A few weeks ago, I saw the Mona Lisa for the first time at the Louvre. I’ve been to Paris several times but never had the chance or care to go to the Louvre. Honestly, the National Gallery in London is one of my least favourite museums. I guess I don’t have a taste for classical art. I much prefer engaging, modern art, especially of the architectural variety. However, we happened to be in Paris during a railway strike and most museums were closed, so it seemed like a good opportunity to go see the Louvre.
Honestly, the Louvre wasn’t all miserable. There were some incredible paintings and sculptures. It was great to see the incredible craftsmanship on the ancient greek and roman sculptures, and I loved the huge, wall-filling paintings of Napoleonic war scenes. Even the spaces of the building itself were incredible. The rooms are covered intricate paintings and sculptures, and the scale of the entire building is breathtaking. As a student, it is free to go, so it is worth it to go to just take in the incredible architecture.
We didn’t have too much time for the visit, so after wandering around for an hour, we decided that we should go see the Mona Lisa. What I then experienced was one of the greatest pieces of modern performance art I have ever seen…
Ok, that might have been an exaggeration. But it was more of an interactive performance piece than a painting. You first start by joining the back of the queue. You first join a small queue in the main space under the pyramid structure near the entrance. It’s only 5-minute wait until you are ushered to the next step. That wasn’t so bad.
A swarm of people are then funnelled through a ticket check, and the queue turns the corner to go up some stairs. It doesn’t seem to bad at this point as it is only maybe another 15 minutes of waiting here. You can see people starting to get a bit bored here. My mind starts wandering (I have a very short attention span) and I starting quietly repeating “Mona Lisa” to the tune of Hallelujah. 5 minutes later, you could feel the whole crows starting to sigh and look up the stairs impatiently.
Finally, we make it up the first set of stairs and… Holy Sh*t! Looking up, you could see the queue snaking up 3 floors. There was a set of escalators in the middle, and people were waiting in the space around each one. The queue seemed endless. It didn’t help that the huge windows made the space into a bit of a greenhouse, and at one point I honestly thought I was going to pass out. Everyone is getting restless. The wait seems endless, but it feels like it is too late to back out.
After what feels like an eternity, we reached the top of the spiral. Here we go, we finally get to see the painting, right?
Wrong. Another waiting room. The queue is now snaking its way through a gallery room. At least there are some paintings to look at now, and out of boredom, everyone starts snapping pictures of them. I find it weird that people do this. Are you really going to look at this photo of a random painting ever again? It’s just going to be a nuisance later when you are going to run out of space on your phone, and are going to have to scroll back and reluctantly delete them. Surely, you can find a book or an online article that shows the painting in more detail than you could capture with your phone from across the room.
Finally! We have made it to Mona Lisa. It sits on the other side of the room in a glass cage, only another queue standing between me and the painting. More waiting, but now we get to witness people scrambling to see the Mona Lisa. It was arranged so that groups would be let into a waiting space, and then all of a sudden let through to have a closer look. Crowds scramble to the painting in a flurry of phones and selfie sticks. Everyone tries to get one or two selfies in before they are moved along. Some people get very upset, begging the staff to let them go back and take another photo. Did they really see the Mona Lisa, or did they see it through their phone screen while making their way through the tourist mosh pit?
The whole experience was ridiculous. When it came to our turn, I can’t say I got a good look at the painting, it was placed so far away that you could never appreciate any details. So I honestly can’t say I really saw the Mona Lisa. Instead, I took part in a massive social experiment. A test to see the mental endurance of the swarms of tourists flocking to see a painting that is told to be the greatest. And naturally, after waiting for an hour and more to get a glimpse of the painting, emotions will get ride high. Maybe we should turn our cameras away from the painting and take pictures of the crowds of people rushing and fighting to get a glimpse. Incredible energy. Modern Rennaisance.
A lot of the time, it is more interesting to see what happens around the artwork than the work itself. I had a similar experience with the refugee boat at the Venice Biennale. It was a boat on display, on which 700 to 1100 refugees were trying to escape. The boat sunk and only a handful of people survived. The history of the boat and the media uproar of it being displayed was fascinating. Was it disrespectful to display what is essentially a mass grave? It is interesting for me to see the comparison between the controversy surrounding the art display, but the eerie silence and discomfort about the refugee crisis. But when it came to actually see the piece, it was exactly what I expected. A boat.
Similarly, it is interesting to see the excitement for the Mona Lisa. The Louvre is an enormous gallery full of many incredible paintings and artworks. In a day, you could see hundreds of incredible works, and most definitely find something to your taste to appreciate. Yet instead we wait for hours to not really see anything.