Will the real Mona Lisa please stand up!

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First, Erin of Los Angeles talked to me about her. The very next day, Isabel from Colombia. Then, Gerhard Richter, one of my favorite artists, said in an interview yesterday about the corrected (depressed) art market that, in his opinion, only paintings by Da Vinci and Raphael should ever sell for more than a million dollars (including his?). I took these as signs that it was about time to mention her on my blog. Who else? La Gioconda, La Joconde, Mona Lisa, Ms. L.H.O.O.Q.! Whose painted face is more ubiquitous? No one’s! She is the Marilyn Monroe of Renaissance painting, iconic and everywhere you look: on tee-shirts, Christmas cards, street art, and wall-clocks (a word before you click to see this creepy wall-clock: it may start inhabiting your dreams, and not in a good way!).

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Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of the Mona Lisa. I like the other Da Vinci dame in the Salle de la Joconde (the Mona Lisa room), la Belle Ferronière, which, in any case, one has a better chance at really seeing: the Mona Lisa is almost impossible to study since one, there are always throngs of people in front of her and two, she is encased in a bulletproof, temperature and humidity-controlled, air-tight glass case (making the painting look, sadly, even more like merchandise). Given that works of art are occasionally attacked by vandals and that the medium of oil on wood is highly volatile, the Louvre has every interest in protecting and preserving this treasure, but imagine how our experience with art would change if all paintings in museums were suddenly put into glass bubbles or see-through boxes?

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But, I’m digressing. Revenons à nos moutons as they say in French (back to our sheep – a strange expression if there ever was one for let’s get back to the subject). Erin and Isabel had similar experiences in front of the Mona Lisa, experiences anchored in the notion of authenticity. Both had seen reproductions of the Mona Lisa but when they stood in front of it they were moved by the realness, the uniqueness of the painting. Isabel described it this way: “the interaction between us, between me and the painting, was pure; there were no intermediaries, no third party.” Erin felt euphoria at “finally seeing it” and said that the experience deeply affected who she became; that before seeing the Mona Lisa she had been a typical teenager, concerned about her hair and clothes, and that seeing this painting made her “reach across time” and “experience someone else’s life.” She felt as if she had “left her own space and gone into someone else’s”, and hence developed a sense of empathy and curiosity of who and what was around her. The encounter was so profound that Erin wrote her college entrance essay on it. (Erin’s experience points to effects portraits have on people which I think differ from other genres of painting; a subject I hope to explore later.)

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Indeed, one of the foremost roles that museums play is to provide their public with the read deal. Stephen Greenblatt speaks of “the power of the displayed object to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.” In the same vein, Philippe de Montebello says this about a painting by Velasquez: “The thrill comes from his (the viewer’s) complete trust in the fact that this object […] is the object before which Philip IV himself stood in admiration some 350 years ago. That magic, the magic of the original, the authentic, is what the museum can never lose, for the public will always demand it.”

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Ironically, what Walter Benjamin feared after the advent of photography, that reproductions might come to replace our appetite for the real, has proved the opposite: seeing paintings that move us in books, hanging a reproduction on the wall in our college dorm, ultimately makes us crave the real object even more. In the two months that I’ve spent interviewing and observing people in the Art Institute, I have overheard twice a young person ask a guard with hushed awe, “Are these paintings real?” and the guard, with a tone of complicity, devoid of any ridicule, whisper back “Yes.” In a world glutted with reproduced images, most trying to sell us something, the silence, authenticity, and beauty of a painting is a gift and a solace.

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Stephen Greenblatt, “Resonance and Wonder,” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display

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Philippe de Montebello, “Art Museums, Inspiring Public Trust,” in Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust

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Walter Benjamin, “Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility,” in Selected Writings, Volume 4

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