Let's face it: Most of us don't know what the big deal is about great works of art, other than that they were created by famous artists (which is kind of circuitous logic). What's so special about the "Mona Lisa," anyway?
Well, part of it is that the more we study these centuries-old paintings, the more weird shit we discover -- about the past, about the artists, and about how the human brain works. For example, we just recently figured out that ...
#6. Portraits Usually Show the Left Side of the Face Due to a Weird Brain Bias
As far as the sheer number of existing pictorial depictions goes, the crucifixion of Jesus comes in second only to that crude penis that every male knows how to draw by age 6. Over the entire 2,000-year span of people busily jotting down this grisly spectacle, one thing has remained eerily consistent: Jesus is almost always shown with his face turned to the right, exposing his left cheek.
Spoiler: He dies at the end.
If you think it's because artists were always trying to hide Jesus' secret face tattoo, you should know that this phenomenon comes up in most paintings, and nobody was ever sure why. It turns out it's due to brain weirdness.
Sam Kean, author of The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, studied this weird phenomenon. He says that if the choice of which side to depict was totally random, we would find that gallery collections have roughly a third of all portraits facing straight forward, a third facing to the left, and a third facing to the right (obviously). However, studies show that this isn't the case -- about 60 percent of subjects sit with their left cheek facing the viewer, their left eye practically in the middle of the painting. It's twice as common as it should be.
So ... why? You could chalk it up to generations of artists copycatting their masters, but Keane points out the fact that children (aka "not trained artists") also show this preference when drawing people. Hell, even students posing for yearbook photos seem to have a habit of turning their faces to the right. The reason, apparently, is that the left side of the face shows more emotion than the right -- you can do an experiment by covering half of a face, and the left side of an angry face (their left, your right) will look angrier than the right half. Note which half of Batman's Two-Face gets the crazy scowl:
Or the crazy-awful lipstick job, depending on which version you're watching.
Now, these old-time artists couldn't have known the science behind this, but what they presumably did know was that left-faced paintings just "worked" better -- they somehow conveyed the emotion more effectively. It probably was nothing more than sitting down with the model they were painting and realizing one pose looked cooler than the other, resulting in centuries of art based on a neurological bias they weren't even aware of. And speaking of weird brain glitches ...
#5. "Mona Lisa"'s Smile Is Mysterious Because of a Neurological Shadow Trick
The "Mona Lisa" is so famous that most of you have probably never stopped to ask, "But why is it famous? What's the big deal about this random portrait of some unknown lady, anyway?" Well, aside from some technical things only artsy types understand, it's her "enigmatic" facial expression, which plays a neat brain trick on the viewer:
Leonardo da Vinci
"These aren't the serfs you're looking for."
Depending on where you focus your eyes, she's smiling, smirking, or pressing her lips together in annoyance. How the painting accomplishes this has been a mystery for its 500-year existence. For example, if you look at the image above and meet her eyes, you'll get the impression of a faint, friendly smile. But cover the top half of her face, and you get something else entirely:
Leonardo da Vinci
She sort of looks like she's in the middle of chewing something.
So how is she smiling without involving her mouth at all? Dr. Margaret Livingstone, a neuroscientist at Harvard, has solved the mother of all of Lisa's mysteries. As Livingstone explains, it has to do with how your eye works.
The central part of your vision, called the fovea, captures the small details, like the minuscule print on a bottle of pills describing the myriad ways they could horribly murder you. The part surrounding the fovea makes up your peripheral vision -- it's a lot less accurate in distinguishing colors and objects, but it's nonetheless just as important, tasked as it is with detecting shadows and approaching threats, like that junkie who's about to jump you for your Adderall.
When we look at people, we tend to look them in the eye. When the central part of our vision looks into "Mona Lisa"'s eyes, the peripheral broadly notices the area around her mouth. Since it can't make out details very clearly, instead of noticing her lips, it captures the shadowing between her lips and her cheekbones. These shadows:
In your peripheral vision, they become part of her mouth, giving it an upturned look and the impression of a smile. When your eyes switch focus to her mouth, however, they see the contours of her lips and realize the shadows are just shadows. It's not just Leonardo's famous painting that displays this shape-shifting smile, either. Apparently, real-life people with prominent cheekbones give off this impression without even knowing it. Yes, a neuroscientist simultaneously solved the "Mona Lisa" and Benedict Cumberbatch's career in one shot.
#4. "The Scream" Was Inspired by a Volcanic Explosion Halfway Across the World
Edvard Munch's "The Scream" has been described as "an icon of modern art, a 'Mona Lisa' for our time." We've all seen it countless times, and it's inspired everything from generations of budding artists delving into expressionism to David Arquette growing a preposterous mustache. So, again, what the fuck is going on in the actual painting? What the hell is going on with the sky, and why does it have that melting-candle-person's panties in such a bunch?
Our theory? Dude just stepped on a LEGO.
For once, those questions have easy answers, because Munch himself answered them in his journal:
"I was walking along the road with two friends -- then the sun set -- all at once the sky became blood red -- and I felt overcome with melancholy. I stood still and leaned against the railing, dead tired -- clouds like blood and tongues of fire hung above the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends went on, and I stood alone, trembling with anxiety. I felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature."
So there you have it, folks: "The Scream" was inspired by a sunset. Case closed, cue next entry.
Actually, no, hold on. That seems like an awfully extreme reaction to something as commonplace as a sunset, don't you think? After all, we've seen our fair share of sunsets, and while they're pretty enough, we have yet to see one of the "so pants-shittingly terrifying/depressing we have to do a Home Alone expression on a bridge" variety.
To figure out what could make a sunset so shriek-worthy, you've got to narrow down the time frame during which the event that inspired the painting took place, and that's precisely what one trio of astronomers did. By examining Munch's work habits (his paintings were often inspired by events that took place years earlier) and conversations in which he explicitly stated the year that the inspirations for three of the paintings in "The Frieze of Life" (the series of which "The Scream" is a part) happened, they were able to pinpoint a year: 1884.
In case your natural-catastrophe knowledge is somewhat less than encyclopedic, on August 27, 1883, one of the most epic pimples on the Earth's crust exploded with the force of a gazillion billion ruined prom nights. The serial eruptions of Mount Krakatoa were such an Earth-shattering event that they lowered the atmosphere's temperature by a degree. The copious amounts of dust and ash that the lava-spewing wound chundered into the air spread to all parts of the globe, causing a phenomenon that made the sky look like it was catching fire during sunset.
via washingtonpost.com/Discovery Channel
Or it would have, if the world hadn't been black and white back then.
All this earthly sputum crept its way from Indonesia up to Norway by the end of 1883. The ensuing sunsets looked like God had embraced his inner pyromaniac, inspiring local newspapers to print front-page stories about them ... and a certain expressionist to understandably shit his pants.