Stealing the Mona Lisa: what art stops us from seeing by Darian Leader

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Darian Leader made his name with Why Do Women Write More Letters Than They Post? and Promises Lovers Make When It Gets Late. Both books show the fun of using psychoanalysis to think about everyday experience, avoiding jargon, dogma and angst. They are "psychoanalysis lite", quirky, speculative, full of epigrams and paradox.

At first glance, his new book looks like more of the same: short (none of his books has been more than 260 pages), with another grabby title and a wonderful cover. And it seems to be written in the same spirit, with early references to The Full Monty and Superman comics to put the general reader at ease.

Stealing the Mona Lisa starts with a mystery and a problem. The mystery is not just that the Mona Lisa was stolen (from the Louvre in 1911). Nor that it took the French police, in the best traditions of Inspector Clouseau, over two years to track it down. The mystery is why so many French people and tourists flocked to the Louvre after it was stolen "to see not a painting but the absence of a painting?". "It was," writes Leader, "less a case of going to see a work of art because it was there than, on the contrary, because it wasn't there." This leads into a discourse on art and what it means, both for those who look at paintings and those who make them.

That's the mystery he sets out to answer. The problem is: what does a psychoanalyst interested in art do with the Freudian tradition of writing about art? As he admits, "art and psychoanalysis have never made the best of bedfellows". Too much psychoanalytic art criticism tends to be "reductive and unhelpful". So is there a way of using psychoanalysis to talk about art without falling into crude reductionism?

Leader's quest starts well. The psychoanalytic writing about "the dynamics of the look" is fresh and interesting, and the early passages about Lacan are the clearest that I have come across. He has read widely and looked widely, and packs a lot into a short book: from Picasso to Psycho, from cave paintings to Mondrian.

The book is packed with interesting stories and questions. Why is the size of the wolf's eyes so important to Red Riding Hood? Why is Christ's penis so ubiquitous in Renaissance art? How do we look at strangers on the Tube? What do we do when we doodle? Above all, there is an unforgettable story about LS Lowry. You will never look at a Lowry the same way again.

Leader keeps on the move, but he never stops with any subject for more than a couple of pages. The feeling grows that he never engages with any of these subjects, so we never really find out much about Psycho or Picasso. At one point he says how psychoanalytic reductionism can close doors rather than open them. But there is more than one way to shut doors, and this restless storytelling, in the end, closes more than it opens.

Then the tone changes. We hit the heavy waters of Lacanian theory and we get sentences up to 450 words long that read like this: "To abstract is simply to exclude from a work of art any elements that are not compatible with the embodiment in matter of the form conceived by the artist". At such moments you long for the clear prose of Peter Fuller's Art and Psychoanalysis. Fuller, too, saw himself coming after a long tradition of psychoanalytic writing about art. But he saw it as something varied, with a long history, responding in different ways to different kinds of art. This is missing in Leader.

It's not just the jargon. The thinking does become curiously reductive and, in the end, misses the point. The crowds didn't flock to the Louvre to see the space left by the stolen Mona Lisa because of anxieties about the Lacanian "void", but because it was the beginning of the century of celebrity. People flock now to see where the World Trade Centre once was, and they gathered to leave flowers for Diana for the same reason. It's about fame. Explaining why fame matters to us so much might be a good subject for Leader's next book, especially if he puts aside the Lacan.

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