"We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."
-Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)
It's unavoidable not to start with a repetition: Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (also translated as "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility") was first published in 1936, almost one hundred years after Louis Daguerre's invention was patented by the French government on 19 August 1839. It is now the stuff of legend that Paul Delaroche, known for his uncanny realism, declared his own art form "dead" after witnessing Daguerre's invention.
One hundred years ago, on monday morning the 21st of August 1911, Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" was stolen from the Louvre. The man responsible for its theft, 32-year-old Italian Vicenzo Peruggia, simply removed the small 53 x 77 cm painting from its frame, which was not fixed to the wall, and put it under his frock before the museum opened. When Peruggia faced a locked back door on his way out, a helpful employee opened it for him. Peruggia had briefly worked in the Louvre: he had made the Mona Lisa's glass frame himself. When he stole the painting, all he left behind was the frame, and his fingerprints on the wall.
The Louvre was closed for a week, and opened again on Tuesday 29 August 1911. Long queues of visitors stormed the building to see the empty wall space where the painting once had been. Postcards were made en masse for tourists to take with them. For the first time, one of the world's most famous art museums was exhibiting its true colours. It is not the presence of an original what is attractive, but its absence and reproducibility. That day, the Work of Art as Mechanical Reproduction was born.
Needless to say, what made the reproductions possible was Daguerre's invention, by then an accepted art form and method of documentation. But the painting's theft became a media event covered by newspapers all over the world, and La Joconde became a truly trans-media phenomenon: posters, cardboard masks worn by chorus line cabaret dancers, cigarette and lingerie adverts. High brow art had become pop culture.
The Mona Lisa was absent from the Louvre for two years. In December 1912 the museum hung a Raphael on its place. In late 1913, using the fake name "Leonardo", Peruggia attempted to sell the painting to a famous Parisian gallerist, meeting him in the Tripoli-Italia Hotel in Florence. He was reported to the police, stood trial in Italy and was sentenced to seven months and nine days in jail. The Louvre had the Mona Lisa back. By then it was already the world's most famous artwork. The hotel was immediately renamed "La Gioconda".
Years later, on November 21, 1926, The New York Times reported:
The Parisian art world was thrown into a high state of emotion this afternoon by the assertion of a well-known critic that "La Joconde" (better known as "Mona Lisa"), by Leonardo di Vinci, one of the most famous masterpieces in the world, has never actually been returned to the Louvre since its theft on Aug. 21, 1911, but was replaced with a clever copy.
This was proven to be a hoax, but reflected our culture's stubborn concern with originality and presence. As Benjamin theorised in his famous essay, the reproduction of the original painting had canonised it, securing its place in history.
A hundred years after that monday morning in August 1911, many are still profoundly worried about what reproduction does to authority and originality. The essence of the digital is that it is always-already a copy: it is here and there, not here and not there. Like the masses visiting the Louvre after the painting's theft, those visiting the Louvre now, experiencing its walls through the portable LCD filters of their mobile phones, are not there to look at the Mona Lisa, but at that "accumulation of nameless energies."
The story of the Mona Lisa's theft holds many important lessons for those interested in culture in the digital age. The role of digitisation and online museums, for example, will be definitive. As digital photography becomes pervasive and online museographical resources increase, the awareness that enabling access is important does too. If done properly, open access digital exhibitions and collections could shape the transition towards a truly digital era, where dated fears about authority and originality are finally left behind.
But art is not only about the object itself. Therefore, the experience of visiting a museum physically is not necessarily only about the art works. Visiting a physical museum might be more about the ritual of maintaining the aura of artworks, of what cannot truly be accessed or touched, like the empty space left by a stolen masterpiece.
- Sassoon, D. (2001) Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon (New York: Harcourt)
- Scotti, R. A. (2009) Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa (New York: Alfred A Knopf)
- Kuper, S. (2011) "Who Stole the Mona Lisa?" FT Weekly Magazine, August 6/7 2011