Smile, Please

By Amelia Gentleman

It's the most famous painting in the world and a must-see for anyone visiting Paris. But most people fight through the crowds to spend a mere 15 seconds in front of it - just long enough to grab a snapshot. So why do they bother?

Objectively, this is a very bad tourist experience. At least at the Eiffel Tower, the other highlight of travel-brochure Paris, you get the excitement of the lift and an incredible view. Here you get one small, dark picture surrounded by a jostling crowd of hundreds.

It is hard to see how anyone can genuinely enjoy looking at the painting in these circumstances, which probably explains why most people don't. A few seconds, a few photographs and the line moves on. The speed with which the majority of visitors deal with this tourist obligation is astonishing. And yet, unless they have anarchist tendencies, no first-time visitor to Paris would consider skipping it.

The Mona Lisa remains the most famous painting in the world. This year the crowds lining up to see it have grown thicker than ever, with the influx of millions of new Chinese tourists into Europe. A day spent in the room where the picture hangs reveals much about the global tourist industry - illustrating which countries are doing well enough economically to allow their middle classes the chance to visit France. It casts only scant light on why people still bother to come in their thousands to pay homage to the painting.

If you starting queuing well before the Louvre's doors open at 9am, and walk briskly through a network of long galleries that stand between the entrance hall and the first-floor room where the painting hangs, you can reach the Mona Lisa at about 9.09, before anyone else. For a short few minutes it is cool and quiet. A guard is rearranging the crowd barriers in the centre of the room with careful precision.

Four Chinese tourists are the first visitors at 9.11. They arrive, visibly delighted, and begin to examine the picture, holding their hands up to shield their eyes against a sun which isn't there. They take a few pictures of the painting and then of each other in front of the painting. Their delight lasts for about 50 seconds, after which they hurry off.

The rumble of dozens of approaching feet is already audible by 9.14, as dozens of people make their way rapidly down the grand gallery, rushing past Caravaggios, Bellinis, Raphaels and a few other da Vincis, guided by the Mona Lisa signposts. By 9.20 there is a group of 28 people standing in front of the painting and fathers are already having to hold their children above the crowd so that they can see.

"People come because she is famous. Period," says Pete Brown, a retired businessman from Iowa, with some irritation. "But you want my opinion honestly? I'm not overly impressed."

At 9.30 the crowd has grown to about 47. Mobile phones are used to take pictures. Children show their parents how to use the equipment. The noise of the clicking of shutters, the buzzing of zooms whirring in and out, the satisfied pips of the machinery signalling its readiness, becomes overwhelming. Some couples kiss as they walk away, happy that another part of the Paris experience has been completed. At 10.14 the mass of people is 12 rows deep; 15 minutes later there are so many people elbowing from behind that it becomes uncomfortable to stand at the curved wooden barrier by the front of the picture.

"She must be one of the ugliest women in the world," a teenager mutters.

Waiting to see the Mona Lisa has all the thrill of standing in an airport check-in queue. The crowd pushes forward, cattle-like and unquestioning, performing a ritual they know they have to go through with in order to complete a pre-ordained tourist experience.

By midday the room is seething with visitors, the line heaves towards the front, a slow, weary museum trudge, and around 70 more people file in every minute. Caged in a box of bullet-proof glass, the picture looks unimpressive under the harsh institutional lighting. Winking dots of red and orange reflected camera eyes dance across the canvas and every few seconds the Mona Lisa's face is obscured by another flash.

"I don't know why they keep coming," Stephane, a security guard who has worked for the Louvre for the past two years, says. "It's a nice painting, but there are many more interesting pictures elsewhere in the museum. People don't look at it anyway. They come in, take a picture and leave. It takes 15 seconds."

"People no longer study it. It is no longer a painting, but has become a symbol of a painting," says Darian Leader, author of Stealing the Mona Lisa: What Art Stops Us From Seeing. Looking at the visitors from the front of the crowd, about half have their faces pressed into a camera. Those at the back arch onto tiptoes, hold their arms far above their head and take a picture, paparazzi-style.

You have to feel sorry for Salvator Rosa, whose pictures hang to the left and the right of the Mona Lisa. No one spares a glance for the enormous Heroic Battle, 1652, to the left, with its dramatic portrayal of carnage. There must have been a time when this would have been the more obvious crowd-gatherer, but a sequence of quite random events has transformed the Mona Lisa over the past century into a celebrity painting.

