The delight of seeing a significant painting in real life isn’t the bragging rights that come along with it. It’s that you get to see the art up close. Your eye can follow each sweep of the brushstroke. And where you stand to gaze at the masterpiece is where the artist once stood to create it. Art is among mankind’s greatest treasures.
I bubbled with excitement as I skimmed the Louvre museum guide, eyes searching for that familiar name. And there she was. La Joconde, the Mona Lisa, probably among the most iconic and significant paintings in the world. Here I was, fortunate enough to be hallways away from standing in her presence.
I knew we reached her before I read the sign or saw her face. I could hear the swarm echoing from that exhibit room. I’ve never been in the presence of paparazzi surrounding a celebrity, but I’d imagine that it’s pretty similar. Limbs holding cameras at all angles reaching over heads as bodies politely pushed to get as close to the barrier as possible.
It’s the scene of a short girl’s nightmare.
Undaunted by the crowd, I slithered through the Mona mosh pit to claim a closer peek.
The Mona Lisa is a Renaissance painting from the early 1500s by one of the world’s greatest artists and innovators, Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci is so impressive that he first created designs for a helicopter-like invention four centuries before modern-day helicopters were created. Genius! And this is only a fraction of his contributions to the world.
It’s said that Da Vinci loved his painting of the Mona Lisa so much, that he used to carry it around with him. He painted her in sfumato style (an ‘evaporating’ quality of blending), which is part of the elusiveness behind that famous “Mona Lisa smile.”
Part of the mystique of the Mona Lisa is her identity. While most historians would now agree that she is from the Del Giocondo clan, others still argue with various theories. Much of Mona Lisa’s mystery stems from identity crisis. Her fame only skyrocketed after she was stolen by an Italian patriot who asserted that her portrait belonged to Italy, not France.
She has been loved. She has been stolen. She has been psycho-analyzed. She has been studied. She has been used in advertising and mentioned in pop culture. She is a survivor of world wars. She has endured abuses of angry museum-goers. Part of the story of her fame is the hardship and scrutiny she endured.
Since she is painted on wood, warping and bending are inevitable. She’s already dulled to a gloomy jaundice due to the layers of varnish over the paint. Yet this image of a beautiful face has outlasted the flesh that wore it. And for centuries she has been protected, cherished, and revered. But who knows how long this painting will last?
Then the nudging began. Elbows prodding into my back suggested that the longevity of my Mona moment was reaching the brink of selfishness.
Trying not to spoil my time with the painting and surrendering to greed, I continued to soak it all in, reflecting on her worth, delighting in her company. Then something curious happened….
Mona Lisa winked at me.
I didn’t believe it at first. I looked around to see if anyone else witnessed this. All my neighbors were too occupied admiring her through a camera lens or phone screen. They reached the crowd’s zenith, snapped a photo and bowed back for the next person.
I gazed back at Mona Lisa. She was teasing me with that elusive smile. And with another wink, knowing she captured my attention, she began to remark:
You’re wearing your heart on your sleeve. You thought we’d have a personal moment and now you’re disappointed that it hasn’t met your expectations. I’m too distant for you to study Da Vinci’s paint patterns; I’m too shielded by bulletproof glass and security guards and a barricade for any intimacy. You thought this would be more personal and it’s not. But hey, thanks for appreciating me for me instead of me for my fame. So instead of dwelling here, why don’t you move on and discover something different? You did not travel across the world to see what everyone sees and know what everyone else knows. You’re here for adventure, so go get lost and learn something new.
As she concluded her speech, a bystander whispered “Who painted the Mona Lisa, again?” I caught Mona Lisa rolling her eyes in anguish. As I exited the horde, she continued to sit there, hands folded, eyes staring, with that confident Mona Lisa smile that says, “Yep, I’m the museum diva.”
This is why Mona Lisa is such a funny girl: the Louvre is so massive, it would be impossible to see everything in one day. The irony of the situation was that our intentions were just to see the Louvre highlights and move on, not to visit ‘obscure’ paintings that would never be a museum magazine cover girl like Miss Mona Lisa. Now, there’s no way one should ever go to the Louvre without seeing this Da Vinci masterpiece. That would be a sin. But she had a very valid point. Here was his world-renowned museum with thousands of artworks and I only came to experience the highlighted few. Not everyone can be Beyoncé, but her background singers and dancers still share the same stage. Right? And the Louvre is a stage for recognized and deserving talent.
Is it wrong to analogize the Mona Lisa to Beyoncé? Probably.
She was right. As thrilled as I was to finally see the Mona Lisa, that boil of enthusiasm fizzed into annoyance with the obstructing crowds who couldn’t validate their appreciation of the magnitude of the situation (at least not that I could tell). It’s nice to experience something important, but it’s even nicer to know why something has importance. I hope Mona Lisa’s visitors know why (or learned why) she is considered one of the greatest works of art. It’s all fun and games until you spend all your money and realize you’ve nothing to show but the standard tourist cell phone photo. Your wallet shrinks but your brain is the same size.
It felt so… good to see her. And to get that pep talk. Had she not winked at me and urged me to move on and discover something new, I probably would have left the exhibit extremely irked. I’m still slightly irked, but I had a takeaway. Was I being selfish for standing up there for more than 30 seconds while others impatiently waited behind me? Maybe. My moment with Mona Lisa was strained by the pressure of the crowd, but at least I experienced her fame… AND her greatness.
I am one of the 6 million people who visited Mona Lisa that year. I was able to bask for 30 seconds in her story and now I am intrinsically connected to all the others who have looked upon her for 500 years.
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