Mona Lisa

I was in Paris this past weekend, and went to the Louvre, where somehow I’d never been. Of course I had to see the Mona Lisa, which turns out to be three art pieces, all happening at the same time, layered on top of each other.

The first, of course, is the painting itself, which is more impressive — it has more presence, for one thing — than I’d guessed from reproductions. I wish it were displayed with other Leonardos, especially if its smile is one of its attractions. Other faces in other Leonardos at the Louvre also have sly, surprising smiles.

The second art piece is the crowd around the painting, like nothing I’ve ever seen in any gallery or museum. People pressing forward to see the great attraction, cameras and cell phones raised above their heads to take photos of it. God help anyone who wants to see the art displayed next to the Mona Lisa; there’s no way to look at it in piece, nowhere even to stand where anyone could see it clearly. But the crowd is fascinating, a performance piece in itself, or rather people creating a performance piece they’re unaware of. (On April 5, the Mona Lisa is moving to a new location. That will free the art around it now, and, with any luck, supply an even better stage for the crowd performance.)

And the third piece — the most intriguing of the three (especially since there’s no way to look very hard at Leonardo’s work) — is created by the camera flashes. They’re reflected in the glass that protects the painting. You see both the flashes, and the red warning lights that sometimes tell you that a flash is about to go off. Some flashes are long, some are short. Some are single flares; some are repeated bursts. You see them flaring up at the corners of the painting, in the center, in every quadrant of it, no two in the same place. Sometimes you see just little points of light.

I stood there, watching all these flashes for minutes on end. I’d love to make a film of them — just the reflected flashes, not the cameras, the cell phones, or the people in the crowd (though I imagine the film would show faint echoes of the people). If I made this film, the camera wouldn’t move. It would be like some of Andy Warhol’s films, especially Empire, in which, for just over eight hours, an unmoving camera simply shows us a nighttime view of the Empire State Building from a window many blocks away. I haven’t seen all of it (I doubt it’s made for that), but in the portion I did see, I was drawn to windows in the other buildings visible in the unchanging shot, whose lights at long, uncertain intervals might wink on or off.

My film would be a lot more active; the flashes (for whatever length the film might last, perhaps whatever hours the Louvre’s open to the public, on an average day) would never stop. I’d find them fascinating. (This follows, I think, from the kind of attention John Cage’s 4’33″ creates in anyone who takes it seriously. I don’t mean to toot my horn in saying that, or to praise people who like Cage’s silent piece, over those who don’t get it. I’m only suggesting that it can open us to many things we might not otherwise notice.)

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