Before the 1789 revolution, scarcely anyone had access to it. Then, with the creation of the Louvre, it was for some time kept in the curator's bureau, away from the hordes, and valued much less than Leonardo's Virgin and Child with St Anne. But as the romantic poets of the 19th century began to be obsessed with the femme fatale, the Mona Lisa was seized on as an ideal of womanhood, her smile and the eyes venerated. The confusion over quite who she was increased her allure.

Donald Sassoon, author of Becoming Mona Lisa - The History of the World's Most Famous Painting, points out that such was the profusion of religious paintings of saints, famous royals, skinny Dutch women and obese Rubens females, that there weren't that many other paintings of unknown, beautiful women to choose as the object of male fantasies.

Then just as the painting was gaining mass recognition, it was stolen in 1911, at a time when popular newspapers were booming. The image was reproduced globally as the search began. Such was the painting's new significance, that people lined up to stare at the empty space where the picture had been hanging. The story of the theft and its rediscovery inspired dozens of books and films. Then came the lampooning of the work by Marcel Duchamp, the appropriation of the image by surrealists, pop artists, and finally by the advertising industry.

Art historian EH Gombrich says the picture has become so worn out by all these references that it's almost impossible "to see it with fresh eyes". But the reality is that in the Louvre, you cannot really see the painting at all for the far more practical reason that there are too many other people in front of it.

Some visitors are quite open about their frustration. "The Mona Lisa is probably the single most disappointing piece of work in the entire world," Guy Kress, an experimental psychologist from California, says. "The picture everyone has in their minds is much larger and brighter." It is true that the poster reproduction in the museum shop is a much bolder image. With this fresh in your mind, the original looks dour and gloomy.

Moonkyou Kim, a tour guide with a group of 16 tourists from Seoul, taking a 10-day whirlwind tour of Europe with 24 hours in France, says the anti-climax is palpable. "People aren't very happy when they see it. It's too small. They don't believe it's the original." But of the 51 people approached randomly over the day, the majority still say the picture is wonderful and they are thrilled to have seen it. Despite the crush and the inconvenience there is for many a reluctance to question the value of the experience.

To doubt that the Mona Lisa is worth seeing is a bit like asking whether it's worth coming to Paris at all. The Mona Lisa is a key part of the Paris package, and one of the reasons why you come to France, why you come to Europe. For most tourists this moment will be a critical part of their memory of France as a whole. To come here and not be amazed or delighted is in some way to admit that the whole Paris experience is somehow not as great as it's cracked up to be. Most people know this is illogical, and yet they buy into it anyway. "When you come to Paris for the first time, you have to see the cliches. You can't be too proud," Oded Hauptaman, an opthamologist from Melbourne says.

Among the thousands who process past throughout the day, there are very few who pause to look hard. Takuya Sejima is an exception, stopping for over 30 minutes, holding his hand up towards his eyes at different angles, using his museum plan to help measure different sections of the painting, making notes. Next to the rushing masses, his behaviour looks eccentric, verging on the insane. An 18-year-old art student from Tokyo, he wants to assess why daVinci made the left hand so much larger than the right hand, and so out of proportion with the face. "It's marvellous. It's difficult to express why in words," he says.

Later the tourists become wearier, their legs heavier, more prone to squabbling with their partners. The number of tour groups dwindles. The number of French visitors increases. Leading away his small group of French art enthusiasts, Bruno de Baecque explains: "People invest a lot of hope into the prospect of seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time. It becomes a quasi-sacred experience. They're ready to suffer considerable discomfort to extract some pleasure from the experience. No one can really know if they're disappointed. I tell people to try to enjoy the thrill of seeing the painting surrounded by crowds."

By 9.30pm there are only about 10 people left in the room, and for the first time all day there's time to really examine the painting. But as closing time approaches, guards shoo the remaining visitors away so that only Mohamed Elabdi, the night cleaner, remains sweeping away the mound of rubbish discarded over the day at the foot of the painting.

After 30 years in France, he saw the painting for the first time three days ago when he started this new job with the Louvre. "It's hard to hard to understand what the fuss is about," he says. "But the way that the eyes follow you around the room as you work is disconcerting."


--> The above article appeared on arts.guardian.co.uk
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