Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Smiling at Mona

On the bulletin board over my desk, I have twelve reproductions of the Mona Lisa. They are pins, fastened four across by three down, to a rectangular piece of card stock that has been perforated so that it can separate easily, allowing them to be sold or given away one by one. Above each pin is the legend, "Fashion", and below lettering informs me that it is "imitation jewelry" -- in case I was in any doubt of their intrinsic value.

twelve Mona Lisa pins
These twelve smiling faces have been in front of me so long that I barely even notice them. Today, as I look at Mona, I see that the plastic in which the cheap, color prints are embedded is scratched. Some of the medallions are askew in their soft, metal backings. A few of the harmless, pointy prongs have bent backwards, giving them a slightly dangerous air.

These pins don't even show the whole painting, just a close-up of the woman's head and chest. The colors aren't quite right, either -- the greens of the landscape behind her are too green, the red of her bodice and lips too red. In fact, it's hard to know how many generations this image is removed from Leonardo's famous painting. Someone must have photographed the original at some point, but how many copies of copies were made before this garish imitation found its way to a factory in Hong Kong?

paintings, prints, and photographs in my office
Aside from the twelve identical Monas and some equally odd reproductions of Leonardo's equally famous Last Supper, my office walls are filled with a mixture of original prints and paintings, snapshots of my family, and postcards announcing exhibitions. These works feed my spirit, connect me with people I love, and help me to remember why art matters. In the midst of such richness, I ask myself why I keep these talismans of a painting that I don't even like all that much.

I did see the real thing, once. It was protected by bulletproof glass and velvet ropes that cordoned off the crowd of people pressing as close to it as they could. The crowd was oblivious to the other not-as-famous paintings in that large room at the Louvre. Meanwhile, I gaped in astonishment at familiar sights from my art-school days, now vividly real on the walls around me.

What I learned that day, or maybe re-learned, was that looking at a reproduction is no substitute for seeing the real thing. Paintings that I never before had understood or cared about when seen as slides or photographs in books suddenly came to life. In one painting after another, I saw the painter's hand, the sheer size of the canvas implying the physical movement of the artist. I saw how changes in thickness of paint, or changes in the angle of vision, changed how the image appeared. I saw details that had always escaped me as my eyes slid over the homogenized surfaces of prints and posters. In that company, the relatively small, over-publicized, much-admired Mona Lisa couldn't really command my attention.

The twelve, small reproductions on my bulletin board, however, manage to do just that. As the imitation jewelry twists and turns on its flimsy, cardboard support, the cheap, cheesy copies ask me to think about the value of art, the value of history, the value of fame. It often seems that Mona is smiling at me at as I work, sometimes with a smirk, sometimes with compassion, and at other times with simple amusement. I look up from the words shimmering on my computer screen, stretch my back and rub my eyes, and just smile back.


  1. I was shocked the first time I saw the "Mona LIsa" I had assumed that a that such a well known work would be monumental. Her smile is indeed engaging.


  2. The Mona Lisa came to visit the National Gallery of Art when I was nine or ten. My parents and I stood in a long line, shuffling slowly forward towards the Great Artwork. When we arrived, I could only stare in wonder at something I'd never seen before . . . two handsome soldiers in full dress uniform, standing guard on either side of the painting. Even at my age, I knew what the Mona Lisa looked like. Her capacity to surprise was close to nil. But those soldiers gave me the shock of the unexpected, of the truly new. I remember them to this day, and gratefully recall how they introduced me to Art.