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Objects of Affection

Mona on the lam; Madame unmasked.

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Stealing the Mona Lisa:

What Art Stops Us from Seeing

By Darian Leader

Counterpoint, 187 pp., $26

In 1911, an Italian house painter exited one of the side doors of the Louvre with a lady known for her enigmatic smile. Vincenzo Peruggia had taken Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa off the wall, slipped it out of its frame, put it under his smock, and left. It wasn't until over 24 hours later that anyone even realized it was missing. And it wouldn't be recovered until two years later.

The story of the painting's disappearance is a fascinating one, from the assumption that it was simply being photographed in the museum's annex to inadequate police investigations to the hordes of visitors who showed up at the Louvre interested in seeing only one thing: the spot where the painting no longer hung. In Stealing the Mona Lisa, Darian Leader tries to explain why people would want to see that blank spot and what this means about what and how we think about art. As such, even though the story is gripping, Stealing the Mona Lisa is really for art historians and psychoanalysts and not the average reader.

Parts of it are extremely engaging. Leader argues, for example, that it was the painting's very disappearance that made it the sensation it remains today. It was only in the absence of the image that the image saturated our culture: Loss created value. However, the story and Leader's theories surrounding it are drowned in weighty references to Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, sublimation, castration, and the fear of what he calls the "dead stare."

When people mock the art world, Leader states, they often ridicule the exorbitant prices. To explain those prices, he writes: "It is not that a woman is prohibited from us, creating a zone of emptiness, but that we put the image of the woman into that space which has been produced by the world of language. If Lacanians would refer to castration here, it evokes less the woman's inaccessibility than the gulf that separates 'natural' objects and images from the symbolic universe. And that is why art is so expensive."

Huh?

Of course, there's more to Leader's arguments, but that excerpt should give you an idea. So instead I'll give away the ending of Stealing the Mona Lisa: The modest Peruggia hides the painting in a trunk and returns to the Italian city where it was painted. He offers it to a buyer for half a million lire, the buyer turns him in to authorities, and Peruggia spends eight months in jail. And the Mona Lisa returns to her spot on the wall, back in the public eye and imagination.

-- Mary Cashiola

Strapless:

John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X

By Deborah Davis

Tarcher/Penguin, 293 pp., $24.95

What becomes a legend most? Is it a Renaissance beauty portrayed, then lost, then found, as in Leonardo's Mona Lisa? Is it a classical beauty rediscovered but missing some of its parts, as in the Venus de Milo, the subject of Gregory Curtis' new Disarmed (Knopf)? Is it an architectural beauty skewed, then rescued, as in the leaning Tower of Pisa, the subject of Nicholas Shrady's new Tilt (Simon & Schuster)? Or is it a famous Parisian beauty captured on canvas, then scorned by viewers, then embraced by viewers, as in John Singer Sargent's 1884 portrait called Madame X, the subject of Deborah Davis' new Strapless?

Sargent may have posed Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau unconventionally and outfitted her scandalously, but to the contemporary eye she still cuts a formidable figure, an embodiment of feminine mystery and drop-dead chic that carries very much into the 21st century. (Just ask the crowds still seeking her out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.) That's not the surprise in Davis' comprehensive but compulsively readable account. Prepare, rather, to enter the Creole world of 19th-century New Orleans, the enameled world of belle époque Paris, the aestheticized world of Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi, the academic world of traditional artist training, the social-climbing world of America's newly rich, and especially the world of John Singer Sargent, his rise to fame and censure and greater fame, his supporters and detractors, and his objects of affection (women and men). Strapless requires no degree in art history and no background in psychoanalytics, which makes it an entertaining intro to every topic it touches.

-- Leonard Gill

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