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Jackie, JFK and the Art of Diplomacy

Lisa Liebmann on the Mona Lisa
The unveiling of the Mona Lisa at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 8 January 1963

The unveiling of the Mona Lisa at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 8 January 1963
© Photo © Abbie Rowe, National Park Service /John Fitzgerald Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston

Lisa Liebmann looks at the events surrounding the unveiling of the Mona Lisa at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, in 1963.

On 31 May 1961, President and Mrs John F Kennedy arrived in Paris on a three-day state visit. The Franco-American love-hate relationship was in a particularly tortured, neurotic phase. General Charles de Gaulle, the President and pre-eminent symbol of Gaul and France, imperiously obdurate at the best of times (and on principle unwilling to travel to the States), was in a full-blown huff of national amour propre. He desired that American forces, once warmly welcomed, leave Europe; and he also desired that Americanisms of all sorts beat their own retreat from the French lexicon and cultural terroir - a losing battle if ever there was one in the dawning Pop era. France, however, had bigger troubles. The colonial war in Algeria was going badly and would be lost, ignominiously, the following year. The French presence in Indochina, too, had turned disastrous, and would shortly be bequeathed to the Pentagon, in whose hands the situation notoriously worsened. President Kennedy, for his part, had an excruciatingly bad back and was steering into what, at the height of the Cold War, would become the Cuban Missile Crisis. In Paris, however, on this deceptively light-hearted mission, with elegance and etiquette on everyone's agenda, he had with him a powerful if not-so-secret weapon in the form of the First Lady, velvet diplomacy incarnate.

The 31-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was, of course, a card-carrying Francophile. She spoke French fluently in her Marilyn-inflected whisper, and her little boarding school accent charmed journalists right and left, along with the dour old general. (This was the trip during which her husband famously proclaimed himself "the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris".) Jackie, in fact, had been criticised back home for her fancy French proclivities. She had been pressured into adding American designers to her wardrobe full of Givenchy, and had had to ditch her esteemed French decorator, Stéphane Boudin, of the House of Jansen, midway through their White House revamping, in favour of Sister Parrish, the grande dame of Yankee good taste (thereby causing another kind of French flap). Judging from a series of watercolours documenting the visit by the illustrator Jacqueline Duhême, originally commissioned by Elle, Mrs Kennedy was delighted to be sprung from Washington, and to be in Paris in the spring. Duhême, who had served her apprenticeship as assistant to Matisse (and as a result of the Elle assignment became a friend of the Kennedys), describes a breathless, lilting affair as might have been devised by Lerner & Loewe, whose musical Gigi (not to mention Camelot) was then a fresh construct. The presidential couple, guests of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were lodged in a palatial five-room suite at the Quai d'Orsay, with paintings by French masters on loan from the Louvre and spectacular formal garden views. Their bathroom - silvered mosaic tub, nacreous walls - had been redecorated on the occasion of an earlier visit by another young queen, Elizabeth II. Mrs Kennedy was coiffured day and night by the celebrated Alexandre, to whom she had dispatched a lock of hair by courier in anticipation of her stay. One can still almost hear the corks popping. Theirs was perhaps the last unabashedly "delighted" American state visit anywhere. (Although certainly more momentous, and arguably more interesting, Nixon's date with Mao, as well as the Reagans' with the Gorbachevs, fall somehow short of the principle of pure pleasure). In Paris, nevertheless, there were obligations to fulfil and pomp to endure. So on the last full day of her stay, Mrs Kennedy stole a few morning hours to go to the Jeu de paume with the French Minister of Culture André Malraux. Her favourite painting there and then was Manet's Olympia (1863).

President Kennedy, Mme Malraux, French Minister of Culture André Malraux, Jackie Kennedy and Vice President Johnson
at the unveiling of the Mona Lisa, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 8 January 1963

President Kennedy, Mme Malraux, French Minister of Culture André Malraux, Jackie Kennedy and Vice President Johnson at the unveiling of the Mona Lisa, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 8 January 1963
© Photo © Robert Knadsen, White House / John Fitzgerald Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston

The photograph under consideration here was taken a year and a half later, on 8 January 1963 at about 9.30pm at the National Gallery in Washington DC, towards the end of official ceremonies honouring the unprecedented loan by the Louvre of Leonardo da Vinci's La Gioconda (1503- 1506), as a gesture of gratitude to the US for having saved the painting from German hands. (Several curators at the Louvre protested about the travel plans for this fragile work by resigning; their resignations were not accepted.) Minutes later, there would be an electrical short-circuit and momentary blackout, followed by a party for 2,000 guests. The picture was taken by Robert Knudsen, a regular White House photographer, who ten months later would be responsible for a series of JFK autopsy shots that figured in the assassination conspiracy theories. It is a resounding coda to the Kennedys' Paris visit, to Duhême's fanciful illustrations and in particular to Jackie's stolen morning of art viewing with the intellectual Malraux, a Renaissance man for all seasons who had early in his career been criminally charged with shady dealings in Phnom Penh, involving smuggled antiquities.

In their various stages of formality, ease, fatigue and discomfort are President and Mrs Kennedy, Monsieur and Madame Malraux and an awkward-looking though bemusedly interested fifth-man-out, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Kennedys, tanned and rested, had just returned from a vacation in Palm Beach. Jackie - hieratic and almost bionic in her lilac-hued, strapless Oleg Cassini sheath - is leaning reassuringly into the tired, slightly rumpled, vaguely alcoholic-looking Malraux, who also appears to be standing on something in order to match her height. This pair had been in communication before and after Paris, and had been instrumental in making arrangements for the Mona Lisa tour, which might very well have germinated while the two stood before Manet's epochal nude. (Earlier cultural exchange plans had included the simultaneous loan to the Atlanta Museum of another art historical icon from the Louvre, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother of 1871, but after a plane full of members of the Atlanta Art Association fatally crashed at Orly, these were squashed.) The President, in profile, looks relaxed, perhaps pleasantly amused: diplomatic state mission, begun in Paris, accomplished. Mme Malraux - demure in her seemingly self coiffured pageboy, her wandering Chanel-ish ropes of pearl and her black velvet bodice and taffeta full-skirted dress (also, possibly, Chanel) - looks downward, self-effacingly, perhaps a bit wearily, the very image of a refined Old World matron, ineffably timeless.

The loan of the Mona Lisa, which moved on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York some months later, marked the beginning of a sort of cavalcade of risky, armoured loans of never-before-travelled, shrine-like masterpieces - Michelangelo's Pietà (1499), for instance, at the 1964-1965 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, which was displayed behind a thick glass wall, like a natural history museum diorama, and had to be viewed from the vantage of a steadily moving, mechanised walkway of the sort found in airports. This was the high Pop era, the dawning of the age of art as cultural event, as image-bank asset, coffee-mug logo and museum-shop merchandise.

I went to see the Mona Lisa at the Met when I was seven, and was shocked at how small and distant it seemed for all the hoopla, behind its bullet-proof glass and velvet rope. I was a child who went to museums unbidden, who liked their desultory rhythms. I was also a child whose life would definitively be shaped by the osmotic generational influence (I guess this means through my mother) of Jackie's Francophilia and cultivation. I attended the Lycée Français de New York for no apparent reason, and even at seven had heard of Malraux, who these days is all but unknown in the States. He just doesn't matter. And again for no very apparent reason, I am now living in Paris. Strangely enough, the most memorable work of contemporary art I've seen in the four years I've been here is Maurizio Cattelan's Now (2004), a hyperreal effigy of JFK in his coffin, as if lying in state in the Capitol's Rotunda.

Lisa Liebmann is a critic living in Paris.