Obliterating “Fine” from Fine Art
Summary: An ideal visit to a museum should allow visitors to have a contemplative, reasonably up-close encounter with works of art. Large, well-known museums with famous works of art have a hard time providing a contemplative experience for their visitors.
My apology for the extended hiatus for providing essays for the Syntax of Color. Family obligations along with a planned vacation trip to France took time away from writing. However, I am back with a lot of fresh new ideas to share with all of you.
The trip to France was long overdue and was scheduled to coincide with the end of summer holidays in Europe. Despite being told that the crowds would be significantly diminished in September, that was far from the case when related to major tourist attractions.
Our trip included several days in Paris with timed entries for the Louvre, St. Chapelle, Musee d’Orsay, and Versailles. We took a train and visited Nice, picked up a rental vehicle, and drove to the French Alps via a stopover in Arenzano Italy. We spent several days in the Burgundy wine region, returned to Paris to take a train to London and spent a day enjoying the outdoors in Kew Gardens.
This essay focuses solely on our trip to the Louvre and the experience we had visiting this vast, sprawling museum that appears to have no limit as to how many people are admitted into the building to see the artwork contained within its walls.
I have a rather narrow definition regarding the concept of a “museum experience.” Emphasis on the museum experience has become a topic of importance in recent years at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC with resources dedicated to surveying and improving the time a visitor spends within the museum viewing works of art. I admit I am spoiled. I walked countless times through the Gallery’s exhibition areas on my way to the Art Materials Collection and Study Center before the Gallery opened to the public. The serenity experienced moving quietly in the museum without jockeying around visitors was sheer bliss.
While the National Gallery of Art has an outstanding collection, it fortunately does not have a particular “ultra-magnetic” work of art that draws tremendous crowds into a single exhibition room. The frenzy to visit the room at the Louvre to see La Gioconda (Mona Lisa) by Leonardo di Vinci is a unique opportunity to understand how a single work of art has so much public attraction.
Where did the desire to see the Mona Lisa begin?
The Mona Lisa has a very typical provenance related to successive ownership within the upper class, and ruling society. The painting came into what would become the Louvre collection during the time of the French Revolution. For a significant amount of time, the painting lived quietly and obscurely in the Louvre. Its first step toward widespread fame came In 1911 when a physical plant employee stole La Gioconda. It was recovered two years later after a potential buyer reported to authorities when La Gioconda was offered for sale by the thief. Soon it was returned to the Louvre. La Gioconda has been subjected to several attacks that were thwarted by framing/glazing elements that protected it from harm.
Victorian-era writers waxed poetically about the Mona Lisa. The painting took on a sense of mystery and intrigue. This recognition of the painting and elevation to greater awareness of it generated “interpretations” of the work in the form of parody. The most notable was Marcel Duchamp’s reproduction of the work sporting a mustache and goatee and giving it a new “title,” L.H. O. O. Q. When Duchamp’s title is spoken letter by letter in French, it sounds like the phrase, "Elle a chaud au cul" (I leave it to the reader to translate.) Not to be outdone, Salvadore Dali painted a copy substituting his face for that of La Gioconda.
Several years after World War II, popular music of the time elevated and celebrated La Gioconda.
Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you You're so like the lady with the mystic smile Is it only 'cause you're lonely they have blamed you? For that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile? Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa? Or is this your way to hide a broken heart? Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep They just lie there, and they die there Are you warm? Are you real, Mona Lisa? Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?
Ray Evans and Jay Livingstone, 1949, Recorded by Nat King Cole, 1950
In a more recent era, Andy Warhol used the image of the painting to create his well-known series of multiple serigraphs. Warhol appears to have been inspired by a rare visit by La Gioconda to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1963. It also traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Over 500,000 visitors came to see the Mona Lisa when it was in Washington. (For more information, visit the NGA Archives website and examine the 1963 Exhibitions page.)
The popularity of La Gioconda has never abated. On our visit in September 2023, the room called the Salle des États, felt like it was packed with several hundred people in it, despite it being the largest single-room exhibit space in the Louvre. The Louvre does not count the seemingly endless hallways that also serve as exhibit spaces.
The Mona Lisa measures 30 inches by 21 inches (77 cm by 53 cm). From the middle of the Salle des États it looks like a postage stamp. Getting close to it is akin to boarding a crowded train and trying to maneuver into a spot where incoming and outgoing passengers are not brushing by you. Visitors inch up to a rope barrier that is several feet away from the painting. Two somewhat bored museum employees stand at either side of the painting. The room is noisy, and it is hard to see the artwork because a forest of hands holding cell phones to capture an image of the painting blocks any clear view.
Overall, the experience is far from ideal, and with the painting being so far from view, the lasting memory is dominated by the size of the crowd and the noise they generate.
Interestingly, in the corridor not far from the Salle des États, a much larger, amazing painting by Leonardo di Vinci hangs proudly. The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is a masterful work by the artist. Visitors can even get within a few feet of the picture to take in the subtle brushwork and techniques that Leonardo imparted to this masterpiece.
Visitors to the Louvre are forewarned that the Denon wing is the most popular part of the museum. The galleries in Denon read like the printed images in a typical Art History 101 textbook. (if textbooks still exist for art history students) By contrast during our visit, other wings of the Louvre appear to have far more tame attendance. The rooms are quiet. Patrons can move from painting to painting or sculpture to sculpture without undue effort. These galleries are where a real museum encounter can be had.
It still was an excellent day, an experience not to be missed when visiting Paris. Humorously, a surprise awaits visitors upon deciding to leave the Louvre. Entering the building was relatively easy. Visitors wait in a line that forms outside. Each person displays their timed entrance pass to a staff member. Everyone enters the pyramid and proceeds down an escalator to the lower-level lobby. Visitors then select which wing they wish to visit. It is no surprise them most visitors head straight to Denon.
When leaving, visitors are directed to exit the museum via the Carrousel du Louvre. The name sounds harmless enough. Perhaps it has, as the name suggests, a merry-go-round for children who have not expended enough energy during their trek through the galleries. Oh no, au contraire! How in the name of I. M. Pei are we being herded out of the building? Surprise! It is an underground shopping mall and it is a long, long walk to an actual exit that dumps you on the north side of the museum, a good distance from the Seine, especially if you are headed toward the Left Bank. However, it would not feel like a day at a museum if you didn’t reach 18,000 steps and your feet did not feel like mush.
Stay tuned for more reminiscences about France. The country is an extraordinary place, despite the lack of air conditioning. However, consuming a massive number of croissants made up for some of the lack of cool air.
The Syntax of Color