Yes that is the Mona Lisa: that tinsy tiny little painting on the back wall of the above photograph (behind all the Japanese tourists and the bulletproof glass). I know right? Who knew?! The world-wise amongst you will have heard the truth about its size long ago (please feel free to eye-roll at hearing it again); but for those of you who have not, yes, it is miniscule! I honestly do not think that it is an exaggeration, much of one anyway, to say that everybody on this planet has heard of this painting; it must have been reproduced millions of times, from photographs to tea caddy’s! The soul of the Mona Lisa really has been disseminated and fragmented through time and space – diluting the awe of raw contact with its reality one could argue. Perhaps this explains the mass feeling of shock people appear to feel upon seeing the work in person; something so legendary, and so seared in our consciousness, should surely be of a size conducive to such a reputation? It should be massive! But the truth is, this simply isn’t the case!
The ridiculous thing is that directly opposite this famous painting lays another. This other work happens to be the largest painting in the Louvre – The Wedding Feast at Cana, Veronese 1562-63 – which hardly anybody was looking at! Practically everyone in the room was fighting to take a picture of the world-renowned miniature (sense the sarcasm, it isn’t actually a miniature), the Mona Lisa, when a fantastically large, equally beautiful (more-or-less), work was right behind them for the taking.
What’s even worse is that I joined in! I couldn’t resist! As soon as you spot the Mona Lisa from across the room, or even from the next room, you suddenly find yourself wanting to blindly run towards it! The other works in the room may as well be magnolia paint! I made rather a good job, so I would like to think, of forcing myself to nonchalantly glance at some of the other works first, before joining the crowd of cameras that is. However, I wasn’t fooling anybody, not least myself; I didn’t even see The Wedding Feast at Cana until I’d taken at least three pictures of Da Vinci’s masterpiece. At least.
Furthermore, I have to mention the map, which most definitely adds to this rather odd state of affairs. Where to begin? Well firstly, it is actually pointless as it will not prevent you from getting lost! Secondly, I didn’t even bother to pick one up until I was on my way out (even then it was purely for blogging purposes obviously) due to my not wanting to be herded around quite so much! The map encourages you to walk the museum’s rooms in a pre-subscribed manner, which pushes you towards the works you absolutely have to see before leaving, and in the order they think you should view them. Obviously this includes our good ol’ smiler The Mona Lisa…
I’m not going to lie I felt rather empowered actually – refusing a map in such a historically labyrinth-like museum! Hey, look at me guys – I’m going it alone! (To be quite clear I was not following the English tour guide back to the exit at 9.30pm because I was lost – we just happened to be going the same way. Honestly.)
Now then, that said let us move on to a museum that could not be more chalk-like compared to the Louvre’s cheese. The Centre Pompidou; a museum of modern art, also in Paris. This building epitomises a modern art museum upon first sight; it has that special something that is architecturally unique, which for me signifies the fact that the museum walls are themselves as much of a piece of art as anything displayed inside.
Just look at it! Its looks like a warehouse with a giant tube fixed on the outside, which houses the escalators in case you were wondering. (It looks like the slide at Pondsforge swimming baths, for my fellow Sheffield-people!) In complete contrast to the Louvre, I was slightly confused upon entering to discover that the map, when I opened the only one I could find, actually only tells you the basic layout of the building! No art is labelled on it whatsoever! I was so used to traditional museums at this point that this was rather a shock to my system! I had to nervously creep up to the information desk and ask… ermm where is the art please? (Just to give those of you who aren’t museum-goers a heads up – in a modern art museum you can never be sure of what you’re looking at! For instance, beware of touching something that may look like a water fountain! Or anything mundane looking for that matter! It could be a priceless piece of art!)
Finally, having being directed in a way that was not in the slightest way patronising, I found myself on the floor where the permanent collection was housed. I looked around, taking my time to discover the wonderful array of contemporary art on offer, and then went to have nosy in the bookshop. I asked the shop-man, in a roundabout fashion as my French isn’t that marvellous, “I don’t suppose there is an exhibition catalogue on sale listing the current permanent collection, by any chance?” His reply, once I knew he had understood, was to look at me like I had two heads. No. Actually, four heads! “Everything… No never Madame!” That was me told.
Then something occurred to me… Perhaps modern art is not supposed to be remembered indefinitely; there is no need for a guide listing all the current works because they change too often, and you simply are not meant to be able remember these works in 50 years time! It seems to be the case that contemporary/modern art is meant to be ephemeral, a sign of the moment, the here-and-now – not stick around so that in 500 years times it can be photographed by masses of people like the lovely Mona Lisa has done!
Take Jean DuBuffet’s Jardin D’Hiver, for instance. Its a work I have heard of, and one I would’ve thought was fairly famous in the art world. Known, at least. Yet there are no signs saying DuBuffet this way! (There are plenty of those in the Louvre) In fact I had no idea that it was even there, had I not nearly walked into into I may have wandered straight past it! It is a rather thrilling work as it is one you can actually step inside – you can literally experience the art work in a practical manner by touching its surfaces whilst looking out into the museum from the work’s own perspective. Amazing really. Plus – it is 43 years old. Getting on a bit right? Long enough to have established a sort of fame?
Is longevity and fame really right for this piece though? I mean, realistically, how different are the prospects for this work than such as the Mona Lisa! Traditional works are often fixed in the historical cannon of art, taking their places as great masterpieces that are ever-timeless. Contemporary art is not fixed in the same way. To speak literally, regarding display, it would defeat the object of modernity if they were to lie in the same place for 100 years! Contemporary, and modern, art is usually designed to fit the space given now, on this one occasion; thus, it is not conceived to be more than a fleeting moment in time. As you would expect with something ephemeral, you can touch them, or sense them; figure them out in a real way rather than appreciating their beauty from a distance, like with traditional painting. Though they can be moved, recreated, and kept, they’re not really ever fixed in such a way as more traditional works of art. Not fixed in time, in memory, in an infamous manner. In an exhibition guide that I can buy, take home, and look at when I’m moving house in 20 years anyway! Nevertheless I am pretty sure I will rebel and remember DeBuffet’s awesome garden anyway… store it up there indefinitely along with the Mona Lisa!