As a professional artist, I’ve spent my 34 years on this planet dreaming of going to Europe. The food, the architecture, the culture, the history – and, of course, the abundance of famous artwork! Finally, this past holiday season, my husband and I were able to make the trek. We began our adventures in Paris and immediately fell in love with the City of Lights. How could you not? Our balcony had a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower one way and the Sacré-Cœur Basilica the other, not to mention a clawfoot tub with an overhead skylight. Absolute perfection!
On our first jet-laggy morning, we rushed across town early in the a.m. to beat the crowds to the Louvre. When we arrived, hundreds of people were already in line, despite the museum not opening for another 30 minutes. We stood in the cold, patrolled by military men with machine guns (no joke), waiting for our chance to get lost in the world’s largest museum. After going through what seemed like another version of airport security, taking off our jackets and giving up our valuables, we finally made it in!
Down the escalators, underground is where we began our Louvre experience. People were everywhere! We got our maps and decided to start our self-guided tour on the second floor where we knew no one would be – at least at 9am. “Let’s go to the Rubens room!”, I excitedly shouted to my husband. “Good plan. No one will be there and we’ll have all day to see the Mona Lisa.”
As it turns out, the Rubens room was the last time we would have a painting to ourselves. As the minutes progressed, the Louvre continued to fill with more and more people. The crowds were seemingly endless. As an American, it’s a rarity in the U.S. to have to fight your way to the front to see a painting. Not so in the case of the Louvre – apparently this is THE place to be in Paris in the middle of winter, in the middle of the week, first thing in the morning.
Three daunting hours of art viewing (and by “art viewing” I mean stepping over people) and we’ve had enough. Time for a break! The break ended up lasting 3 days. In the mean time, we went to the Musée d’Orsay, Musée de l’Orangerie, Notre-Dame Cathedral, and, this should go without saying, the Eiffel Tower. We walked hand-in-hand along the Seine, drank mulled wine on Avenue des Champs-Élysées, and took selfies in front of the Arc de Triomphe. Like good Americans visiting Paris, we hit all the major landmarks. Except one… still no sighting of the Mona Lisa.
After our first experience at the Louvre, we cried a little to ourselves thinking about going back. I tried desperately to find a way out of returning to the maddening crowds. Ultimately though, there was no way that a professional artist visiting Paris for the first time could not at least catch a glimpse of da Vinci’s pride and joy.
So we begrudgingly returned. Back down the escalators, through airport security, and pushing through thousands of people cloaked in big puffy winter jackets. We ran through the maze of hallways, staircases, and rooms within rooms to see the Prodigal Daughter. As I turned the corner to enter her room, I had goosebumps – full on excitement-induced nervousness. This is the most famous piece of art in the world and I’m finally getting a chance to see it!
Holding my breath, I looked through the doorway and the excitement quickly turned to frustration and anger. Where was she?? All I could see was a huge pile of people, one after the other, after the other, after the other, pushed up against each other like an ant hill that’s been disrupted. The Mona Lisa was hidden behind a sea of endless faces. And not just faces – but cell phones and screens and cameras and arms stretching as far as they could get their tech into the air. As if to say, “Well, if we can’t get a moment alone with the painting, maybe our phones can!”
It was kind of an amazing experience. Not at all what I had expected – much more grotesque in a way. But also so much more contemporary and now and a representation of us, of me, of you, of all of us. This is what life is now – waiting in line is no longer about making awkward eye contact with your neighbor and possibly striking up a conversation about the weather or the untimely death of a rock icon. It’s about living alone in our worlds through a glowing, swiping screen.
These people had come from untold numbers of miles to experience the Mona Lisa and all they could do was get out their phones. I don’t blame them because I did the same – but instead of taking photos of the Mona Lisa, I took photos of them, of the crowds and the way they interacted (or didn’t) with the artwork.
When I returned home from our European journeys, I decided to make a body of work about this very subject. About the distance created between reality and our digital lives. Rather than rely on the endless flood of photos from social media, I use oil painting as a means to force myself and the viewer to slow down and dissect these moments of group interaction/disconnection. Recreating not just famous artworks, but also the portraits of those experiencing them has led me to a deeper questioning of art history’s evolution; how will the canon of essential art be considered once it becomes merely another set of digital blips in the social media feed, one that is ever-faster flying by?
That said, if you ever make it to Paris, a visit to the Louvre is still worth the trip – if only for that quiet moment alone at 9am with all those larger-than-life Rubens.
More info: michelleramin.com
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