When I wear my Mona Lisa pin, people comment on it, and I tell them my Mona Lisa story. It’s a silly plastic oval, and the colors are wrong, but when I saw it in a catalog, I had to have it, because me and Mona, we go way back. To the Louvre. Almost 40 years ago.
It struck me over and over in Europe how different it is to see the great paintings “in person” as opposed to in reproductions. No printing ever quite captures the reality. You can’t really see Mona Lisa any more, though. Somebody slashed the painting with a knife, and now there’s a thick layer of glass between her and the hoi polloi. People get hustled past in mobs, too, so if you get a 30-second look, you’re among the elite. When I met her, though, it was pre-glass, cold November in Paris, not tourist season. I approached her all by myself.
Paul Johnson, in his Art: A New History, says the painting is “inconsistent” between the hands and face. Maybe. In her Story of Painting, Sister Wendy calls it “dazzlingly poetic” with a “secret wistfulness.” I’m with her. I stared at that mysterious face for a long time. Leonardo caught her right at the point of changing expression. In fact, I was pretty sure that if I looked away and swung my head back quickly enough, I would catch her lips moving. (I tried to keep it subtle so the guards wouldn’t cart me away.) A real person was in there, and I got to know her a little. I finally had to nudge myself away to see the Rembrandts and other marvels, but it’s Mona Lisa that’s stayed with me all these years.
Out in the rest of Paris, it was chilly and drizzling, but people still sat at the sidewalk café tables, shielded by sheets of plastic or portable glass walls. Clomping past them along the Champs Elysees, I saw a man at his dinner and wine, obviously people-watching. He was very well-dressed, but then everyone was in Paris, except perhaps for street people and American tourists. I wore boots, bell-bottom jeans and a nylon parka that belonged to one of my brothers. The man was so handsome and poised and Parisian-gorgeous, my own cloddishness struck me with irony, to put it mildly. When I drew even with him, I summoned my grade-school ballet lessons and curtseyed. He threw back his head and laughed. That made another connection that hasn’t gone away. I don’t know that I would have performed thus in any other city, but Paris does that sort of thing to you. Especially when you’re tight with Mona Lisa.