04 August, 2008

That Mystic Smile

Sushma Joshi, ECS Magazine, August 2008

Art remains in people's lives long after their creators are gone. These material artifacts, ironically, weather time better than the people who shaped them from their imagination. The miles and miles of art objects that adorn the Louvre, France's and possibly the world's most well-known museum, are an aching reminder of how the material world outlives the human one. But even when an artwork survives its artist, there is no guarantee that it will be loved and appreciated as it was in its own time and place. Art, torn from its maker, becomes subject only to the ruthless criteria of the present.

Take the Louvre. It is filled with floor-length paintings of emperors and empresses, monarchies and royal families, rebels and guerillas, national wars and civil conflict. It is filled with the grandeur of the Church. It has room-sized tableaus of hunting, gladiator fights, and meetings of religious and political leaders. It is filled with portraits of unknown beauties who modeled their life away for a few brief moments of immortality. And yet, of all the riches inside it, the ones people find immortal are (among others): a sculpture of a dying slave by Michelangelo. The Lace-Maker by Vermeer, a painting of a plain woman engaged in the task of making lace. A seated scribe from Pharoahnic Egypt. Sculptures of Pharaohs surround the scribe, but people walk directly past, wanting only to see that intent look of the world's first writer before heading out for coffee.

As a first-time visitor to the Louvre, I found myself unexpectedly taking the most banal and expected route: I asked for the two other immortals. The pyramid, and the Mona Lisa. Admittedly, I had just read the Da Vinci Code (I finally bought the book after ignoring it for a year on the bestseller's list). Where was that goddamn pyramid? I.M Pei's modernist pyramid sunk in the middle of the courtyard, oddly, sparked my imagination more than all the riches of Western civilization (and the stolen glories of Eastern civilization) put together. I hated modernist architecture. I hated new architecture mixed with old. Or at least, that's what I thought. And then I saw the pyramid, and the post-modernist in me rose to the fore. The pyramid is stunning - the steel and the glass lose any innate ugliness and transform into lace in that beautiful courtyard.

How could I have imagined the Louvre, housing all of the world's treasures, could remain in a petrified, mediaeval shell? What had made me think that a new form would not add to the old? Change is inevitable, a law of nature that no human or policy can stop. Ask the Buddha. This artist made a life talking about change, and yes, his artwork survived him two and a half millennia after he was gone.

A cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa had hung in my room when I was a teenager. How did it find its way there? I don't remember. All I remember is that Mona Lisa disturbed me. Not only was she ugly, but she also had that exasperatingly ambiguous smile pasted on her face. Or did she? The ambiguity drove me crazy. The misty colors, the sense of space falling away into nothingness, the feeling of a human subject anchored to a fabulist space - all of this unmoored me. But I didn't throw the poster away.


A decade later, when I found myself in front of the bored museum docent, asking her to guide me towards the Mona Lisa, I knew why. The Mona Lisa is nested in the corner of one large room that hosts 26 large paintings. And yet none of the hordes of tourists - from the stampede of Japanese with the latest cameras to the Spanish women who prefer to chatter in the back - none of them gave a second glance to the other 26 paintings. Nor did they give much attention to the long corridor one has to walk through to get to La Giaconda - a catwalk of Italian paintings from the 13th century to the 17th, featuring everything from bloody head on platters to tortured bodies, from the grief of war to the frenzy of men burning books during the Inquisition. Black paint predominates this four hundred years of Italian imagination. These, for sure, are the Dark Ages.

Mona Lisa, when she emerges at the end, is like an egg – a small egg of hope and promise for a better world, an egg made by a man who could imagine a new world, one where darkness could give way to sfumato - that ambiguous misty light of future change. A transient moment where anything and everything was possible. One where flying machines stood on the same level as a painting of the Last Supper.

Leonardo Da Vinci could see immortality as easily as he could see the hooves of a horse, or the petals of a rose, or the strands of his own beard. A Renaissance man, Leonardo reinvented himself, and in the process, reinvented the world he lived in. Another inventor of the present, Bill Gates, now owns all of Leonardo’s folios, hoping some of the greatness will rub off on him. Da Vinci needed to leave the world a portrait of himself - and many people have indeed seen remarkable similarities between the ugly La Giaconda and the grand old man. This portrait of a visionary, unlike great personages of his time, remains immortal precisely because he could envision a world beyond his time, one which was not black and filled with pain, but which contained the mystic, ambiguous smile of the future.