Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Once and Future Divas

What is really astounding about renaissance paintings is their size. Perusing a book of art, regardless of how big a coffee table is needed to hold it, gives you no indication that the originals are often so huge they are too big to put anywhere unless you have a castle or a palace. Which most of the original owners had of course. The biggest painting in the Louvre is Les Noces de Cana which is an astounding 22 feet high by 32 feet long. It is a curious thing then that thousands of people each day ignore it, because they are straining for a glimpse of the 30 inch by 20 inch work that hangs opposite, The Mona Lisa.

When I saw the most famous painting in the world I could hardly help but be underwhelmed. Sorry, no really I really am. The trouble was I already knew it so well; what it looked like, its history, and various interesting factoids about it (It’s painted on poplar wood, not canvas). And it’s not just a case of having seen it once or twice, I’ve seen The Mona Lisa everywhere all my life—children’s shows, the news, documentaries, comedy sketches—enough that it is very familiar to me; as I’m sure it is to much of the world.

Her every facet has been examined and discussed for generations. On television, professors of art reveal facts and secrets the casual observer does not perceive no matter how hard they look at the real thing (it took four years to paint—that’s three square inches a month). Reproductions on posters and in books allow you to see more detail than you can when you’re in front of the real thing; and in colors that are actually more true to when it was created than the original now shows. The morning I was at the Louvre I’d seen the image a dozen times, bigger, in better color, more detail, and less crowded conditions than the original itself.

So what added benefit then does seeing the original have? I argued to myself that one day the original will not be with us but I will always be able to say I saw it. Except of course the original will likely outlast me so I’ll never actually be able to say that unless I live to a ridiculously old age. And if that happens, the gathered audience will likely be more fascinated by my impossible longevity rather than the fact I saw a painting whose image they would surely have already seen.

There are things of historic import about the painting to be sure, but the vast majority of us don’t know them or wouldn’t realize their significance if we did (especially if our name is Dan Brown). The question of who she was created mystique and her various thefts gave her notoriety. But so what? Dare I suggest that in the age of celebrity, The Mona Lisa is mostly famous for being famous?

Elsewhere in the museum another well-known diva awaited and I had time, barely, to see her, which was lucky because she could barely be seen—The Venus de Milo.

The Venus de Milo is armless. Unless she falls on you. You feel sorry for her though. She stands at one end of an entire wing of impressive white statues, all of which have a complete set of limbs, making the whole scene like a snapshot of life in a school playground. The other statues hang around in groups, but none go near the ‘special’ kid, the one that’s a little ‘different.’ And unable to actually use sticks and stones, names is all they’ve got.

‘Don’t you wish you could point like us?’ they taunt.

‘You’re pointing at a ceiling tile,’ she retorts with a defiant sniff.

‘If you had arms to hold up that blanket you wouldn’t be showing so much,’ they mock, adding ‘it’s only because you’re not covered they come to see you.’

‘Like you can talk—Mr. Where’s my fig leaf gone?’

‘Bet you wish they’d put you in the armoury.’

‘Shut up.’

And so Venus is shunned by the other statues, defiantly upright though it must hurt inside. Longingly she looks over the heads of her human admirers, wishing she could join in with all other statue games, while they flaunt their ability to point, wave, hold things and otherwise make a single endless gesticulation.