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A girl will go blind; her grandfather makes an unexpected decision: Thomas Schlesser, author of the bestseller of the moment, speaks

A girl will go blind; her grandfather makes an unexpected decision: Thomas Schlesser, author of the bestseller of the moment, speaks

A girl will go blind; her grandfather makes an unexpected decision: Thomas Schlesser, author of the bestseller of the moment, speaks

The little one monkeya sensitive and curious 10-year-old girl, was doing her maths homework when suddenly everything went black. In hospital she was able to distinguish shapes and colours again, but the doctors could not explain what had happened to her, only predicting that she would lose her sight permanently. Before that happens, her grandfather Henri intends to show her “all the beauty of the world”: taking her every Wednesday to the three largest museums in Paris, the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and the Centre Pompidou, and for 52 weeks admiring a masterpiece with her, whether by Botticelli, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Vermeer, the Impressionists or modern artists such as Picasso or Frida Kahlo.

This is the plot of “Mona’s Eyes,” a best-seller by French art historian Thomas Schlesser, who adds delicate observations on 52 iconic works of art to the family drama. In this interview, the author shares his reflections on the meaning of art and family love, but also on the risks that loom over art in a world that also seems to be imprisoned by blindness.

—I cannot begin this interview without asking you to comment on the frightening trend of certain activist groups that decide to attack works of art for any reason. How do you see this phenomenon?

These operations are humiliations and insults towards the works. They attack works by artists who were humiliated in their time, for example Monet. Moreover, culture is an area in which hands are more than extended to be able to work together in favour of greater environmental responsibility.

But these operations are counterproductive, because they immediately break the dialogue. And be careful: for the moment, it is works protected by glass that are being sprayed. However, soon, when such actions become habitual, the vandalism will become more aggressive.

—I know that this novel is based on a very painful experience for you and your partner, the loss of an unborn child. Does literature help us to cope with pain or is pain the material that helps us to write?

This is a very interesting question. I think that in my case both phenomena occurred, and this is often the case with artists, writers or painters. It is by observing the world around us, drawing on our personal experiences but also on our own sensitivity that each of us succeeds in creating something. Literature allowed me to create this ideal child, but it was my personal experience – also the fact of having brilliant grandparents who raised my brother and me – that allowed me to write the relationship between Mona and Henri.

—Critics often compare your novel to Sophie’s World, because of its role as a popularizer. How do you feel about these comparisons that try to explain the reasons for the success of a best-seller?

It is a book that had a great impact on me when I was a teenager and I used it to study for my exams, like many high school students. But Sophie’s World is a book about the history of philosophy, and I never intended to do the same with the history of art. Mona’s Eyes is a book about the history of art in the service of life. Because we find in art not only a fundamental aesthetic value, but also a fundamental aesthetic value. [la belleza, la emoción]but also messages that can change existence. However, the comparison obviously makes me happy.

—Every week, Mona’s grandfather takes her to the big museums to see just one work. However, in Paris, queues in front of big museums like the Louvre are part of the usual city landscape. Is it possible to replicate the leisurely way of seeing art, or do the times of unbridled tourism not allow it?

We are in a period of democratization of art. Moreover, with my book I want to give readers the tools to analyze and immerse themselves in the works. It is a fact, indeed, that museums are saturated, but this is only a sign that people are still interested in what is in them! Everyone has their own relationship with art, which is valid. There are more and more of us on Earth, so having an empty museum is no longer possible, but is the purpose of art to be shown only to a handful of people? I don’t think so.

Fifty-two weeks: that's how much time is left for ten-year-old Mona to treasure all the beauty of the world. It's the time her erudite and original grandfather has given himself to discover a work of art for her every Wednesday after school before she goes blind. So they set out to visit the three great Parisian museums together: the Louvre, the Orsay and the Beaubourg (Centre Pompidou), and to immerse themselves in paintings and sculptures.

—Regarding the saturation of museums, is the Mona Lisa really worthy of so much attention in the Louvre? Is it not really a somewhat overrated painting among Leonardo’s other works?

The “Mona Lisa” has a particular effect on the public: it is one of the most famous pieces in the Louvre. Of course, all of Leonardo Da Vinci’s work deserves to be contemplated and studied: it would also be a matter of bringing art history closer in a more global way, so that the other works of this artist – and many others – are revalued. But you will never hear me say that a work, whatever it may be, does not deserve the attention of a spectator. It is about training our gaze towards the beauty of the world wherever it is found.

—Do you think that art can change in any way a world that seems blind to tragedies and wars?

Between the revolutionary upheaval of the second half of the 1960s and the beginning of the 2010s, roughly 50 years, the culture of permanent transgression flourished. It took a thousand different forms, from Larry Clark to Madonna, Basquiat, Gainsbourg, Lars von Trier and Maurizio Cattelan. It fed on youth, on sexual allusions, on non-future hedonism, on incandescent sarcasm. It was pop, punk, trash, bling. I’m not saying that it was the only thing, but it was the dominant paradigm. There was also the self-referential obsession: art constantly wanted to question itself. The formidable political advantage of this period is that it had freedom of expression firmly anchored in its body. Its defect was that, at times, it was very egocentric, arrogant, and the repetition of scandals ended up making it go round in circles. In the last 10 years, the paradigm constructed by a new generation of artists has been different. Now it is social engagement that overwhelmingly serves as a guide for creation with three main branches: race and decolonization, gender and feminism, and the environment. The search for beauty for beauty’s sake, in this story, has lost much ground.

—What was your criteria for selecting the 52 works for your novel?

Initially I wrote about a hundred of them, from prehistory to film sequences, Ming vases and dozens of paintings, all from museums around the world. And then I ended up thinking that we needed a time unit. [un año] and of place [París] to maintain the tragic theme of the novel, so as not to dilute the intrigue into a travel story. Hence the focus on these three museums [Louvre, Orsay, Beaubourg]with more restricted chronological and geographical scales. Then it is Henry, depending on the coherence of the character, and not me, who makes the selection.

—In your book, the circuit chosen by the grandfather helps the reader to connect with contemporary art. If it is already difficult to contemplate a classical or realist work, how difficult is it for us today to approach contemporary art? Is art today further away from the common individual than it was before?

Let me tell you a little story: in 1910, a famous hoax took place. Wanting to make fun of the avant-garde movements of his time, the French journalist and writer Roland Dorgelès signed, under a pseudonym, a manifesto that parodied “excessivism” and then exhibited a very poorly made “setting sun” that still found a buyer. He then revealed his joke: “It was a donkey that had painted the picture with its tail!” This reveals the weariness of this era in the face of the abundance of self-proclaimed avant-garde movements, where, for example, Fauvism or Cubism had germinated. And we might believe that this would be the beginning of its end. A serious mistake. There have never been so many artistic movements as today! We still have to look for them, and sometimes in blind spots, in other countries, in alternative places and other media. One of them is video games, for example, where the aesthetic experience is reinvented from top to bottom. If the total work of art that Wagner proposed were to be reincarnated in the 21st century, I believe it would be in the digital world.

Source: Elcomercio

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