Bellapoarch, or the Mona Lisa of the 21st Century?

Analysis of a success.
20 September 2020. Published by Benoît Labourdette.
Reading time: 5 min  

A 10-second video posted on the social network TikTok on August 18, 2020 has made, one month later, more than 400 million views, and the highest number of “I like” since the beginning of this social network. Hypothesis on the reasons for this worldwide success, which I believe are closely related to the reasons for the unprecedented success of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Film analysis

The film viewable here is an object of analysis, to be watched in parallel with the reading of this article. It is divided into 9 parts of 10 seconds each, separated by 1 second of black. Take breaks in the blacks :

  1. Music only.
  2. Clip “M to the B” by Bellapoarch.
  3. The “M to the B” clip, without the soundtrack.
  4. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
  5. The Mona Lisa (detail of the face).
  6. The clip “M to the B”, without the soundtrack
  7. Bellapoarch’s “M to the B” clip.
  8. Duo with another TikTokeuse.
  9. Clip “M to the B” with the image of Vladimir Putin.

History of the video “M to the B”

I wrote this article precisely one month after this video was posted on the social network TikTok..

TikTok exists since 2016. In 2020, it is the social network with the strongest growth in terms of usage and audience. It is a mobile application, which allows users to create short videos (from 10 seconds to 1 minute maximum), very often playbacks on musical tracks. From the same song, thousands or millions of people will each make a surprising, new video, as in a vast creative game.

The application contains very elaborate editing, dubbing and playback tools, which are designed to develop creativity. TikTok has 7 million users in France and 100 million in the United States. The videos are “pushed” by an algorithm, which means that the next video is automatically proposed, based on a very fine analysis of your interests.

For example, if you make a “movie” in several shots, you can repeat the shooting of the first shot as many times as necessary, until you are satisfied. Then you shoot the second shot, which you can also repeat as many times as necessary, but you will never be able to modify the first shot, and so on. The User Experience (UX) is designed for a creative requirement. And the videos that are watched the most are the ones with the most “qualitative” content.

The 10-second excerpt of the song “It’s M to the B” (2016) by the young English rapper Millie B. was chosen by the “Lamadabe” user, who works on selecting excerpts with the aim of making them “viral”. This song is a “clash”, a young woman responding to another in a “sung conflict”. A large number of “TikTokeurs” (more than 15 million) have started to make videos from this extract, including the user “Bellapoarch”, who made the clip we are talking about here. She is a 19 year old woman from the Philippines, engaged in the U.S. Army, who is fond of tattoos all over her body and who has made erotic-sounding photos on Instagram.

  • 1 and 2: Listen to the song alone, then watch the clip.
  • 3: You can then watch the same clip, without the sound, in order to observe the images in more detail.

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Hypothesis on the reasons for success

At first glance, of course, one can be incomprehensible and judge such a success negatively, for a simple amateur video, which does not seem to be an artistic object. But are the reasons for the unequalled worldwide success of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “The Mona Lisa” (painted between 1503 and 1519) artistic, sociological, technological?

Without passing judgment on artistic criteria, I propose the hypothesis that the reasons for the Mona Lisa’s success are more or less the same as the reasons for the success of Bellapoarch’s video. The Mona Lisa perhaps allows us to better understand the dazzling success of this video.

Why is the Mona Lisa so well known? Why is it so much more famous than many other paintings, a priori of the same artistic quality? There is a fairly abundant literature on the subject, of which the following is a short, non-exhaustive summary:

  • The theft of the painting at the beginning of the 20th Century.
  • The fact that also at the beginning of the 20th Century, it would seem that a mistake by a printer on an order for postcards of the painting made it necessary to “sell” 100,000 postcards, giving the Mona Lisa a singular audience.
  • The very large number of imitations and reprints, with snowball effect.
  • And above all the so particular, so complex nuances in the smile and in the eyes of this character.

The successive layers

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  • 4 and 5: Look at the painting “The Mona Lisa”, then the detail of the face.
  • 6: Then look again at “M to the B” without the soundtrack.

