,” Kornmeier said.

Instead, “to our great astonishment, we found that Da Vinci's original was… perceived as happy” in 97 percent of cases.

 All in the context

A second phase of the experiment involved the original Mona Lisa with eight “sadder” versions, with even more nuanced differences in the lip tilt.

In this test, the original was still described as happy, but participants' reading of the other images changed.

“They were perceived a little sadder” than in the first experiment, said Kornmeier.

The findings confirm that “we don't have an absolute fixed scale of happiness and sadness in our brain” – and that a lot depends on context, the researcher explained.

“Our brain manages to very, very quickly scan the field. We notice the total range, and then we adapt our estimates” using our memory of previous sensory experiences, he said.

Understanding this process may be useful in the study of psychiatric disorders, said Kornmeier.

Affected people can have hallucinations, seeing things that others do not, which may be the result of a misalignment between the brain's processing of sensory input, and perceptual memory.

A next step will be to do the same experiment with psychiatric patients.

Another interesting discovery was that people were quicker to identify happier Mona Lisas than sad ones.

This suggested “there may be a slight preference… in human beings for happiness, said Kornmeier.

As for the masterpiece itself, the team believe their work has finally settled a centuries-old question.

“There may be some ambiguity in another aspect,” said Kornmeier, but “not ambiguity in the sense of happy versus sad.”

By Mariėtte Le Roux

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LOUVRE

Louvre partners US streetwear guru on €572 Leonardo hoodies

As an artist, architect and engineer, Virgil Abloh is fashion's renaissance man. Now the hyperactive US designer is measuring himself up against the greatest polymath of all with a collection of clothes inspired by Leonardo da Vinci.

Louvre partners US streetwear guru on €572 Leonardo hoodies
The hoodies are printed with a small copy of a Leonardo da Vinci painting. Photo: Off White
The T-shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies adorned with some of Leonardo's greatest works are a part of an official hook up with the Louvre museum in Paris, which is staging a blockbuster show to mark the 500th anniversary of the Italian master's death.
   
The hoodies selling for up to 572 euros a piece ($640) mix Leonardo male nudes and paintings like “Saint Anne” with the four-arrowed logo of Abloh's ultra-hip Off-White label.
   
The world's most visited museum has been a magnet for black American megastars of late, with music's most famous couple, singers Beyonce and Jay-Z, shooting a video there last year for their album, “Apeshit”.
   
Fans of the streetwear guru Abloh queued through the night last month to snap up a range of homewear he designed for a collaboration with budget furniture chain Ikea.
   
It included a backlit reproduction of Leonardo's “Mona Lisa” (159 euros) from the Louvre and a green synthetic turf rug bearing the legend, “Wet grass”.  Another rug was modelled on an Ikea till receipt.
   
Abloh, 39, who took the reins of Louis Vuitton's menswear line last year, is one of the hottest fashion designers in the world, with some 15 million followers on social media.
 
Beyonce and Jay-Z
 
“I wanted to create a fertile collision between fashion and high art, Abloh said of his Leonardo-inspired streetwear.
   
The Louvre for its part said that it “rejoiced that such a multi-faceted artist as Virgil Abloh” had been inspired by its collections.
   
Like the Beyonce and Jay-Z video, which featured them standing regally in front of the “Mona Lisa” while a squad of scantily-clad dancers gyrated in front of Jacques-Louis David's “The Coronation of Napoleon”, it argues that
the exposure brings its treasures to a whole new public.
   
Rapper will.i.am, one of the founders of the Black Eyed Peas, shot an acclaimed video for his hit “Mona Lisa Smile” there in 2016, where he transposed himself into some of its greatest paintings.
   
He later made a documentary about the museum for Oprah Winfrey's television channel, OWN.
 
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Abloh, a former creative director for rapper Kanye West also designs for Nike, and a retrospective of his work broke records at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art before it transferred last month to Atlanta's High Museum of Art.
   
But the designer was forced to curb his manic globe-trotting schedule in September because of “health considerations”, which meant him missing his own Off-White women's show in the French capital.
   
He told Vogue at the time that his doctor had warned him that “'this pace that you've pushed your body to is not good for your health'.”
   
The Louvre's huge Leonardo show runs until February 24.
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