And she smiled

Everyone I had spoken to on the matter had told me that the Louvre could not be viewed in one day, but I had no idea how enormous the museum was until I approached it from outside and saw the long wings of the former royal palace…. Holy crow, I thought. Lookit the size of it! And it’s crammed with stunning pieces of art– as if all of the photos of my Western Art History book were taken there! The scale! I know the dimensions of the paintings are noted in the textbooks but it is completely something else to stand before The Raft of the Medusa and feel the high drama of the tragic scene so stylized and so freaking enormous– I was imagining that people in the early 1800s might have experienced this painting as we currently experience films on the big screen. Larger than life, dramatic, and intense.

We made the pragmatic choice to see certain paintings that were “the most famous” because we would not have enough time to see everything well (perhaps if we had one week to spend inside the museum?), and, the space was very crowded with high-peak tourists (of which we were an additional five….). So off we went to see the Mona Lisa.

I had also been warned that there would be a queue in front of painting… I was totally unprepared for what I found. I had imagined that there would be those velvet ropes that folded the line-up back and forth into an organized and compact repeating U-shaped order, much like we line up at banks and airline wickets, etc. But there was no order. It was an outright scrum. On top of that most members of the scrum had one arm held vertically in the air with their camera or cellphone, as if they were mobbing a film star instead of viewing a piece of art. They were not trying to view a piece of art. They were trying to capture a piece of it to take home as trophy…. It was an art mob….

I was appalled, fascinated, curious, frustrated, disheartened, surprised, and alarmed. Holy smokes, I thought. What have we come to? Look how the ease with which digital photography has altered our behaviour and relationship!

We had requested a wheelchair for my mum because she couldn’t walk through the entire Louvre for so many hours without a great deal of pain. Bravely we joined the scrum and inched our way forward. It was terribly unorganized. People in the front who had finished viewing were trying to move to the back while the people in the back were trying to get closer. Truly it’s a trampling death waiting to happen. People were pushing and shoving and cutting in front of my mum’s wheelchair. It was a true mob with no sense of individual relationship to others. Daughter grew so disgusted by the entire thing that she left the scrum. Grimly, I pressed forward. The scrum would not stop me from viewing the Mona Lisa (thereby, I was part of the scrum. Oh, the tangled webs!). My sister was pushing my mum’s wheelchair. My mum’s friend was a little to my right. As we neared the front velvet rope that kept the crowd about ten feet away from the Mona Lisa, the pushing and shoving grew greater. There were two gallery minders standing inside the rope and one of them, with a slightly disgusted look on his face,  unclipped it and held it open so my sister could push my mum to the front and away from the awful, awful crowd. They got to view the Mona Lisa from close up, away from the maddening horde!!!! Awesome! I finally got to the front and had 30 seconds to gaze upon portrait. A forest of arms behind me, raised high, the digital clicks of cameras crowding paparazzi buzz and the press of bodies, unsettled longings for things they cannot say–

How quiet she is… how cool her smile. Cool as a deep shadow-dappled pool in a leafy forest…. A pocket of calm. A pocket of still. How remarkable, I thought. How utterly lovely.

We went on to see more paintings and sculptures. The third floor was far less crowded and I was so grateful. I can’t wait to return during the off-season….

It wasn’t only with the Mona Lisa– in front of all the other “famous” paintings people stood beside the artwork so that they could be photographed with it. As if the artwork is a tourist location/moment. Perhaps a little like having a photo taken with Goofy at Disneyland? The engagement was not between art and the viewer, but as site-documentation with placement of self within the frame. I’m not even certain many people actually looked at the painting. Interesting, as Spock would say. I have to confess it made me feel sad. But contexts shift with time and what was is not now, and will be something else in the future. As Octavia E. Butler wrote, “Life is Change.” The paintings are static. Our human culture(s) are not.

I am glad for some things that do not change….