An iconic remix of the world’s most recognizable painting, Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. serves as the definitive act of Dadaist defiance. Pencilling a mustache and goatee over a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s revered masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, Duchamp’s desecration of the Renaissance work is considered the ultimate gesture of iconoclasm—symbolically and effectively terminating the modern era’s attachment to the conservative aesthetic of the past. Originally executed in 1919, on the four hundredth anniversary of Leonardo’s death during a moment of particular pride among the French bourgeois for the painting that had only recently returned to the Louvre after a highly publicized heist, the shocking and subversive impact of Duchamp’s humorously altered readymade is made even greater through the phonetic pun nestled within its title. When read aloud in French, L.H.O.O.Q. mimics the phrase “Elle a chaud au cul,” which translates as “She has a hot ass,” or as Duchamp himself more delicately stated: “There is a fire down below” (M. Duchamp, Interview with Hubert Crehan for WBAJ-FM Radio, New York, published in Evidence, no. 3, Toronto, Fall 1961, pp. 36-38). One of the most recognizable and meaningful works to come out of the influential artist’s career, Duchamp returned to the Mona Lisa as the subject for seven distinct iterations of L.H.O.O.Q. throughout his life.
Although officially “retired” and fully devoted to chess by the 1960s, Duchamp’s importance was widely acknowledged by artists, collectors and historians. For the posterity of his work, Duchamp had on several occasions granted permission to reproduce several works form the 1910s—including The Fountain, Hat Rack and In Advance of a Broken Arm. Indeed, in 1964, Duchamp’s close friend and scholar, Arturo Schwarz, arranged to publish a brief, yet poetic, essay on the artist by the French writer Pierre de Massot entitled Marcel Duchamp, propos et souvenirs. Planning to publish only thirty-five copies, Schwarz requested that Duchamp provide a piece that could be produced in a small edition that would accompany the text. Deciding to re-present the already famous, L.H.O.O.Q., Duchamp purchased 38 color reproductions of the painting (allowing three examples outside the edition: one for Schwarz, one for Massot and one for himself). Belonging to this particular series, the present work exhibits the characteristic use of thinly applied white gouache used to conceal the name of the original author and the institution where the original picture resides. Hoping to avoid any confusion with the work from which it was appropriated, Duchamp’s act of negating the actual identity of the immediately recognizable painting was a means to declare L.H.O.O.Q. as an independent work of art in its own right.
The subject for much artistic commentary, the Mona Lisa was particularly appealing to the Dadaists and Surrealists. However, the earliest known appropriation appeared in 1887 when an illustrator known as Sapeck (Eugène Battaille) depicted the famous lady smoking a pipe. In 1914, Kasimir Malevich produced a scathing commentary on the cult status that the painting had achieved. His collage Composition with Mona Lisa placed the masterpiece tucked away in the corner of the composition with a large red X over her face as a comment on what Malevich saw as the false artistic consciousness that the painting evoked. But, of course, one of the most famous examples was the one produced by Marcel Duchamp, whose original L.H.O.O.Q was executed in 1919. In 1954 Salvador Dalí painted Self Portrait as Mona Lisa and as late as 1960 René Magritte painted La Joconde in which he characteristically did not paint the image known to the world but nonetheless managed to evoke her essence with a pair of curtains draped to mimic her voluptuous figure and, using a recurrent Magritte motif, a ball with a horizontal slit that mimics the painting’s enigmatic smile. It was not until 1963, when the Mona Lisa once again left Paris and travelled to the United Sates for a brief tour at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, that she became the major subject of artistic appropriation. With the onset of what has been called the first “blockbuster” exhibition, Mona Lisa made the giant leap from artwork to icon of mass consumption. Sparking the eye of celebrity-obsessed Pop master, Andy Warhol, the Mona Lisa fell victim to his serial reproductions of fame, disaster and consumer culture.
Indeed, as with Warhol’s reinventions of the then highly commercialized painting, the time was particularly right in 1919 for Duchamp’s creation of L.H.O.O.Q. as the cult of “Jocondisme” was practically a secular religion among the French bourgeois as well as an important part of their self-image as patrons of the arts. In addition to being the most famous work of Western art, it had also been the subject of an astonishing theft in August 1911. Having been hung in the Louvre since 1804, the heist became a notorious scandal in the French press during the two years that it was missing. Adding to this pride, 1919 marked the four hundredth anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, sparking a new wave of contemporaneous critical discourse on the artist’s life and art. During a time of unprecedentedly high reverence for a single work of art, Duchamp’s humorous attack on the Mona Lisa came as a major stroke of epater le bourgeois. While the shock of the readymade had largely subsided by 1964, it is no less significant that Duchamp reintroduced this particular image on the coattails of the American exhibition that catapulted the Mona Lisa beyond the realm of high art into that of everyday consumption through mass reproduction. As Kynaston McShine has noted, “Duchamp used a color reproduction of one of the icons of painting—Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, in the Louvre—to allow us a certain irreverence toward a museum-sanctioned artwork: applying a mustache and beard to the Mona Lisa’s face, and titling the work L.H.O.O.Q. (in French, a lubricious pun), he not only plays with gender issues but reminds us that a reproduction is a reproduction. Embellishing the best-known painting in the world, but doing so harmlessly Duchamp desanctifies the object, allowing us a proximity to it that we would not otherwise have even in the Louvre, standing before the painting itself” (K. McShine, “Introduction,” in The Museum as Muse, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999, pp. 14-15).
Discussed extensively in the literature on Duchamp, many have interpreted the mustached Joconde as a direct parallel to the artist’s female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, and his ongoing play with the notions of gender identity. “The curious thing about that mustache and goatee is that when you look at the Mona Lisa it becomes a man. It is not a woman disguised as a man; it is a real man, and that was my discovery, without realizing it at the time,” described Duchamp (M. Duchamp, quoted in C. Tomkins, Duchamp, A Biography, New York, 1996, p. 222). Indeed, as with L.H.O.O.Q., Rrose Sélavy, pronounced “Eros, c’est la vie” exhibits exquisite wordplay at the artist’s behest. Executed during the moment when Dada shifted from the more playful word poems created in Switzerland, to Paris, and during a time when Duchamp and Francis Picabia first began to turn their attention to New York, L.H.O.O.Q. comprises the best of iconoclast Dadaism and the readymade.