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Painter or Paint?

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

The Mona Lisa was painted by Italian Rennaisance master Leonardo Da Vinci circa 1503-1506 (possibly with minor adjustments into 1517). It currently sits in the Louvre Museum, in Paris, arguably the most famous painting in history. It has adorned the walls of Louis XIV and Napoleon, has been stolen once by an Italitan nationalist, has once been assailed by a man who claimed to be in love with it, and possibly has a second, hidden painting concealed beneath the more well-known visage. To say that it is an “interesting” painting is an understatement.

It's painter, Leonardo da Vinci is also arguably the most famous painter in human history, though his exploits vary the fields of art, architecture, astronomy, anatomy, alchemy, botany, engineering, and mysticism. He has been the subject of countles histories, fictions, and conspiracy theories. To say that the man was 'special' is an understatement.

Herein lies the conundrum of the Actor and Writer, which for the greater part of Antiquity were the same person. The inventor of Tragedy, first dramatic writer, and Actor, is said to have been Thespis (from which we derive “Thespian”) of Icaria, Greece, circa 6th century BC. While he is, due to lack of evidence, a largely mythological figure, he is not an unlikely one. Aristotle states that prior to Thespis, all dramatic dialogue was delivered by Chorus. It is Thespis who added the notion of the 'inner dialogue', usually exchanged with the leader of the chorus. That is to say: Thespis both wrote and performed his own material.

Da Vinci was much like Thespis. He lived his life as art, while also creating Art. This, in the artist is normal rather than strange. Most plays prior to the Enlightenment were written by the very persons who performed them (Shakespeare is a prime example, as well as Aeschylus), and they would also train the chorus, provide music, and generally manage most aspects of the performance. These people were busy! Finally, during the 19th century, once productions had reached a heightened level of complexity, the formalized notion of Director as we know it came into vogue (though anticipations of such a role had existed since at least 1460). This personage bridged the gap between Writer and Actor, allowing the other roles to assume their own work with redoubled focus. I would argue that this personage serves as 'self-willed canvas', but this is a story for another time.

It is finally here that we consider the magnitude of such a bifurcation: the Writer, as we know, creates the world of the Character, which is in turn portrayed and given life by the Actor, who is sometimes beholden to elements of the narrative which even the Writer did not foresee. It is the majesty of a creator god, reveling in the delight of weaving a world into being, juxtaposed against the passion and clarity of a thunderbolt's cresendo, the gallop of the storm, the earth-shattering percussion of a volcano's eruption. The common wisdom bears out that everyone has within them the capacity of both actor and writer, but that it is the rare personage who chooses either, and an even rarer one that succedes at either.

This brings us back to Leonardo, the Mona Lisa, and Thespis. Leonardo was an undoubted genius who through his writings, brought many things into being; yet none so famous and well-known as the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa has in itself, inspired countless poems, plays, films, and parodies, simply by the nature of its existence. Thespis, on the other hand, has done both; weaving the tapestries of written drama and dramatic performance into a singular essence, which we now call Acting. Where do you fall? Painter, painting, or somewhere in between?


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