08 January 2015

On Not Seeing the Mona Lisa, or the Water Lilies

I suppose it's reasonable that I, a generalist, not a scholar of Renaissance art, should be granted no special access to the Mona Lisa, no particular ability to view the painting, much as -- for reasons I recognize as good, and having to do with preservation -- non-specialists might be able to look at two facing pages of, say, a Gutenberg Bible under glass, but not to sit down in an easy chair paging through it at leisure.

But right out there in a museum, ostensibly in public, I was unprepared for how deeply it was impossible to see the Mona Lisa. It is surrounded by a barrier keeping viewers perhaps fifteen feet away, and covered with glass. What I saw, then, was a ghostly face and the reflection of an exit sign over a door at the back of the gallery, punctuated by flashes from the scores of people in the room taking selfies and snaps of each other.

It got me thinking about reproduction. Digital techniques today allow the surface to be mapped, a model of the texture created, and the image itself photographically rendered onto such a textured model. I'd have gotten more out of looking at a good reproduction of the painting than I did looking at glass and reflected light. I got a better look at the painting someone was selling along the river, with Mona Lisa's face on a cat, than I did at the original.

Monet's Water Lilies are hard to see for another reason: their scale. I had the great, vast privilege to see them on display in the purpose-built gallery in L'Orangerie, mounted on slightly curved walls in an oval-shaped room.

I looked from the front, but the room is barely large enough to see the whole painting. The edges fade into peripheral vision and the details of the paint, layers over layers making a textured surface, fade into the distance.  Looking from the side, I could focus on the near end of the painting, or the far end, but never both at the same time. Up close, I could examine the texture, the detailed use of color, but only for a tiny fraction of the paintings at one time.

And only retreating once more to a distance could I see the shadow of light on the surface of water, or the shape of a tree in the foreground.

The vastness of the paintings, for me, foregrounds the landscape, makes it a kind of actor in the interaction between viewer and image.  I felt myself reduced in scale, in scope, in agency, as a human viewer. What one sees is not landscape, it is one human's interpretation of landscape, but it gives that landscape something that gives pause. Water and light overshadow human scale, force a recognition that the human place in the world is limited.