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Mona Lisa Jam, Mona Lisa Eddy
In the early 1960s Leonardo’s painting, the Mona Lisa, went on loan to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Hilary and I went to see it. So did lots of people. This was world history’s most famous painting. For centuries people had jockeyed for a glimpse, written about it, been mystified, worshipped it … explained it … blah blah blah. Besides, additionally it had notoriety. For example, not long before it had been famously stolen.
It had also, recently been time and again, famously (and infamously) cleaned.) (In other words, it’s impossible, even for experts, to know exactly what they’re really looking at. You need a time machine: go to Leonardo’s studio, worm your way in …)
While Hil & I circled for a parking space (5th Avenue in the 80’s, lots of luck, VW beatle or not, sort of like that time machine above) we could see that there was a line “around the block”. The line stemmed from a door to the side, the south, downtown side; not the museum’s main public entrance. That was atop the grand entrance stair case.
This special exhibit entrance isn’t even in this picture: it’s lower-left of the lower-left. And the line didn’t go around the block, there is no block, the block is from 59th Street to 110th. No, but this line went on and on.
But it was moving, slowly, sluggishly. We got on the line and bumped along, fully conscious that at the rate the line was moving that members of the line would be in front of a given location such as the Mona Lisa, not the world’s biggest artifact, for about three seconds. Could any masterpiece be worth a longer viewing? Than three seconds? or four?
Eventually Hilary and I were in the shadow of this little temporary entrance. Then we were inside. I could see: the painting, the promised point of the line, was on an easel, a stand in front of a drapery’d wall. The line angled before us a bit to our left. Pepole in front of the painting were being pushed further leftward. The line bent south, counterclockwise as it were. But I quickly noticed: most people on the line, I don’t remember any of them from my fine art classes at Columbia, were getting to the Mona Lisa, were taking a quick gawk, and then allowing themselves to be bumped into the southward bound curve; but some people were peeling off at a steeper clounterclockwise angle and circling back, to bumb past the painting again. Thus, there was a line moving southward, and there was an eddy, circling before the Mona Lisa, counterclockwise, getting extra gawks. Without the need for discussion Hilary and I automatically turned with the harder left and counter-circled back. Thus we were able to view the Mona Lisa almost at out leisure.
I’ve never been in the Louvre. I’ve never been in Paris. (I have been in France, a decade later, but no where near the Mona Lisa.) (Hilary has been in Paris, I don’t know how many times. Hilary is from Europe, born in London, international commuter parents, due vacasions across the pond annually, home leave being home to Europe. But I don’t know how many times if ever she’d seen the famous Leonardo work.) As we eddied back and around, and around again, I rested my Mona Lisa-saturating eyes in other directions. I noticed that this line fed the crowed into a giant Mona Lisa Gift Shoppe. The Mona Lisa is not a large painting, but the Met was selling huge posters of it. The shop area was festooned with Pseudo-Lisas. Photo-offset lithographed. I nudged Hilary, hard: look, the hoi polloi are bundling past the original and then planting themselves in front of the cheap reproductions.
(Note: the Met was likely to have used quality lithography to issue the posters of the Mona Lisa. Fine art printing became my business in the 1970s, I know more than a bit about it. Maybe the printing was five-color, not four. Maybe they had offset for $5 and collographec for a retail of $15. Nevertheless, the Mona Lisa had been valued at a hundred million dollars! at a time when a hundred million dollars made that by far the most expensive value ever associated with a painting. So: it’s comparing “a big number” with “infinity”.
Read around K. You’ll see me say, repeatedly: all the times I’ve seen Miles Davis play in public, no matter the size of the audience, no two people in the venue hear quite the same thing. The director of Bayreuth won’t hear the same Wagner that the bushman on the Kalahari hears when the missionary cranks the Victrola. My mother, driving with me in the Rockies, couldn’t see quite what I saw: nor could I today see what I saw then. My mother was half blind then, I’m half blind now. And the differences could be expanded and entended. Well, whatever is true of Miles’ sound, Miles’ harmony, Miles’ rhythm, all that and more is true of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa: and the world’s “cleaned” Mona Lisa.
I do know this: no matter what I’d heard about the painting, no matter what I’d read about the painting, or thought about the painting in advance of eddying around it, there was no way to imagine what I saw while looking at it. And now I don’t, can’t know, neither can you, how much of what I was seeing Leonardo had done and what part centuries, accident, filth, chemical degeneration had done. To put is simply, magically, what Leonardo had done was 1) impossible and 2) indescribable.
I know one thing: I had to write this babble to cover the ground to try to say something at least partly intelligible on. What I saw as a visual effect in the painting — stolen, recovered, aged, cleaned, recleaned — cannot possibly have been reproduced on the posters, no matter what lithograph process they used: not even if the shop could actually sell the posters for $100 each.
I of all people know about that latter: I spent a lot of money very fast, went very broke, very flat, when I experimented in how to publish a Robert Vickrey tempera painting as a lithograph, giving the print the “halo” of the master’s egg tempera.
Vickrey himself hand-painted some luminosity around the figure. There’s no glow on earth like the egg tempera glow. Wyeth is our mosts famous egg tempera artist; but technically Vickrey was our “best”. One of my workers learned how to sort of do it. And then there was no money, and no workers, and no cooperation: no way to try on another complex lithography venture.
Mona Lisa: What Is It?
I have my own interpretation of the Mona Lisa, I’ve had it for decades and decades. I’ve presented it here at K. No matter what I think, no matter what I say, no matter how brilliantly I express it, my society can gang up on me, overwhelm me, sabotage me: make sure no one hears it, punish those too who try to spread it. Still, what the hell, I do what I do: I explain, I offer, I try again:
Mona Lisa is a portrait, a self-portrait: by Leonardo. It’s a self-portrait of his soul!
Leonardo presents himself as female. Feminine.
Ah. Yes. I don’t doubt he’s right.
Is it a coincidence that so many of those great Renaissance geniuses seem to have been homosexual? Michelangelo … At least a little weird? Not conventional, for sure. Not stuck in the mud.
I was just saying to Jan yesterday, Valentine’s Day, that people, none too bright at best, lump deviants together: as though there were only a couple of types of deviance, rather than infinity on infinity of possible difference. I cited Hitler, who seems to have been not homo-sexual so much as sexless. But your common homosexual seems to average around 8% of your average “normal” population: no matter the impression one might get in Greenwich Village or San Francisco.
And of course many labels reflect the inability of the average to process experience except through cliche´s. People glibly say Shakespeare was queer: but based on a gross misreading of the Sonnets (contradicted in the Sonnets): and on the unilateral oddness of the greatest of all poets. We look for queer explanations.
Imagine that you could have a time machine, could go back to Leonardo’s studio, worm your way in, look around, see Leonardo, see the Mona Lisa in development, or, see it finished: could the rest of “history” then not also be different? If you change the past then you also change the future, and all of our presents.
back for more words about Leonardo, Mona Lisa, and “history”, Walter Pater, etc. next draft will be closer to what I meant to aim at.
Time Machine Note: you can’t have the same Leonardo (or the same Mona Lisa) after Pater’s The Renaissance as you had before it. You can’t see that the Yankees win, go back in time, place a bet, and not return to a completely different future: one that you changed. Change the past, change the present, change the future. I know the Mona Lisa: I know it with this past, this present. What it might look like with a different past I have no idea, you can’t either.
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