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High-Tech Photography Project Reveals Mona Lisa's Original Sex Appeal

We've seen so many reproductions of Leonardo Da Vinci's masterpiece we're not sure how she really looks. Even at the Louvre, huge crowds and a glass case make seeing her hard. Now French cultural officials have *the* photo to re

You can tell by the way she smiles... (Google Images)
You can tell by the way she smiles... (Google Images)
Philippe Dagen

PARIS - Everybody knows her. But who can boast of having really seen the Mona Lisa up close? Not many more than the lucky few visitors to the Louvre who manage to beat the crowds. Does the expression "to look at a painting" apply when you cannot actually do that, when it is done over and between the heads of rows of tourists allowed to park themselves for a few regimented seconds in front of the glass casing that contains it?

In the end, of course, it is a portrait of a woman we have already seen countless times. The real Mona Lisa can even be confused with the copies of her. The conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp observed this as far back as 1919. On one of his works, he drew a moustache and a thin goatee and wrote under the image, "L.H.O.O.Q.," which read aloud in French stands for "elle a chaud au cul": "her ass is hot." At that moment, the sacrilege was spot on: the Mona Lisa had crossed over to pure cliché.

As for the general fate of masterpieces, for more than a century, there has been an ever improving capacity to reproduce works into the memories of millions of people who have not seen – and may never see - the actual paintings and sculptures in real life. Take the Lascaux cave, the Demoiselles d'Avignon by Picasso or the Moses statue by Michelangelo. Defying reality, these images change form when reproduced. The fresco becomes a compressed postcard, or marble flattened into a board.

These reproductions are, by their very nature, reductions, if not residue of the originals. Dare we hope that the original colors, light and visual form and material might not be too distorted?

Tanned or pale?

Enter the Mona Lisa. Because of the universal glory surrounding her, in books, scholarly works, newspapers, advertisements and numerous reproductions by photography agencies, everyone has their own version of the painting. But a comparative study produces an astounding result: these Mona Lisas are only partly alike. The proportions and compositions may be identical - not surprisingly, they all show a woman to the waist, hands folded, clothed in fabrics… Brown fabrics? Reddish? Almost black? Bluish? The range is wide.

You may prefer the Mona Lisa in partial mourning, or in the autumn. The same liberties are taken with her complexion: bronzed or a fading pallor. Such is the gamut of portraits, ranging from more or less melancholy to severe. The explanations and interpretations of the painting are affected by these transgressions, which play themselves off as authentic.

The photography agency of the National Association of Museums (RMN) has just completed what is currently the most faithful reproduction of the Mona Lisa. It is the first installment of a campaign to promote the agency as one that can accurately produce images for reference. It is easy to see that this Mona Lisa is different from the others. The general tone is slightly grayer, the contrasts more nuanced, as is the passage from one color to another. Invisible details come to life, in particular the arm of the chair on which the model's left arm is resting, in addition to the contour of the chair, which envelops the tops of her thighs. On a computer screen, the image allows for its magnification until the cracks in the varnish are apparent, individual hairs and even the eroded rocks in the background.

Satisfied by the surprise of the viewer, Jean-Paul Bessieres, the head of the RMN photo agency, and Jean-Claude Gattelet, the manager in charge of quality, provide a technical explanation. In order to obtain such a quality of picture, they explain, they had to imagine the gallery in the Louvre where the Mona Lisa is kept. They calculated the exact quality of light – in full-color spectrum – and guarded against the optical effect of the brown on the surrounding walls. A sort of cage made of layers of tracing paper was prepared. The lights on, the color effect was measured. Then the painting, removed from its casing, was placed in the middle of the device.

"The longest part was the preparation and the measurements. The photograph itself was quick," recalls Jean-Claude Gattelet. The picture was taken using a digital back surface, the lens used was relatively long, to avoid distortions.

Her true appeal

The photograph is 80 million pixels. By way of comparison, the most precise film quality that was produced in the year 2000, when film developing was at its highest resolution, could only reach 50 million pixels.

In the laboratories of the RMN photo agency, there are only computers, screens and scanners. The agency went digital in 2000, and, ever since, has embarked on its campaign, of which the Mona Lisa was the first beneficiary. It will be followed by The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, another masterpiece by Da Vinci. The overall aim involves creating images of the Louvre's masterpieces to use as points of reference, in addition to others at the Musée d'Orsay and Versailles.

The quality label will be granted by the conservers of art works and will figure in the presentation's protocol. Users may then decide to employ the image, which will have a cost, or to stick with the usual clichés of popularized art. In addition to producing images superior to those on the market, the high-resolution digital technology could also be a precious resource in the field of art history. With a few clicks of the mouse, a computer can strip down the painting and modify its chromatic parameters.

On the Mona Lisa, the result is indeed remarkable: it's as if a whole new work was revealed, more clear and more fresh, with a lightness that finally matches its subject – a young, seductive woman.

Read more from Le Monde in French

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