Face to Face to Face to Face with the Mona Lisa
Years ago, my photography professor showed me a snapshot he said perfectly captured his experience of visiting the Mona Lisa during a summer trip to Europe. The picture showed a very large, high-ceilinged room whose walls bore many paintings. The paintings were all decorous in their quiet, personal spaces and pointedly arranged at eye level for ease of viewing, but they seemed a little lonely. None of them were being looked at, although the room was crowded with people. All of them were moving toward or lingeringly departing from or standing on tiptoe in front of just one spot at some distance from where the professor had stood to take his picture. There were so many people they blocked the view, but my professor assured me that they were all looking at the Mona Lisa.
I liked that photograph very much, despite the lack of a clear visual of the painting. After all, I wasn’t dependent on my professor’s testimony for what the Mona Lisa looked like. Even growing up in the self-involved U.S. Midwest of the 1950s, I had seen pictures of Leonardo’s painting all my life; I knew Mona Lisa’s face as well as I did Mickey Mouse’s. What I liked about the photo was that it assured me I would have nothing to regret if I never reached Paris and the Louvre and the gallery in which the Mona Lisa was hanging and the Mona Lisa itself, because, if I did, I would be disappointed by the experience. I wouldn’t see the painting; I would just see the backs of all of those who had gotten there before me.
Since then, I have been to Paris twice and the Louvre twice and in the same room with the Mona Lisa twice. The first time I never got any closer than my professor had ten years earlier: I stepped inside the door, saw the crowd, and turned away to look at other things. However, I wasn’t disappointed; rather, I found that seeing with my own eyes what the photograph had shown me years before was a delight.
The second time was on the trip last summer that started me on my Louvre book project, and during that visit, I decided to try to get closer, just once, to the work itself. It might have been because I was with my husband, it was his first trip to Paris, and I sentimentally wanted for him things I had never wanted for myself; it might have been because I had gotten curious about whether the real thing could be as dispiriting as I had always thought it would be. Maybe I wouldn’t love it, but wasn’t I required to try something before I condemned it as worthless?
So I went closer. The Mona Lisa is displayed in Denon, floor 1, room 6. The painting hangs on a divider that almost spans one of the two shorter sides of the rectangular room; the divider is positioned perhaps 10 feet into the gallery, but there is still considerable space between it and the opposite wall. The day I was there, the Mona Lisa crowd spanned almost the width of the room and filled perhaps half its length as well. I suspect crowd members were not as well dressed as the people my professor photographed, and they formed a busy, shifting barrier to progress toward the painting, but they were not physically or vocally rude. I waded in and found that, amid the shifting currents of the comings and goings of others, I was actually propelled forward so that after a short time I was at the front of the crowd and seeing for myself the Mona Lisa.
Well, not just the Mona Lisa. I’ve included two photos in this post from those I took that day in the museum. I took the photos without flash; although photography is permitted, use of a flash is not. Both photos show that the Mona Lisa and I were not quite face to face; in both, the transparent barrier that covers an inset into the divider, within which the painting hangs, is clearly visible, and it’s no single pane of glass affixed over the painting’s surface but rather a construction that sits inches away from the surface of the painting and whose reflecting surface interferes with a clear view for the eye or lens. In addition, there is a wooden railing marking off a space a couple of feet in front of the divider. There were museum guards stationed nearby. Their principal function seemed to be to direct those who managed to reach the cordon to inch their way between it and the press behind them until they reached the edges where the crowd began to thin out, which would enable them to slip around the Mona Lisa’s divider into the space behind it.
I don’t think visiting the Mona Lisa is a reliable test case for one of this blog’s key questions, which is whether seeing a painting reproduced can ever equal seeing the painting itself. Seeing the Mona Lisa really isn’t seeing the painting itself; its importance has been its downfall. The desire to mark an important object by signs of that importance seems to me to have a weakness. The signs of importance can make it all but impossible to experience the thing itself, to gauge by our own reaction the important thing’s power to impress. It’s rather like Midas and his golden touch, only, alas, our touch buries a treasure in dross. And yet, despite this pious thought, the sight of the Mona Lisa was thoroughly satisfying. I believe my professor shares the credit with Leonardo. Da Vinci created the painting, but my professor prepared me for “the madding crowd”.
If he were alive today, he could visit the Internet and discover that many, many, many others have documented what he saw: the crowd around the Mona Lisa. It’s available on video too: the noisy, shifting, ants-on-an-anthill streaming of the painting’s visitors.
I saw another video of a visit to the painting on the Louvre website. Like the Madonna of the Rabbit, which I wrote about in blog post 7, the Mona Lisa is included in the series of commentaries called “A Closer Look”, which is accessed through the “Learning about Art” tab on the Louvre’s home page. The opening video in the commentary shows the painting from across the room and approaches slowly until the painting fills the screen; the room is empty of all visitors. There is only the camera operator and the Mona Lisa, or, if you prefer, only you and the Mona Lisa.
Well, only you and the Mona Lisa and the Internet device on which you’re playing the video. In proposing to choose between examining my book of paintings and visiting the paintings themselves, I have limited my choices to the only ones available in an earlier time.