By Deb A.
The smallest painting in the Museu Europeu d'Art Modern (MEAM) in Barcelona technically has no business being there--but the sheer power of how it depicts its subject has helped it make the journey from small-town Canada to the home of some of the world’s best modern art. It is called Wonder Woman, and it is by Agave Magazine's Artist-in-Residence Tony Luciani. The story of how it came to be involves equal parts goodwill and fear, and an extraordinary amount of passion.
A week after Tony met Monica, doctors discovered a lump in her breast. Over the next four years, their relationship would be marked not just by love and devotion, but also by doctor’s visits, cancer treatments, and an ever-changing outlook for the future.
To release the stress and trepidation he and Monica were navigating together, Tony asked Monica to sit for a portrait. Although he admits to hating painting, Tony (who prefers to draw) was so moved by the process of bringing Monica’s likeness to life on canvas that it brought tears to his eyes. In a sense, Wonder Woman was his diary.
“It wasn’t just a portrait,” he explains. “It was deeper than that.” And like most diary entries, it was a secret: only two people in the world knew that the portrait even existed, and Monica made Tony promise he would never show it to anyone.
So when Tony’s dealer mentioned a portrait competition and asked whether he had anything to submit, he did not. Until one day, despite not having even seen her own portrait, Monica changed her mind.
She had realised, she told Tony, that, “The painting isn’t about me. It’s about people like me. If it can help others… go ahead.”
Monica’s observation wasn’t the whole story: it was true that the portrait represented more than just her, but it also stood for more than others like her as well. Had she seen the painting, she would have immediately understood that its undeniable power went beyond the mastectomy, the bald head, the scar she protected--not hid--with a single hand. It went beyond the earrings that served as a gentle reminder that this was not a painting of a victim, but of a woman who would always be beautiful. The focus of the portrait’s power was in the eyes, which were somehow Tony’s, too: their emotions combined, his gaze joining hers to confront the viewer with just as much strength as vulnerability.
Wonder Woman was submitted, accepted, and sent on a tour across Canada. Monica first saw the portrait at the opening of the Kingston Prize, where it became the centre of controversy due to the subject's nudity. Wonder Woman won no prize that night.
Nor was Tony able to find a gallery that would accept Wonder Woman, even as a donation. It was a difficult painting that demanded commitment, completely unsuited to a quick glance, and the artist himself was unfashionable on two counts: he was unknown and still living.
Wonder Woman stayed in a crate.
After Monica died, Tony couldn’t bear the thought of losing both the real person and her canvas likeness, a testimony to their shared strength and love. He began to look again for a proper home for Wonder Woman, winning several online awards in the process... but most organisations only wanted the image, not the actual painting.
It wasn’t until the MEAM shortlisted Wonder Woman for an exhibition and a potential $50,000 grand prize that the portrait would be seen again. Technically, the painting was too small to be eligible at all for the competition, but the organisers were so moved by the work that an exception was made: the portrait could not win the grand prize, but it would be part of the exhibit. Tony was elated.
He was even happier when he realised that he’d found Wonder Woman a permanent home.
When a MEAM official confided to Tony that although the painting was the smallest in the museum, it was, in his opinion, the one with the most meaning, Tony offered it to the museum on the spot. He refused payment; he couldn’t accept money for something that was so private and personal, especially considering that originally, he had never intended for anyone to see it at all.
And so, now a part of the MEAM's permanent collection, Wonder Woman now hangs: defiant, challenging, and impossible to ignore.
For a more in-depth understanding of Wonder Woman's journey, we recommend Willa Wick's article, 'Wonder Woman', in the February 2014 issue of The Rural Route.
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