Originally created 08/29/98

Mona Lisa ready for facelift

PARIS -- Yellowed by layers of varnish applied over the centuries, the jaundice-faced Mona Lisa remains the Louvre's top attraction. Some experts say it's high time for a facelift, but the Louvre says, "Hands off."

Thanks to computer technology, a French art magazine is offering a glimpse of what the Mona Lisa may have looked like when Leonardo da Vinci painted her in 1503: rosy cheeks instead of yellow pallor, pale blue skies instead of the famed sunset glow.

Today's debate, to clean or not to clean, follows the Louvre's decision to give the world's most famous painting a room of her own. The new gallery won't be completed until at least 2001.

Art experts are urging the Louvre to use the move as an opportunity to scrape off the accumulated varnish, applied to preserve the work's magical luster.

The bi-monthly magazine Journal des Arts published two photos of the Mona Lisa -- one touched up, the other as is -- in its current edition, along with divergent opinions on a possible facelift.

For the Louvre, there's no debate at all.

"It's absolutely out of the question to restore the Mona Lisa in any way," Jean-Pierre Cuzin, chief paintings' curator at the museum, told The Associated Press on Friday.

Cuzin said the last touch-up dates to the mid-1950s, when experts removed several age spots. Despite the canvas's yellow hues, Cuzin said the painting is in good condition and doesn't need cleaning now.

Besides, he said, the new gallery's state-of-the-art lighting and special nonreflective glass will enhance Mona Lisa's beauty.

"The Mona Lisa isn't as dark as people think," he said in a telephone interview. "We'd rather wait until we're sure that a cleaning wouldn't do any irreparable damage."

Others insist the Louvre's 5.2 million visitors deserve Mona Lisa at her best.

"I consider the Mona Lisa to be a work of art and not an icon, so there's no reason to treat it differently from any other painting," British art expert Alastair Laing told the Journal des Arts.

"I think the Louvre should consider removing the varnish, just as they have in other works."

Da Vinci pioneered the complex techniques to achieve the brilliance and subtlety that have made the work so famous. And experts agree that a facelift would be tricky, if not a nightmare.

"If you want a restoration expert to commit suicide, put him to work on the Mona Lisa," said Jean-Gabriel Goulinat, who worked on the masterpiece for more than 30 years.

Resin, lacquer and varnish have been layered on the painting at different intervals in the past 495 years.

Their chemical reaction to natural light have made the Mona Lisa look as though she's suffering from hepatitis, and all require different types of solvent for removal, which could cause irreparable damage to the painting.

But Cuzin makes another point that transcends the debate over possible damage to the painting: While viewers may believe that vivid pinks and blues and whites reside beneath the multiple coats of varnish, Mona Lisa may never have had such vibrant coloring.

"Unlike Raphael, for example, da Vinci used very little contrast. His palette was different hues of brown and gray," he said.


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