Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Mona Lisa Not Smiling Yet

You know you're marrying the perfect guy when he takes you to Paris for the weekend of your birthday. The trip was everything you'd imagine a romantic adventure in Paris should be; we walked hand in hand down St. Germain des Pres and stopped in charming cafes for a pain au chocolat during the intermittent rain showers.

Mickey and I had both visited Paris five years ago separately with friends. He and his crew made it to the Louvre on that trip, but I had never been so we decided to go together. Neither of us are fans of art, but we occasionally visit museums because it seems like the thing to do when you travel to a foreign city. I made up my mind that I couldn't leave Paris a second time without having seen the Mona Lisa not because I truly wanted to see it, but quite honestly, because I would've felt guilty if I hadn't. So there we were in the most famous museum housing the world's most famous work of art, Leonardo DaVinci's Mona Lisa. But when I should have been enjoying the splendor of the Louvre, I felt only frustration.

Because there are literally ten miles worth of gallery space in the Louvre, a first time visitor must carefully plan her route through the former palace. Acting like a high schooler on an academic scavenger hunt, I followed the signs leading the way to the Mona Lisa. I knew we were in the right place when I saw what looked like hundreds of people vying for a glimpse of a painting behind bullet proof glass. Mickey and I joined the herd and edged closer and closer to DaVinci's masterpiece. It is embarrassing to admit this, but my first thought upon viewing the Mona Lisa was 'it's really... small, actually.' Immediately I cursed myself for being a philistine incapable of appreciating art, whose impression of the world's most famous painting focused on its size.

But I wasn't only angry at myself, I felt like the whole world was playing some trick on us. True, the Mona Lisa wears an intriguing grin. But I don't understand how that expression made her one of the most recognized images in the world, priceless, protected by bullet proof glass and a team of museum employees who kindly but firmly tell visitors not to take photos. Sure, I could read piles of art history books about precisely this subject. Indeed, having more knowledge would allow me to write a more informed blog post, but would it help me to gaze on DaVinci's famous portrait and smile back?

My guess is, perhaps. I can appreciate art when I gauge how difficult it would have been for me or someone else to replicate it. For instance, I can admire sculpture because I believe that chiseling a life-like human form from rock requires special talent and cannot be done by the average person. Likewise, I can appreciate paintings that accurately or imaginatively depict real people and places because they require tremendous skill. Thus, admiring the pure artistry of Michelangelo's David or the works of Salvador Dali is easy for me.

And then there's modern art. I'm sure we've all visited MOMA at one point or another and thought 'I could've done that' while perusing the galleries. The Louvre houses thousands of pieces of art, mostly renaissance and classical, but a couple of modern pieces have managed to sneak in. On the floor of one of the French Classical sculpture galleries is a snaking tube, perforated with large holes from which strawberry plants grow. I stared and wondering how that could possibly be art. Would it still be art if they grew zucchini instead? If I flew a kite through the adjacent sculpture gallery, would that be art?

I was thoroughly confused, but my walk through the sculpture gallery/strawberry patch helped me realize that art was not limited to the category of 'that which your average Joe could not have created.' After reflecting for a while and kicking myself for not taking at least one art history class in college, I realized that there is another way for people like me to understand and enjoy fine art. I thought back to my unusual experience of actual satisfaction at an art museum, the Museum Rietberg here in Zurich, to be specific. The main building was closed for renovation but a small annex housing Indian paintings from the 18th century remained open. There I wandered from piece to piece with genuine interest because the subject matter was familiar. A year's worth of South Asian Studies classes had helped me identify the different characters of the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita and their moralistic dramas in each painting. In other words, I had fun because I had a sense of the context behind the painting.

And perhaps the same goes for the Mona Lisa. If you want to not only see her but also understand why she smiles from behind bullet proof glass, you'll have to learn more about her. Sometimes I wonder if even a three hour lecture could convince me that a strawberry patch or a blank canvas is museum worthy and thus valuable. I used to get frustrated and wonder why a hot dog from a street vendor isn't art, but now I believe that in the proper context and with the right intentions, maybe a hot dog could also be art. Take my advice and don't leave Paris without ... renting the audio guide.

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