As a kid I wondered why the painter had stuck this boring woman in front of one of the most mysterious, enticing landscapes I’d ever seen.
I first saw da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in a coffee table book about Western art that we had at home when I was a kid. I loved that book and poured over the famous paintings in it over and over again. I looked at the Mona Lisa many times, but I wasn’t really interested in the woman. To me she looked old. I didn’t know I was supposed to find her tepid half-smile fascinating and enigmatic. I thought her hands were kind of nice -- soft and gentle-looking -- but for the most part she bored me.
But that landscape behind her. It was odd. For one thing its left half didn’t really match its right half. I didn’t know about perspective and vanishing points back then but it seemed that the body of water on the right should have been lower down than it was, in order to “fit.” My eyes couldn’t make the two halves of the landscape come together properly, but I thought the flaw, if there was one, must be with my seeing, not with the painter’s skill, since this painting was in a book of famous art.
So the landscape bugged me. But it also drew me in and enchanted me. It was strange and otherworldly and it was a place I wanted to go to. It looked as much like a map as it did a landscape. I felt I had been there before, on that road winding up into those jagged blue mountains, like mountains on some alien planet. I drew my own pictures of mysterious mountainous landscape with roads winding up into the distance. I’ve even had dreams where I find myself walking in that landscape. In the dream I usually meet someone on the road. There’s a feeling of anticipation and danger, as in myths and fairy tales, where every encounter on a road is meaningful and opens up the next part of the story.
There’s something happening in the part of that landscape we can’t see because the woman is in the way. Maybe da Vinci painted it like this on purpose, to make us feel there is a riddle here, and an answer to the riddle, hidden behind the woman who is also a riddle. The answer to the question of how those two halves of the landscape really come together, perhaps. Or maybe something more.
I finally got to see the real painting many years later, when my wife and I took a trip to Paris. Wandering the halls of the Louvre as evening fell, we felt we were descending deeper and deeper into a dreamlike state in which the sculptures and paintings were numinous, beckoning presences. And then the Mona Lisa. It was a disappointment. I'd seen it too many times already in books, on TV, on coffee mugs....
The painting hanging in the Louvre was so astonishingly small (is this the real painting?). I couldn't get close enough to it to see anything I hadn't seen before. And the woman was still blocking my view.