Deepfaking Mona Lisa

These days, it’s hard to tell the real from the fake.  You never know if a quote, or a photo, or a Facebook meme is truthful or manufactured as part of some scheme or for some deep political purpose.  Video footage seems more reliable, but we’ve all seen examples of how careful editing can change the context and the perception.

mona-lisa-1883925Now, it’s going to get even harder to distinguish the real from the fake.  The development of artificial intelligence programming and facial recognition software is allowing for the development of increasingly realistic, seemingly authentic video footage that is in fact totally fictional.  The new word to describe the result is “deepfake,” which refers to the use of AI technology to produce or alter video to present something that didn’t occur in reality.  And the use of rapidly improving technology to produce deepfake video is erasing boundaries that used to allow humans to spot video frauds by focusing in on gestures, subtle facial movements, and other “real” human behavior that computers just couldn’t effectively simulate.  The avatars in even the most advanced video games still look like, well, avatars.

But that is all changing.  A team of engineers from the Samsung AI Center and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow has developed new algorithms that are far more advanced and successful in replicating realistic human faces.  The software is the product of studies of thousands of videos of celebrities and ordinary people talking to cameras.  It focuses in on “landmark” facial features and uses a neural network to convert the landmark features into convincing moving video.  The new software also self-edits by critically scanning the individual video frames that are produced, culling out those that seem unnatural, and substituting improved frames.

As a result of all of this, the new software can produce realistic video from a single, static image.  Take a look at the video of a chatty Mona Lisa embedded in this article, created from the application of the new software to the single image in the famous portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, and then tell yourself that it doesn’t look astonishingly, and disturbingly, realistic.  If Mona Lisa can talk, it sure seems like we’ve crossed a new boundary in the ongoing battle of real versus fake.

Like any new technology, the AI that allows for the creation of realistic video footage from a single image could have positive applications, and negative applications.  It’s just hard not to focus on the negative possibilities in the current era of fakery and fraud, and wonder how this new technology might be used for political dirty tricks or other chicanery.  We’re all just going to have to be increasingly skeptical about what is real, and what is false and realize that passing the “eye test” might not be much of a test any more.

Last Visit To The Louvre

Today Richard, Russell and I visited the Louvre. I think it will probably be my last visit. If you’ve been to the Louvre, you may understand what I mean. If you’ve never been there, you won’t. You’ll read the guidebooks, and they will tell you that you absolutely must visit the Louvre, and you will go — because you absolutely must visit the Louvre if you come to Paris. I’m betting, though, that you probably won’t enjoy it.

Today we bypassed the long line for tickets because we had a museum pass, which is crucial — otherwise, you could wait for an hour or more just to get a chance to buy a ticket. Once inside, we headed to the wing of the museum that houses the Mona Lisa and thousands of other paintings from the Renaissance. When you get to the room that houses Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, prepare for a scrum. The room is a wild melee of people elbowing to get close to the painting and taking “selfies.” It’s not a positive reflection of humanity, and it’s simply impossible to enjoy the painting in anything approaching quiet contemplation. The experiences in front of the other famous items at the Louvre, like Venus de Milo, are similarly unpleasant mob scenes.

It’s hard to get away from the crowds, and it’s hard to appreciate the artwork when any movement is likely to insert you into a picture taken by another tourist. And there really is too much to see — room after room after room of Egyptian antiquities, or Roman statues, or Greek busts. I found myself thinking that, if I were an Egyptian visitor, I’d be upset that my cultural heritage has been taken and warehoused in faraway Paris, in a place where countless riches from other countries are on display.

005If you want to focus on one area, such as Flemish and Dutch paintings, you could fill an entire day. And be prepared to walk through room after room of hundreds of Madonna and child and Biblical paintings, still life paintings of gutted animal carcasses, landscapes and sea paintings, arranged in rooms where dozens of pieces are on display cheek by jowl and even the ceilings are painted masterpieces. It’s just too much. At the end of our visit I searched for a room that was quiet and suited for enjoying art, and found a room of beautiful medieval tapestries that would have been worth a separate visit if they had been located in virtually any other museum in the world. In the Louvre, however, they are an afterthought — as the picture included with this post indicates.

After a few hours we departed, having walked for miles on marble floors until our feet ached and our necks were tied in knots, and I swore that I had had enough of clustering, clamoring tourists, and walls crammed with paintings, and bustling guides. I think this will be my last visit to the Louvre.

We All Scream For “The Scream”

Not many pieces of artwork become iconic.  Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa obviously is one; Michelangelo’s David is another.  I would put Edvard Munch’s The Scream in that category.

Munch painted four versions of The Scream in 1895.  Three are in museums in Norway, Munch’s native land.  The fourth is being auctioned tonight.  It is expected to be sold for at least $80 million, and if it fetches more than $106.5 million — the current record — before the auction is gavelled to a close, The Scream would become the most expensive painting ever sold.

