To my credit, I did not plan to visit the Louvre during our recent trip to Paris. For several reasons. First, I saw it during my last trip, 24 years ago. Been there, done that. Second, and more importantly, my wife didn't have fond memories of what she recalled as hulking time-darkened medieval works plastering across endless, packed galleries. And third, both of us much preferred the Impressionist art at the Musee d'Orsay, which we went to immediately.
But we were in Paris nearly a full week, and the expected exerts a gravitational pull. Something we had already noticed in Florence, when a friend of our son's insisted we visit a certain sandwich shop. The line in front of the shop was long, we waited a half hour, while other shops were empty. When we got our coveted sandwiches they were ... just okay. A reminder that the wildly popular is sometimes better, sometimes not.
So the tractor beam of the Louvre eventually pulled us in. And once there, we shuffled, zombie-like, toward the Mona Lisa, another pair of lemmings, hurrying cliffward. You have to. There are mute signs, with just her black and white image and an arrow, to both satisfy the common urge and to reduce wear and tear on the guards. Plus, the idea of going to the Louvre and not seeing the painting, it feels almost perverse, like going to Fort Lauderdale and not seeing the ocean.
On the way to see the star, we enjoyed the Louvre more than we thought. It was brighter, the pictures, fresher. Maybe a quarter century of general cleaning and restoration. Maybe our tastes are more refined now.
And it was worth it just for the shock of arriving at the large room containing the Mona Lisa. It's a madhouse, jammed with visitors, all trying to get pictures of themselves with the Mona Lisa in the frame.
Even before you glimpse the painting, a wave of humidity, sickly sweet, slightly perfumed, hits you in the face. The moisture from all those bodies. It's like being in a crowded locker room with art.
|"Portrait of a Woman"
But in 1911, a worker named Vincenzo Peruggia, hired to cut a pane of glass for the painting, instead walked out of the museum with it. The Mona Lisa was so obscure that it took a full day for anyone to notice it was missing. And it stayed missing for two years, the Da Vinci tucked in Peruggia's trunk while the theft made more and more headlines—at one point Picasso was a suspect, and the chief of the Paris police resigned out of embarrassment. It was only returned after Peruggia, who like most criminals was no Lex Luthor, tried to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery.
So that's what you're crowding to see--the after-echo of a true crime mystery. That's why the crowds are there. But why all the photos? Hard to take in a throng, the image muddied by the protective glass. You could buy a perfect postcard in the gift shop for 1.2 euros. But that wouldn't satisfy the "Kilroy was here!" impulse that has us in its thrall, the Facebook urge to document our precious selves. A manifestation of the brainless egotism that has so thoroughly gripped our times. I'm not excluding myself, though I generally resist the urge to include myself in photos. I know what I look like.
The Mona Lisa is so popular it almost can't be perceived. Like Grant Wood's "American Gothic." You see it and think of the parodies. To be honest, I enjoyed Da Vinci's "Portrait de la Femme" in the next room far more than the Mona Lisa. I can't tell if the painting is substantively finer, or just less familiar, which are pretty much the same thing in the art world. Nothing kills a work more than over-exposure, and attention has in essence ruined the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa's smile is famously enigmatic, but this unknown woman seemed, to me, downright chilly, even hostile. As if she's saying, "Go ahead, fawn over the bitch in the next room." I looked for a postcard in the gift shop of her, but of course there were none to be had, among the hundreds and hundreds of duplicates of M.L.
This has to be a transitional phase, all this picture taking. A little gap between the time when we used film, which cost money, and limited our number of shots, and the time when we wear some device that constantly films our surroundings, as a matter of security. No wonder we revere the past, or at least our ragged perceptions of what it might have been like.