Written by Jason Farago
Even in a city saturated with excellent fall exhibitions, from the Grand Palais’ retrospective of El Greco to the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s showcase of Charlotte Perriand, the show of the season here is the decade-in-the-works “Leonardo da Vinci,” at the Musée du Louvre. Mandatory timed tickets are sold out through November for this thorough, deeply serious exhibition, which sloughs off the myths that cling to this least productive of Renaissance masters. You will find here a cleaner, sprightlier Leonardo — or at least you will in the show downstairs, where four of the Louvre’s five paintings by the artist have been relocated.
Upstairs, where Leonardo’s most famous work remains, is still a fiasco.
The Louvre houses the greatest collection of art anywhere in Europe, within a palace that is a masterpiece in its own right. It is, by some distance, the most popular museum in the world. In 2018, a record 10 million visitors, three-quarters of them foreign tourists, besieged the joint: up 25% on the previous year, and more than triple the attendance of the Centre Pompidou or the Musée d’Orsay.
Yet the Louvre is being held hostage by the Kim Kardashian of 16th-century Italian portraiture: the handsome but only moderately interesting Lisa Gherardini, better known (after her husband) as La Gioconda, whose renown so eclipses her importance that no one can even remember how she got famous in the first place.
Some 80% of visitors, according to the Louvre’s research, are here for the Mona Lisa — and most of them leave unhappy. Content in the 20th century to be merely famous, she has become, in this age of mass tourism and digital narcissism, a black hole of anti-art who has turned the museum inside out.
This past summer, amid 100-degree-plus heat, the Louvre undertook a renovation of the Mona Lisa’s gallery: the arching Salle des États, in the museum’s Denon wing, which once housed Parliament of France. What a mess this was. Relocated to the Richelieu painting wing, the Mona Lisa reduced the museum’s Flemish collection into wallpaper for a cattle pen, where guards shooed along irritated, sweaty selfie-snappers who’d endured a half-hour line. The overcrowding was so bad, the museum had to shut its doors on several days. “The Louvre is suffocating,” said a statement from the union of the museum’s security staff, who went on strike.
Now the Mona Lisa is back in her regular spot, on a freestanding wall that’s been repainted an admittedly chic Prussian blue. (Louis Frank, one of the two curators of the Leonardo retrospective, told me there was never any possibility of including the Mona Lisa in the show. The exhibition can “only” be visited by 5,000 people per day; the Salle des États gets 30,000.)
I went up with the crowds recently. Things were no better. Now, you must line up in a hideous, TSA-style snake of retractable barriers that ends about 12 feet from the Leonardo — which, for a painting that’s just 2 1/2 feet tall, is too far for looking and way too far for a good selfie.
Apparently the painting is beneath some nifty new nonreflective glass, but at this distance, how could I tell? My fellow visitors and I could hardly see the thing, and we were shunted off in less than a minute. All this for a painting that (as the Louvre’s current show confirms) is hardly Leonardo’s most interesting, and that has drowned out the Venetian masterpieces in the Salle des États, such as Titian’s “Woman With a Mirror,” or Veronese’s “Wedding at Cana,” which Beyoncé was smart enough not to neglect. The museum is admitting as much with the pathetic new signs in the Salle des États: “The Mona Lisa is surrounded by other masterpieces — take a look around the room.”
This is a gallery that makes the Spirit Airlines boarding process look like a model of efficiency, and offers about as much visual delight. If you think me some sniffy aesthete for saying so, listen to the crowds: In a poll of British tourists earlier this year, the Mona Lisa was voted the “world’s most disappointing attraction,” beating out Checkpoint Charlie, the Spanish Steps, and that urinating boy in Brussels. If curators think that they are inspiring the next generation of art lovers, they are in fact doing the opposite. People come out of obligation, and leave discouraged.
Jean-Luc Martinez, the museum’s director, has said the Louvre might take further steps to alleviate Mona mania in coming years: new entrances, timed tickets. This misunderstands the problem — for the Louvre, with more gallery space than any museum on the planet, isn’t that swamped if you can get through the security lines. On my last visit the Islamic galleries were nearly empty. The French painting wing was trafficked by just a few visitors. Even the Venus de Milo, perhaps the second most famous work of art in the museum, draws a comfortable few dozen peepers at a time.
The Louvre does not have an overcrowding problem per se. It has a Mona Lisa problem. No other iconic painting — not Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” at the Uffizi in Florence, not Klimt’s “Kiss” at the Belvedere in Vienna, not “Starry Night” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — comes anywhere close to monopolizing its institution like she does. And if tourist numbers continue to rise, if last year’s 10 million visitors become next year’s 11 or 12, the place is going to crack.
It is time for the Louvre to admit defeat. It is time for the Mona Lisa to go.
She needs her own space. Build a pavilion for her, perhaps in the Tuileries, that is optimized for the crowds. Connect it to the main museum via the underground mall known as the Carrousel du Louvre, and sell a single ticket for both locations. Set up prime selfie stations, and let more curious visitors learn about the mysterious Gioconda with supplementary exhibits. Get it up in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Let Kylian Mbappé inaugurate it, maybe with Carla Bruni alongside. Sell macarons.
It will need to be big, but I cannot conceive of an easier fundraising project. The Mona Lisa Pavilion will instantly become the most popular attraction in the most popular tourist destination on earth. Surely, having spent more than $1 billion to launch the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the potentates of the United Arab Emirates would be glad to fund the new facility, especially if it came with naming rights. The Sheikh Zayed Mona Lisa Pavilion: it has a ring to it, n’est-ce pas?
We have models for this. Picasso’s “Guernica” was shown in its own pavilion in Madrid for more than a decade, before the opening of the Reina Sofía Museum. A more relevant example — given that the Mona Lisa is nowadays less a work of art than a holy relic — is the image of Our Lady of Guadelupe, the holiest artwork in Mexico City, venerated by millions of pilgrims a year. Worshippers of the Virgin stand on moving walkways. I can picture the same travelators in front of the Gioconda, smoothly guiding tourists past the Leonardo and into the gift shop.
This Paris pavilion, like the Mexican basilica, would be a pilgrimage site for a sort of worship: the worship of fame, and of one’s own proximity to it. Let Samsung or another electronics company install ultra-hi-res cameras around the Gioconda. Let visitors strike a pose on the moving walkways, and then download their cutest selfies with the Leonardo under glass. Perhaps, in exchange for further naming rights, Jeff Koons could have a handbag concession at the exit of the Sheikh Zayed-Louis Vuitton Mona Lisa Pavilion.
In the early 1990s, with the opening of I.M. Pei’s pyramid and the expansion into the Richelieu wing, the museum’s curators actually considered relocating the Mona Lisa. They balked — on the grounds that this mid-tier Leonardo needed to be grounded among her Cinquecento brothers and sisters. That might just have been true a quarter-century ago, when the museum had less than half its current attendance. In a Louvre of 10 million visitors, such a belief isn’t just wrong; it’s dangerous. The Mona Lisa is a security hazard, an educational obstacle, and not even a satisfying bucket-list item.
No work of art should make people miserable. Let Paris’ millions of future visitors enjoy the art, the shopping, the sweets and the selfies at the Sheikh Zayed-Louis Vuitton-Samsung Galaxy-Ladurée Macarons Mona Lisa Pavilion. Then let them rediscover the Louvre as a museum.