It’s not hard to see why The Scream has become an instantly recognizable image in modern culture.  The mindless horror evoked by the image of a screaming man on a bridge under a lurid sky can be used to capture our reaction to things as diverse as the futility of daily life, senseless crimes, and the Holocaust.  I’m sure that more than one Norwegian dealing with the mass murder committed by home-grown madman Anders Breivik thought of The Scream when they read about Breivik’s unpardonable crimes.

It would be fitting if a painting that is so accessible, and so aptly related to modern life in so many respects, became the most expensive painting ever sold.

Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters

The melee today in front of the Mona Lisa

Today Richard and I went to the Louvre.  We saw rooms of Greek and Egyptian sculpture, works by the Dutch masters, more religious paintings than you could count, and the full panoply of Renaissance art.  One highlight — or, more accurately, lowlight — was the visit to the Mona Lisa.

It is easy to tell when you reach the room with Mona Lisa, for two reasons.  First, it is exponentially more jammed with people than the rest of the Louvre.  Second, the otherwise rational, respectful visitors and art lovers you find elsewhere in the museum have been magically transformed into the most appalling jerks imaginable.

Today's rabble in front of the Mona Lisa

The Louvre has the Mona Lisa displayed on a central column in the middle of the room, with ropes to keep people back.  There is an immense crush of people in front of the painting.  Seemingly everyone has a camera and is snapping a picture of — a picture? — and is pressing forward and trying to wedge themselves in front of the person standing next to them.  As Richard and I stood at the rear of the crowd and tried to appreciate the world’s most famous painting, I was hit on the back of the head by the camera of the person behind me and Richard was swept away in the mad press forward.  I’m amazed that fights didn’t break out as people jockeyed for position to take the best picture of the painting.

No one can possibly appreciate the quality of the Mona Lisa under these circumstances.  You can’t get close to it, and if you even get to the front of the crowd you don’t exactly have the opportunity for quiet contemplation as the cameras click and you’re trying to stand your ground against the onslaught.  We gave up and decided to move on.

The Mona Lisa undoubtedly is a great painting, but this was ridiculous.

Mona Ghoulish

Obviously, some people wonder about who Mona Lisa really was — but is it really worth digging up the remains of some woman who has been buried for centuries in the potentially forlorn hope that you can figure it out?

Italian authorities apparently have answered that question in the affirmative.  An art historian named Silvano Vinceti thinks that the model for Mona Lisa was a woman named Lisa Gherardini who died in 1542 and is buried in a convent in Florence.  He is going to start excavating at the convent Saint Orsola, searching for Ms. Gherardini’s bones.  When he finds her skull, he hopes to extract DNA that will allow him to “rebuild her face” using “scientific techniques.”  There is some skepticism that the results of the effort will be conclusive.  (No kidding!)

I’m all for science, but doesn’t anybody else think this effort is disturbing and ghoulish?  Ms. Gherardini was laid to rest more than 550 years ago.  Why should her bones be disturbed and used in some dubious science experiment in an effort to satisfy the idle curiosity of the art historians who want to know the subject of the world’s most famous painting?  Have we lost all notions of respect for the dignity of the dead?  And isn’t part of the allure of the Mona Lisa its enigmatic quality, anyway?

“Madonna And Child” Fatigue

The BBC reports that a painting by Titian recently was sold at auction for a new record for a Titian painting.

The painting, called “A Sacra Conversazione: The Madonna and Child with Saints Luke and Catherine of Alexandria,” sold for $16.9 million.  The painting has all of the standard features of a “Madonna and child” painting — the plump but alert baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes, held by his placid mother Mary, who is clad in dark clothing.  The only remarkable thing about the painting is that two other characters are shown, too.

When I read the BBC story and saw the painting it reminded me of my visit to the Louvre many years ago.  I love art and I love looking at artwork in museums, but walking through room after room of “Madonna and Child” paintings definitely gave me “Madonna and Child” fatigue.  I felt guilty about my reaction, but after the first few dozen of the paintings I found myself unable to appreciate the artist’s technique, the depiction of the angelic features of the mother and child, the positioning of the characters, the background representations, and so forth.  Instead, I found myself thinking things like:  “Wow, Jesus was really a porker!  What the heck have they been feeding him?” I was happy when I finally got to the Mona Lisa and left the “Madonna and Child” rooms behind.

If The Mona Lisa Could Speak . . .

she might be able to explain how Leonardo da Vinci was able to produce such a richly shaded depiction of her human face, without apparent brushstrokes, thumbprints, or other evidence of human creation.  Until she speaks, however, we will leave it to science to gather evidence — which is what happened when a form of x-ray technology was applied to the world’s most famous painting and other creations of Leonardo.  The study suggests that the great master painstakingly and repeatedly applied amazingly thin coats of glaze to his paintings to achieve the effect.

Leonardo’s technique, called sfumato, apparently has been lost to the mists of time.  It is hard to believe that a method capable of producing such effects would not have been carefully handed down, from master to student, through the centuries.  It makes you wonder that what other techniques that produced artistic masterpieces, astonishing architectural triumphs, or other ancient wonders have unfortunately been lost to the ready universe of human knowledge.