TV Review: Arena. Have you seen the Mona Lisa? BBC4.

We stood in front of the Mona Lisa and I took a photography of Linda with the painting in the background. “You look just like the Mona Lisa,” said an American tourist standing next to Linda. It is true there was a slight likeness due to my wife’s Italian heritage – the half smile, the olive skin and the steady gaze – which gave a extra flavour to our honeymoon in Paris back in 1982. Then the Louvre was busy and the room where the famous painting was displayed was fairly crowded. Nobody then took selfies but used 35mm SLR cameras to take a photo and to have it printed a few weeks later at a local chemist.

Linda in the Louvre in 1982 with the Mona Lisa in the background

BBC’s 1981 Arena programme is currently on i-player, and apart from the undeniable graininess of the video Have you seen the Mona Lisa? Is an enjoyably meandering look at all aspects of the painting from its history, its theft and above all the views of fans, critics, art historians and commentators and members of the public who simply want to enjoy the world’s most famous painting.

Wikipedia with some similar parodies and likenesses

Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait is smaller than expected in real life, since with countless reproductions and projections you expect it to be larger than its dimensions of 30 inches by 21 inches. Painted in or around 1503 to 1506 of it is generally believed to be Lisa del Giocondo, an upper class Italian and is rendered in oil on poplar wood with a spectacular backdrop of towering cliffs, a winding road past a lake and river spanned by an arched bridge.

My own take on the painting with Linda as the Mona Lisa

Constantly parodied in adverts, fine art, cartoons and graphic design the Mona Lisa has appeared on postage stamps, magazine covers and has also been copied and reproduced more than any other painting. Directed by Gina Newson, Arena’s insight into the enigmatic smile of a Virgin Mary-esque Renaissance woman is as refreshing today as it was 42 years ago and Arena is still considered to be the gold standard of arts documentaries with its message-in-a-bottle title sequence and hypnotic style of a dream-like journey into the subject rather than a traditional dates and facts based doc.

I had forgotten how Tom Baker in Dr Who casts doubt on whether the painting in the Louvre is the original and his doubts are echoed by one of the visitors to the art gallery in the programme. She says you can’t see the texture of the paint surface or the details as it is behind ‘three sheets of glass’ and could be a reproduction. Too true – to see the painting you can look at reproductions or online in all its detail. But that’s not the point – it’s a pilgrimage that is the important part – even if you end up crushed between hundreds of visitors to the Louvre and can barely see the painting.

The Lona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

One of the best sequences is when Ken Morse’s camera captures a street artist rendering his version of the painting onto a pavement with chalk – a living recreation blended by hand and subject to the vagaries of the weather. And with the sound of Nat king Cole singing the Ray Evans and Jay Livingston’s 1949 hit Mona Lisa we are seduced as much by the richness of the interviews in the documentary as by the painting itself.

Harry Mottram

Detail from the original

Rapscallion Magazine is an online publication edited by Harry Mottram

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