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Darian Leader – ‘Stealing the Mona Lisa’


I’m not going to lie — my research reading is eclectic and mainly impulsive (and after a certain point everything I’m reading is research reading, whether I think it is or not). I started reading Darian Leader‘s Stealing the Mona Lisa: What Art Stops Us From Seeing with this approach in mind. It may be PhD-relevant eventually, and so I ploughed my way through until I felt like it was useless (p120 of 177). Before I start writing up notes, though, I thought I’d put some thoughts down here, in case anyone else might be tempted!

I’ve read a number of Darian Leader’s books before, but mainly his later ones (What is Madness? and Strictly Bipolar are my two favourites). This one has an oddly late-nineties feel to it (although it was published in 2002), and is more rambling and less readable than his later efforts, I think, although your mileage may vary here. I like nothing better than a well-structured book with meaningful chapter titles and subheadings dividing the text up, and there are none of those here.

The book as a whole is exploring the relationship between art-objects (predominantly paintings) and the look or gaze. Leader is a Lacanian by psychoanalytical persuasion, although Freud features heavily here too, with an exploration of his theories of scopophilia in particular. Leader begins (after some anecdotal discussion of the facts surrounding the theft of the Mona Lisa) with a discussion about how humans relate to the gaze, from being infants unable to escape a parent’s through to the complex relationship between art-object, the viewer, and the other observing the viewer. Leader later goes on to discuss art as representative of the ‘Thing’. 

As I kept reading, I felt as though the book veered away from what I was interested in (individuals’ relationships with art-objects), and the book wasn’t compelling enough for me to keep going until the end. Nevertheless, I particularly enjoyed some of the anecdotes that Leader explores. Most interesting, I think, is the discovery after Lowry’s death of a cache of violent images of a young girl resembling Carol Ann Lowry (his unrelated ‘niece’), and the finding by art historian Michael Howard of tortured female figures in a number of Lowry’s paintings when looked at sideways. This sort of ‘hidden message’ in an art-work — albeit perhaps not even a message, so much as an encoded image — complicates the artist’s relationship both to the works (as ‘the works as they are seen by the public’) and to his viewing public (as ‘the public who (perhaps) fail to see the encoded image). It is this ‘double vision’ of art-objects that really interested me.

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