As It Happens

The Mona Lisa — and its throngs of fans — should vacate the Louvre: NY Times art critic

The Mona Lisa has become more of a "holy icon" than a work of art, and it needs its own pavilion outside the museum, argues Jason Farago.

The da Vinci painting has become a 'holy icon' in need of its own pavilion, argues Jason Farago

Visitors take pictures in front of the Mona Lisa after it was returned to its place at the Louvre Museum in Paris on Oct. 7, 2019. (Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images)
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The Mona Lisa is no longer just a painting — it's a "holy icon," says New York Times art critic Jason Farago.

Arguably the most famous artwork in the world, Leonardo da Vinci's portrait draws millions of onlookers to the Louvre in Paris every year, making up 80 per cent of the museum's 10.2 million annual visitors. 

In his article "It's Time to Take Down the Mona Lisa," Farago calls the painting a "security hazard" and an "educational obstacle" that ultimately leaves people disappointed. 

But despite the headline, Farago says he doesn't want to see the painting tucked away into obscurity. Rather, he says it's time for Mona Lisa to get her own pavilion outside the museum, where her millions of worshippers can pay homage.

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

For [those] who have never visited the Louvre and never gone to see the Mona Lisa, what is the scene around her?

It's a mob scene and one that seems to get busier and busier every year.

You've said in your article that this lineup, the crowd to see the Mona Lisa, would make "the Spirit Airlines boarding process look like a model of efficiency." I've never flown Spirit, but it sounds bad. Is it just because it's just inefficient, or is it because there are just so many people?

You have to line up. There are two separate queues. And I believe that you will probably wait around 15 minutes on a good day, I'd say, to get from the back of the queue to the front.

And when you're in the front, you're still not really the face-to-face with the Mona Lisa. You are still a solid 10 feet or so away, and that's just close enough to sort of have her peeking out over your shoulder if you're there to take a selfie.

And I don't begrudge anybody who wants to take a selfie. I take a selfie every now and then when I'm in a museum. But for scrutinizing the painting, which is a relatively small painting, it's totally insufficient.

And you don't want to monopolize the time there. You actually aren't allowed to monopolize the time there because there are guards who have the dolorous, but totally necessary responsibility of keeping everybody moving along.

The Louvre says 80 per cent of its visitors come to see the iconic portrait. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

As you point out ... the Mona Lisa has been voted the world's most disappointing attraction [in an April survey by airline easyJet], beating out Checkpoint Charlie, the Spanish Steps and that urinating boy in Brussels — so just how disappointing is this?

The Mona Lisa is a wonderful portrait of 16th-century Italian art. Of course it is. I would never say otherwise.

But it has moved beyond being a work of art and has become this kind of relic, this holy icon for people. And it's always bound to be disappointing when you go from the fantasy that you might have of this from the images that you might have seen, to the dull reality of the crowd and of the line and of the security.

I think it's important to insist that in 2019, it's very difficult even to understand the Mona Lisa as a work of art, that the fame of this painting so exceeds its appearance and your visual experience, when you have the chance to finally look at this painting, it's almost as if you can't see it at all.

Because it's become a meme, it's become an advertisement for every product. It's on T-shirts and coffee cups. And as you point out in your article, you call it "the Kim Kardashian of 16th-century Italian portraiture."

I wonder if I was a little unfair for saying so. It's a wonderful painting. Of course it is.

But, you know, Kim Kardashian is also quite beautiful, but no one can necessarily remember how Kim got as famous as she did. And I think that with the Mona Lisa, it's a little bit similar.

Two carnival revellers masquerade the Mona Lisa in St. Mark's Square in Venice.

So your suggestion is just get her out of there, just give her her own pavilion, give her her own space, let people come and do their selfies with her, maybe get the United Arab Emirates to sponsor it, but just find her another place outside of the Louvre, right?

That's right. And I understand very much and I sympathize with the fact that the Louvre has a problem that most museums would dream of having, right? It's wonderful to have this many people coming into a museum, especially people who might be visiting a museum for the first time.

What I worry about is that the experience of seeing the one painting that they've come to see, the one painting that they know the most, is actually going to put them off art in the long term.

What I imagine is that the Mona Lisa could have her own room. Perhaps it's in the palace of the Louvre. I think it would be better if it was in a pavilion, a freestanding pavilion, near the Louvre.

And perhaps finally we could accept the fact this is no longer a painting, that this is an icon. And icons, religious objects, essentially have to be treated in different ways from works of art. They've exceeded the realm of art and have gone into some other higher, crazier realm.

I don't think you can ever really turn the clock back on that, but I do think that you can at least make the experience better for all involved — both people who want to discover the Mona Lisa for the first time, and people who want to discover the thousands and thousands of other masterpieces in the Louvre, and who are having more and more trouble doing so.

You've had, I think, tremendous reaction to your article in the New York Times ... and some mockery. There is an article [the] Cut that said the Mona Lisa should "just get bangs" and this will solve the Louvre's overcrowding issue because everyone who sees her will just immediately run out to get bangs.

[Laughs] She is an icon in that way, and has been a fashion play and has been a symbol for artists like Marcel Duchamp, who famously put a mustache on the Mona Lisa, to Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura, who posed in drag as the Mona Lisa.

She exceeds the frame, and has become something that is so much larger and so much more enduring than this one single painting.

In many ways, it's the image of the Mona Lisa and our shared idea of the Mona Lisa that is the icon, and this poor small painting — a beautiful, poor small painting — is the one that's really suffering.


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

 

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