Thursday, September 01, 2005

Mona Lisa Smirk

Paris, France
“The first thing we have to do is find out where the Mona Lisa is.”

That’s the North American voice behind me in line at the Louvre. The world’s most famous museum can seem a lot like an airport where everyone is going to the same gate.

Visiting the Louvre and only looking at the Mona Lisa is like going to Europe and only touring Paris, but then again it’s exactly those kind of people who mob the Seine all summer long. Some will also visit the Venus de Milos and the Winged Victory—the same way they’ll also visit London and Rome—but for the most part they’ll swallow an ice cube and make a claim on most of the ‘berg.

When I first visited Paris 30 months ago, the Mona Lisa was tucked away in Room 13 of the Italian Renaissance section. It was a relatively non-descript location, not dissimilar to where Starry Night used to hide in the old MoMA in New York. But she was far from hidden, with signs throughout the Louve pointing towards her location and a wooden retaining bar arching around her to keep the people at bay.

Priceless works of art are fickle mistresses though, and Room 13 was jilted this spring in favor of a posher, larger pad down the hall in Room 5. Even for small, aged, 30x21 women size apparently matters, and even when you’re already on the banks of the Seine, the upwardly mobile are always looking to mobilize to a better location.

The north wall of Room 13 is on the rebound and has replaced its stunning, waifish ex-girlfriend with two large mistresses, one by an anonymous artist and the other by one who might as well be. La Mort de Seneque—which depicts a philosopher’s suicide—is by Luca Giordano who you and I don’t know and neither do any of the people who pass through here accidentally on the way to Room 5.

You can still see the scuffmarks on the floor, and the black screw holes that used to support the wooden retraining bar. The large windows are visible again; when Lisa lived here they were covered up.

Her new home is a sad place on a rainy Tuesday in August. Since the weather is no good every non-French speaker in Paris decides to visit the Louvre. And as they all descend on Room 5—that airport gate everyone is leaving from—there is a low hum like a jet engine at the moment the wheels start turning. The sound comes from behind a wall rising up in the middle of the room and when you walk around the wall there are two hundred tourists pushing up against a railing as if it’s 1990 and they’re the first people let into a Michael Jackson concert.

My first response, which was surprising to me, was to want to cry. There had been a lot of people in Room 13 on that sunny February afternoon when I was first here, but this was somehow much more vulgar, probably because there were so many more people, it was so impossible to look at the painting and the guards were constantly shouting, “Si vous plait, one photo and then move away. Si vous plait!”

That was probably the saddest part: No one was looking at the painting they came all this way to see, they were just taking a shitty picture of it. The compulsion of museumgoers to take their picture infront of an object much more beautiful than they is a mystery of the Louvre left unaddressed by Dan Brown.

I ask the guard near Lisa if it’s always like this.

“Yes,” he says. “This is the most famous piece of art in the world.”

But the Mona Lisa has as much to with art as Christmas does with Christianity. Both transcend their original intent in all the worst possible ways, commercialized and mass marketed past the vanishing point. Those still foolishly interested in the original message find it mostly washed away by the deluge of Tickle Me Elmos and Mona Lisa coffee mugs.

Like Stonehenge (where once you could walk between the rocks but now they’re fenced off) and the Taj Mahal (where today you can walk inside but someday you won’t) the Mona Lisa will be covered in more layers of glass and velvet ropes and wooden guard rails until finally they install a conveyor belt out front and charge you 10 euros for each trip by the tiny painting.

But until she’s crushed physically and not just metaphorically, Mona Lisa will keep smirking out towards us. And as we snap away at her and her mirror-like black dress, she’ll reflect back on us in the countless shitty pictures the embarrassing image of all of us focusing so many millions of pixels on something we didn’t even bother to see.


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