The Mona Lisa No Longer Exists

April 20, 2019

Where Versailles bothered me, the Louvre, its predecessor as France’s royal palace, had the opposite effect. It’s a far more harmonious conception, carried out with a fine blending of form and detail. I’m unsure about I.M Pei’s glass pyramid in the central court, which looks better in the morning sunlight than it does in my photos. But the palace is built graciously enough to accommodate a lot of modernity.

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Part of the outside of the Louvre.

The best art in a vast building like the Louvre often attracts few crowds. I spent an undistractedly uplifting hour among the early 19th Century French paintings, marvelling at the technical skill of the portraitists and the unexpectedly strong character of many of the women they painted. I’m more used to English portraiture, which tends to more formality. These women, however, were actually smiling in some cases, and clearly many had strong personalities. French women, I suspect, have long had an independence of mind denied to their English-speaking sisters. I could have gone back through them all over again, if my feet hadn’t complained to me.

Famous collections have famous items, and the Louvre has a bunch. One is the Winged Victory of Samothrace, which I found surrounded by cellphones (and their owners) like bees buzzing round spilt honey. Another is Vermeer’s The Lacemaker, and after gazing on a dozen Rembrandt portraits, I decided to make this the culmination of my visit. Alas, it was on loan to the Louvre’s outpost in Dubai, though the same artist’s fine work The Astronomer was still on show.

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Vermeer’s painting The Astronomer.

Then, fatally, I decided that maybe, just maybe, since I might never get back here, I should check out the Mona Lisa. Ah, fool that I am.

I’ve never grasped why this has become the best known painting in the world. I don’t, in fact, usually like Leonardo much. But I was here, and visiting that corner of the museum seemed useful to offset criticism from friends who do want to see it, but can’t.

It was about a five-minute walk through other galleries to the Italian section. Seriously, the place is enormous – three-quarters of a million sq ft and more. Suddenly, there were signs pointing to the picture, and a swarm of cellphones were drawing their owners onward, ever onward, to the Louvre’s ultimate prize. No matter that what I consider to be the superior The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, with its lovely contrasting blues, and his late work St. John the Baptist were on one wall of the gallery. St. John is … well, blurry to be honest, but I had the Virgin and Child almost to myself for a couple of minutes, and could study details. Finally I decided to surrender and follow the swarm.

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Da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne.

La Gioconda/La Joconde/the Mona Lisa (she has several names) is in a very large room on its own. I mean large – maybe 80 by 40 feet? And in the room were two to three hundred people, either pressing forward to claim a reward for their sore feet, or trying to escape again. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many cellphones aimed in one direction at one time. Or been elbowed so hard and often.

I pressed forward for a minute or so, or rather was pressed. Increasingly, I could see more bits of the painting, and increasingly I wondered, So what? It was impossible to study the painting. No-one can get close it anyway, whereas had I been bad I could have reached and touched The Virgin and Child with St. Anne. The experience of being in that seething, agitated, greedy mass of people had nothing to do with art; it was just a gimme moment, all about a prize to show other people.

“Look, I was in the talismanic presence of this painting by a guy whose history I don’t know, whose life I don’t care about, and for whose work I have no feeling whatsoever. Bet you can’t say that!”

Yes, I gave in to a case of the grumps. Too long in any gallery or museum is exhausting, and I was past my day’s battery life.

But if it’s impossible to look at a painting and concentrate on it, then the painting loses any artistic significance. It’s totemic, but it’s not art any more.

I suddenly turned and worked my way out, others jostling to grab my vacated person-space, and spent another couple of minutes with the Virgin and Child with St. Anne as my antidote. That remains as a piece of art to admire.

But the Mona Lisa is essentially lost now. No-one can ever see it again, unless they rate a private viewing when the Louvre is otherwise closed. As something to photograph, it’s available. But as something to admire, to ponder, it effectively no longer exists.

At least the Louvre has a few thousand other works to gaze on and ponder.

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