In December 2018, I impulsively took myself on a four-day trip to Paris, France. I was living in Barcelona at the time, so a plane ride was not too far nor too ambitious to consider a few days in advance. There I was, 17, alone and ready to take on the city that I had so dearly dreamed of visiting.
Call it serendipity or blatant unawareness, but there was something that felt right on that brief trip to Paris. It is as though the area’s sudden spectrality brought out the architectural beauty of the city in ways I didn’t think were possible. Although I was a stranger, a foreigner, I felt like I belonged. And I quickly discovered one thing: Even amid turmoil, art prevails.
On the second day of my visit, I went to the Louvre. The pyramid felt massive over my head, especially because I was one of perhaps 30 people standing below it in the main hall. I was ready to get lost in the hundreds of rooms that carried iconic works of art, works that were centuries old, works that wrote history or erased it, works I felt I owed a certain devotion to, a devotion that had been nurtured by the endless stories my mother told me growing up around the works that hung in the walls of that museum. She herself had venerated them while pursuing her master’s degree in museology at L’École du Louvre back in 1992, and now it was my turn to do so.
I speedily walked toward room six, on the Denon wing, where Leonardo da Vinci’s “La Gioconda” lays. On my way there, I saw four people — three of them were security guards, which made me feel like I was intruding, barging into a place uninvited or disrupting silence with the sound of my brisk footsteps. Why I was in such a rush I didn’t know; all I knew was that I wanted to stare into the Mona Lisa’s eyes until they started watering.
I found her. There she was, much smaller than I had envisioned. She was enclosed in a highly protective glass frame, making her feel distant even though she was only 15 feet away from me. At that moment it hit me: I was experiencing the most important painting in the world in a way very few people had before. Alone.
I was in the city of love and Lisa del Giocondo was my date. I stood there, motionless, for what felt like an eternity, observing every detail, allowing my thoughts to stay behind my eyelids, but wanting to say so much. When my eyes met hers, I stepped to my right, and then to my left, and then backward, and then forward again. Then I left, because I felt like I was abusing the happenstance, sitting in that moment for a little too long.
And while seeing the rest of the Louvre, I felt something stir within me: I had just experienced something like a holy interaction with God, although this time, God was a she and her name was Mona Lisa.
The next time I participated in this ritual was this past weekend, and the lady I praised was Miss Liberty. My trip to New York City centered on journalistic endeavors, as I was asked to cover an exhibition for “Bonart.” New York was still New York, but it felt different: This time around, the city had been marked by strict public health measures and travel restrictions.
All across the city were empty bazaars and sidewalks — the antithesis of the typical New York experience. It was easy to socially distance, since walking through the avenues didn’t mean dodging everyone you encountered. Nonetheless, it was still nice to grasp the essence of the city: busied streets where cars honked away, the omnipresent smell of hot dogs, fried oil and the absurd price of coffee.
On Saturday, I spent three hours in the Met until my lower back couldn’t carry me anymore. I was so fascinated by every room that I felt the need to visit all five floors, which I didn’t end up doing.
Again, there I was. Toulouse-Lautrec and me, Monet and me, Seurat and me. I was in conversation with all these figures who stared at me from all directions. Experiencing art this way felt solitary and somewhat wrong, a similar feeling to the one I got in Paris three years ago, although the reasons behind it were very different. I was at one of the world’s most important institutions and I was wandering through these halls encountering little to no one. In retrospect, however, perhaps I was just too focused on the walls to consider the space between me and them.
Although I felt displaced, there was a part of me that indulged in that undisturbed feeling. In all honesty, I have almost forgotten what going to exhibitions felt like before COVID-19.
I truly believe that this new way of experiencing art will redefine the laws and meditations of its creation. It will provide a chance to make something with the knowledge that it may only be experienced in the span of thirty seconds — because you have 20 people behind you wanting to get a glance, fidgeting in haphazardly formed lines — or a chance to create something with the assumption that it will be observed with the utmost attention. Watch your brushstrokes, mark your words, build your characters; prepare for an audience of one or an audience of none.
Meanwhile, I will be treasuring the fortune and intimacy of being the sole viewer in a room full of stories. I’m eagerly counting down the days until I can outstare the Mona Lisa again.
Daily Arts Writer Cecilia Duran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.