Have you ever seen the Mona Lisa? In person, in a photo, on a pen or in a meme? Is it on your bucket list of things to see or do in your lifetime?
Each year millions of people flock to the Louvre in Paris to catch a glimpse through the crowds and crush of people raising cellphones toward the famed painting.
Why exactly is this 16th-century portrait by Leonardo da Vinci so famous? Is it worth the fuss?
In “It’s Time to Take Down the Mona Lisa,” Jason Farago writes:
The Louvre houses the greatest collection of art anywhere in Europe, within a palace that is a masterpiece in its own right. It is, by some distance, the most popular museum in the world. In 2018 a record 10 million visitors, three-quarters of them foreign tourists, besieged the joint: up 25 percent on the previous year, and more than triple the attendance of the Centre Pompidou or the Musée d’Orsay.
Yet the Louvre is being held hostage by the Kim Kardashian of 16th-century Italian portraiture: the handsome but only moderately interesting Lisa Gherardini, better known (after her husband) as La Gioconda, whose renown so eclipses her importance that no one can even remember how she got famous in the first place.
Some 80 percent of visitors, according to the Louvre’s research, are here for the Mona Lisa — and most of them leave unhappy. Content in the 20th century to be merely famous, she has become, in this age of mass tourism and digital narcissism, a black hole of anti-art who has turned the museum inside out.
The author describes seeing the Mona Lisa after a recent renovation of the gallery space where the painting is displayed:
I went up with the crowds recently. Things were no better. Now, you must line up in a hideous, T.S.A.-style snake of retractable barriers that ends about 12 feet from the Leonardo — which, for a painting that’s just two and a half feet tall, is too far for looking and way too far for a good selfie.
Apparently the painting is beneath some nifty new nonreflective glass, but at this distance how could I tell? My fellow visitors and I could hardly see the thing, and we were shunted off in less than a minute. All this for a painting that (as the Louvre’s current show confirms) is hardly Leonardo’s most interesting, and that has drowned out the Venetian masterpieces in the Salle des États, such as Titian’s “Woman With a Mirror,” or Veronese’s “Wedding at Cana,” which Beyoncé was smart enough not to neglect. The museum is admitting as much with the pathetic new signs in the Salle des États: “The Mona Lisa is surrounded by other masterpieces — take a look around the room.”
This is a gallery that makes the Spirit Airlines boarding process look like a model of efficiency, and offers about as much visual delight. If you think me some sniffy aesthete for saying so, listen to the crowds: In a poll of British tourists earlier this year, the Mona Lisa was voted the “world’s most disappointing attraction,” beating out Checkpoint Charlie, the Spanish Steps, and that urinating boy in Brussels. If curators think that they are inspiring the next generation of art lovers, they are in fact doing the opposite. People come out of obligation, and leave discouraged.
Jean-Luc Martinez, the museum’s director, has said the Louvre might take further steps to alleviate Mona mania in coming years: new entrances, timed tickets. This misunderstands the problem — for the Louvre, with more gallery space than any museum on the planet, isn’t that swamped if you can get through the security lines. On my last visit the Islamic galleries were nearly empty. The French painting wing was trafficked by just a few visitors. Even the Venus de Milo, perhaps the second most famous work of art in the museum, draws a comfortable few dozen peepers at a time.
The Louvre does not have an overcrowding problem per se. It has a Mona Lisa problem. No other iconic painting — not Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” at the Uffizi in Florence, not Klimt’s “Kiss” at the Belvedere in Vienna, not “Starry Night” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — comes anywhere close to monopolizing its institution like she does. And if tourist numbers continue to rise, if last year’s 10 million visitors become next year’s 11 or 12, the place is going to crack.
It is time for the Louvre to admit defeat. It is time for the Mona Lisa to go.
After suggesting several ways to improve the experience of seeing the Mona Lisa — including housing it in its only building — the article concludes:
No work of art should make people miserable. Let Paris’s millions of future visitors enjoy the art, the shopping, the sweets and the selfies at the Sheikh Zayed-Louis Vuitton-Samsung Galaxy-Ladurée Macarons Mona Lisa Pavilion. Then let them rediscover the Louvre as a museum.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
Is the Mona Lisa bad for art? Does the attention it receives overshadow the pleasures of other artistic treasures? Does it “make people miserable”?
Have you seen the Mona Lisa in person? If yes, does the experience described by the author resonate with you? If not, how have you experienced it? In either case, would you consider the Mona Lisa one of your favorite works of art?
Do you agree with Mr. Farago’s assessment that the Mona Lisa is the “Kim Kardashian of 16th-century Italian portraiture”? Why do you think the painting attracts so many people to see it? What do you think are its artistic merits? Is there another work of fine art that you think should get as much or more attention?
What does the author mean by his claim that in this age of “mass tourism and digital narcissism,” the Mona Lisa has become “a black hole of anti-art who has turned the museum inside out”? Is the spectacle of the Mona Lisa hurting a deeper understanding and appreciation of art? If yes, how? If no, why not?
Have you been to an art museum or gallery recently? What was your visit like? How did you experience the art? How did other patrons interact with it? Do you visit museums and galleries for the art or for the chance to get a good selfie?
What do you think should be done with the Mona Lisa? How do you think the Louvre should improve the experience of seeing it?
After reading the article, are you more or less likely to want to see the Mona Lisa in person?
Please note, you can turn your writing here into a critical review of a painting and submit it to our Fifth Annual Student Review Contest, which runs from Nov. 7 to Dec. 10, 2019.
Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.