I almost punched a man in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre

by Joanne Black / 16 October, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Mona Lisa Louvre

Crowds in front of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa at the Louvre, France. Photo/Getty Images

It was hard to raise a smile at the Mona Lisa, but the rest of the Louvre more than made up for it.

The world-famous Louvre is the home of many amazing spectacles, and I nearly created one myself when we visited while on holiday. I am not a violent person, but I had to walk away from the Mona Lisa because if I did not, I feared I was going to be overcome by gallery rage and punch the man who pushed in front of me, wrestled himself in to an advantageous position, then turned his back on the painting, used one hand to raise his fingers in the peace sign and with the other hand started taking selfies.

He was older than me, which makes no difference – except that if you think of selfie-taking as a proclivity of the young, then you can hope they will grow out of it. It’s hard to hold onto that hope for people who look to be in their sixties. This guy seemed to be making up for his lost youth before taking photos of oneself became so easy and shameless.

The Mona Lisa herself did not move me at all. I so loathed the selfie-taking crowd that I barely spent 10 seconds in front of the masterpiece. And that was long enough to note that it was hung behind thick glass, which is perfectly understandable for security reasons but somewhat inhibits the gallery experience of peering at the brush strokes, then standing back in awe that an artist knew that by applying certain colour in a particular manner, he or she (in the Louvre, almost certainly “he”) would create an effect that would be perfect when viewed across a room.

I fled the crowds in favour of the porcelain, which was exquisite, but in some of the rooms of the Louvre, it was easy to see how the French Revolution came about. There was extreme inequality, and I would not have wanted to pay the taxes that supported the lifestyles of the 0.001%, even though I would have demurred at beheadings. Nevertheless, I am grateful that enough of their art, furniture and tableware collections survived so that peasants like me could enjoy the beauty and craftsmanship of it.

When we went to France, it was closed. People used to say this about visiting New Zealand at the weekends, but in France it was true. We were there only five days, and a combination of a weekend, August summer holidays and a public holiday for “The Assumption” meant almost every shop was shut. The Assumption – in which the Virgin Mary is thought to have ascended to Heaven – does not appear in the Bible, but marking it is certainly real in France.

I do not begin to understand how the country – beautiful as it is – has a functioning economy. Who does the work and when do they do it?

We visited World War I battlefields, including the Somme and Ypres where one of my grandfathers fought. It is a landscape of pity. The first New Zealand grave I saw was of a 22-year-old – the same age as my son, who is in New Zealand, working in his first full-time job, just as so many of the young New Zealand men interred in France and Belgium should have been 100 years ago.

Mine is probably the last generation with a personal connection to the soldiers of WWI, and it is interesting to ponder how future generations will view these cemeteries.

Listening to the debate in the US about Confederate monuments weeks ago reminds me that our view of history is anything but static. I hope future generations keep the cemeteries and ditch the selfies.

This article was first published in the September 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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