The Mona Lisa Curse

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September 19th 2021
Published: September 19th 2021
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I have just watched an outstanding art documentary called ‘The Mona Lisa Curse’. It is written and presented by the eloquent and discerning art critic, Robert Hughes. He investigates how the world’s most iconic painting, the Mona Lisa, has had a massively negative impact on the art world. He sets out his thesis thus:

I’ve seen with growing disgust the fetishization of art, the vast inflation of prices, the effect of this upon artists and museums. The entanglement of big money with art has become a curse on how art is made, controlled and, above all, in the way it is experienced. And this curse has infected the entire art world. Apart from drugs, art is the biggest unregulated market in the world.”

Hughes traces the beginning of art’s downfall to 1962, when the Mona Lisa was shipped across the Atlantic to be displayed in front of the adoring masses in New York and Washington. “The painting’s presence in Washington was like a cultural extension of the arms race,” Hughes says. “It had made the leap from art work to an icon of mass consumption. They didn’t come to look at the Mona Lisa; they came in order to have seen it. It was treated like a photo in a magazine – to be quickly scanned, then discarded.”

The art world, according to Hughes, is nowadays dominated by “a new breed of buyer who views art purely as an investment.” He charts the rise in prices paid for works of art: for example, a Picasso self-portrait bought in 1981 for $5.8 million was resold in 1989 for $47.8 million. “The consequence of such prices,” Hughes says, “was that art came to be admired not through any critical perspective but for its price tag. Auction houses were the new arbiters of taste. Art as commodity began to take over from art as art. The price of a work of art has now become part of its function; it has redefined the art whose new job is to sit on the wall and get more expensive.”

Hughes regrets the metamorphosis of art museums into trendy commercial operations with money-minded, market-savvy directors like Thomas Hoving and Thomas Krems at the helm. Krems likens the world’s great art museums – the Louvre, the Guggenheim, the Royal Academy – to commercial brands. Hughes and Philippe de Montebello, longtime Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, lament the fact that museums no longer have the financial muscle needed to buy great works of art. No, the only people now able to afford masterpieces are the mega-rich private collectors: hedge-fund billionaires, Russian oligarchs, Chinese nouveau riche, Arabs.

And some of the so-called ‘masterpieces’ that sell for outlandish sums are, according to Hughes, overrated. He pours scorn on the record $135 million paid for Gustave Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer in 2006, describing the painting as: “a very beautiful decorative picture done in a manner to please a society lady. It has a lot of charm but is no kind of a great painting.”

And Hughes considers a lot of expensive modern art to be rubbish. He has contempt for Andy Warhol ("a dull celebrity businessman"), Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Standing in front of Hirst’s celebrated formaldehyde shark, he describes it as “a pretty meaningless object ... the shark functions like a commercial brand for the king of the young British artists ... it’s a clever piece of marketing but as a work of art it’s absurd.” Looking disgustedly at Hirst’s The Virgin Mother, he describes the modern art market as “a cruddy game for the self-aggrandizement of the rich and the ignorant.”

Driving this world of ridiculous prices and tawdry exhibits is a vast promotional machine of dealers, agents, advertisers and collectors, all with just one thing in mind: profit.

The documentary ends with an image of Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, For the Love of God, which prompts Hughes to reflect on the purpose and future of art: “If art can’t tell us about the world we live in, there is no point in having it. What good is art? Is what art does actually worth doing? An art which is completely monetized is going to have to answer these questions or it’s going to have to die.

Hughes died in 2012. He would have been horrified by what happened in 2017, when a Saudi Arabian billionaire bought Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for a world-record $450 million. (The previous record was the $300 million paid for Willem de Kooning’s Interchange.) This staggering sum becomes all the more mind-boggling when one discovers that the painting may not be completely the work of Leonardo. Since being purchased, the painting has disappeared from public view. It is reportedly now housed on its buyer’s private yacht somewhere in the Red Sea.

I share Hughes’s opinions about the contemporary art world. So much of what passes nowadays for great art is, to my mind, worthless. Like Hughes, I regard Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst as charlatans, con-men. The real culprits, though, are surely the ignoramuses who are duped into paying such massive sums for trendy rubbish.

I love looking at paintings. While living with my parents in Reading, after gaining my English degree and wondering what to do with it, I spent hours perusing art books borrowed from Reading library. I would frequently visit the London National Gallery and come away with posters of favourite paintings by Rembrandt, Leonardo, Salvator Rosa, Velazquez and Turner. For years Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus and Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire graced the walls of our Reading living-room.

Today, living in Ho Chi Minh City, the walls of my bedroom are festooned with photographs of people and copies of famous art works. As I type this, I am looking at postcard reproductions of Constable’s Mr and Mrs Andrews (Anthony Burgess’s favourite painting’) and Ford Maddox Brown’s The Last of England (from Birmingham Art Gallery) blu-tacked to the wall. Behind me are laminated photos of the magnificent Riace bronzes. And over to my left is a framed reproduction of a painting I saw in Sansepolcro, Tuscany, on July 21st 1981. I am referring to Piero della Francesca’s sublime The Resurrection. My cultural mentor, Maurice Bradley, urged me to take the bus from Arezzo, where we were staying, to Sansepolcro to see the fresco that he had seen years before and which, he said, Aldous Huxley had considered the greatest of all paintings ("It stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.”) It was a magical experience visiting the Palazzo della Residenza that burning hot July afternoon. The building was totally deserted except for myself, and I spent a long time gazing at Piero’s masterpiece. On the way out I bought a canvas reproduction of it, which has been on my wall ever since.

I have seen many great paintings in the flesh, as it were: Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride in the Rijksmuseum; Rembrandt’s self-portrait in Kenwood House; Picasso’s Guernica in the Prado; Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks in the London National Gallery; Titian’s The Vendramin Family in the London National Gallery; Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ in the Brera; Giotto’s frescos in the Scrovegni Chapel; Jack B. Yeats’s The Letter in the National Gallery of Ireland. And others. However, the Mona Lisa was a disappointment.

Visiting the Louvre in Paris, I made a bee-line for its star exhibit - the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world. It was small and protected by a pane of glass. It was besieged by tourists, mostly Japanese, who seemed more interested in photographing it than looking at it. To paraphrase Robert Hughes, they hadn’t come to look at the Mona Lisa; they had come in order to have seen it. The viewing frenzy was so great that I never succeeded in getting a good close look. Moreover, the protective glass meant that, from a distance, the painting was blurred by reflections. An underwhelming experience. But, even if I had had the lady all to myself, I much prefer Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks.

I will go on admiring paintings until the day I die. Along with books and music, visual art is life-enhancing. At its best, it makes a statement about life that resonates with the viewer for all time. To paraphrase Hughes again, the greatest paintings cannot be treated like photos in a magazine – to be quickly scanned, then discarded. No, they must be contemplated and digested. We should take great art as seriously as Vincent Van Gogh did when he sang the praises of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride: "I would give up ten years of my life if I could sit in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food."

I wonder what that Saudi billionaire thinks when he looks at his expensive bauble. Does the image of a soulful-eyed Christ stir his emotions, causing him to reflect on human existence? I doubt it. Probably the only thought going through his philistine mind is this: The most expensive painting in the world is mine. I own it, which makes me very special, the envy of all my billionaire associates.


19th September 2021

Excellent essay Kevin! Thanks for teaching me something new today. And I hope one day I can look at all the paintings you admire.

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