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Leonardo da Vinci built up this incredible complexity of nuances of facial expression (especially the mouth and eyes) by painting a very large number of semi-transparent layers on top of each other, using a pictorial technique of the time, the “sfumato”, over a period of 15 years.

If we look carefully again at the clip, we also notice the extreme finesse of each facial expression, and especially, in 10 seconds, the very rapid succession of nuanced expressions. Leoanardo da Vinci, with the techniques of his time, had superimposed semi-transparent layers. Today, Bellapoarch has linked the expressions one after the other in a very short period of time, which is made possible by the audiovisual technique (which Leonardo da Vinci did not have at his disposal). In this way, she also creates a temporal superimposition of facial expressions. The layers are successive, but this does give the spectator a feeling of superimposition. One can also note the presence of a bandage on the chin, which puts in abyss the principle of the superposition.

Moreover, Bellapoarch uses TikTok’s “Zoom” filter, which gives this extremely particular movement of the framing in depth, especially sensitive in the second half of the video with the movement of the head in rhythm: the framing of the image seems to “breathe” synchronously with the rhythm that animates the body. It is, as was the sfumato, an extremely singular type of camera movement in our time, which it employs to the full from the moment it appeared (one can think, for example, of Stanley Kubrick, who used to the full the “Steadycam” shooting technique, still in the prototype stage, for the film “Shining” — 1979, a technical effect allowing a nature of camera movement that is intrinsic to the very subject of the film).

One could object that this video effect provided by the TikTok application is “easy”:

  • 7: Watch the clip again.
  • 8: Then watch a “duet”, in which another young woman tries to imitate Bellapoarch.

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It is striking how “left” the other young woman seems in comparison to Bellapoarch, whose face contains exceptional features and expressions (of which Bellapoarch is perhaps only the simple recipient, even though she has been working on it for years for her photos for Instagram and in a large number of other videos on other songs, and moreover sometimes she herself sings a capella).

I don’t pretend to compare Bellapoarch’s artistic skill with that of Leonardo da Vinci, I’m just trying to understand why this video fascinates human beings as much as the Mona Lisa does. But, just like Leonardo da Vinci in his time, Bellapoarch is herself part of a “layer” of the history of arts and techniques, of which she succeeds in crystallizing in this clip a very, very large number of features, in an absolutely unique way.

The power of extreme nuance

Why “The Mona Lisa” and not another painting? Why “M to the B” and not another video?

At first glance, this painting and this video do not seem essentially different from millions of others. They are even very similar to many other paintings and videos. But what makes them unique is their work of nuance to the extreme: for years for Leonardo da Vinci, to paint and repaint by transparency on his painting, and for Bellapoarch, to work on his facial expressions for his public image for years too.

These two objects share a work of “extreme nuance”. They do not seem extraordinary at first glance. Yet it is their almost ultimate finesse in technical work that touches human beings with phenomenal power.

So, of course, perhaps as you read these lines, the Mona Lisa is still the most famous painting in the world, and yet Bellapoarch’s video is buried in the oblivion of the rapid pace of fads on social networks.

This does not invalidate my hypothesis. On the one hand, time lived in the 21st Century does not proceed at the same speed as time lived in the 21st Century, and on the other hand, what these two objects share, which seems to me very important, is the fact that humanity’s greatest power lies in working on the finest nuances and not in demonstrating strength; it is undoubtedly one of the most relevant ways to shed light on human phenomena and to act.

  • 9: As a wink, a playback on the same track, with the image of Vladimir Putin, who imitates Bellapoarch.

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Bellapoarch, or the Mona Lisa of the 21<sup class="typo_exposants">st</sup> Century? - 1. © Benoît Labourdette. Bellapoarch, or the Mona Lisa of the 21<sup class="typo_exposants">st</sup> Century? - 2. © Benoît Labourdette.
The image has become a language that everyone “speaks” on a daily basis, much more so than before the democratization of digital tools. Thus the stakes of images touch more than ever our existence in a very direct way, at the psychological, sociological, political, artistic levels... It seems essential to me not to avoid critical thinking about images, their technologies and uses. To think, there is nothing like experimenting, searching, conceptualizing, sharing. I share here resources, projects and experiences around images, which I hope will be useful, in the fields of education, art, (...)