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A smile that lights up the room

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

La Gioconda; stolen, attacked, graffittied, copied; the old girl’s been through the wars. For over five hundred years her enigmatic smile has made the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in history - which made my finally meeting up with her last week at the Louvre on the day of her re-illumination to members of the press, something of occasion for me

It must have been as much so for lighting firm Toshiba, whose sponsorship since 2011 has seen the gradual illumination the museum with LED fixtures from the outside in- dramatically reducing its carbon footprint. Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait is the latest masterpiece to get the treatment as part of their upgrade of the famous Red Rooms- the ones Napoleon famously created to show off the finest works in his collection.

To secure the coup of the Louvre commission, the firm offered to supply the lights, with the museum paying for their installation. That said, all the lighting was going to have to meet the exacting technical specifications as set out by the museum’s own lighting experts. What this sponsoring agreement has in fact become for both parties is very much a controlled experiment in testing LED performance, using some of the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures as guinea pigs.

Before the illumination of the painting, and with a copy of the Mona Lisa looking out from over his shoulder, Toshiba’s Sagawa-san, project manager for the Louvre upgrade, spoke to us from a podium constructed alongside the painting, of the efforts they had gone to, to ensure that La Gioconda will always seen in the best light. Halfway through his presentation, the board behind him dramatically flipped round revealing a Mona Lisa ‘Test Card’, her image now bizarrely half lost in a frame of colour and monochrome bars. To prove his point, Sagawa-san then set about illuminating this image with consecutively different light luminosity, colour rendering, hue and power levels. And each time they changed, the perception of the subject changed slightly. Illuminating indeed! In these subtle and swift spectral shifts, La Giaconda went for me, from pallid-skinned to jaundiced, then to warm and peachy-fleshed; a moment later she looked mildly queezy to taking on the livid hue of the undead.  As if registering their alarm, the colour bars around her flickered alternately like an eye exam gone haywire. With each change came a vague murmur from sections of the crowd as their eyebrows raised to her non-existent ones.

The final luminaire settled on, we were told, was a single luminaire of 108 lux illuminance with a CCT of 3200K and CRI of 98- as close to daylight as they could currently get it. Presentation over, Sagawa-san threw the switch on the painting itself and the real Mona Lisa lit up- barely. Strangely, the demonstration seemed to throw out more questions that, on the face of it, were answered. It became apparent that the light decided on is not an objective scientific decision ultimately, but a subjective one on the part of the museum’s curator. And my voice, along with the other low waves of murmurs in the crowd during the course of the demonstration, were the sounds of individuals connecting with the painting as they wished to perceive it. All gathered there, looking at the same portrait, her eyes addressing each one of us, we were at any one moment, all seeing her in a different light.

It was not quite the illumination I was expecting; but in its subtle lighting, something else came into sharp relief. A sense of the power, after half a millennia, of its poplar wood base coated with thick layers of aged oil and dark varnish to confound the scrutiny of even modern lighting techniques; of its ability to drink up their light like a small black hole in the big Red Room. Hanging there on the wall newly lit, the Mona Lisa’s face seems all the more drawn from an oblivion of dark oils; her inscrutable smile merely the most obvious cypher in the painting’s greater mystery.