In L.H.O.O.Q., Marcel Duchamp created the definitive act of Dadaist defiance by adding a mustache and a goatee to a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's La Jaconde (Mona Lisa). He made the shocking and subversive impact of this work even greater through the title, L.H.O.O.Q., which, read out loud in French, sounds the same as "Elle a chaud au cul" or "She has fire down below."
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 irreverance 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 exh. cat., The Museum as Muse, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999, pp. 14-15).
There are a few reasons that the Mona Lisa was a particularly attractive subject for Duchamp's humorous graffiti. In addition to being the most famous work of Western art, it had also been the subject of an astonishing theft in August 1911. The Mona Lisa had been hanging in the Louvre since 1804, and its theft became a notorious scandal in the French press during the two years that it was missing. The year that L.H.O.O.Q. was first made, 1919, was the four hundredth anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci's death and his work and life was the subject of much contemporaneous critical discourse.
Duchamp explained the creation of the first L.H.O.O.Q.: "In 1919 I was back in Paris and the Dada Movement had just made its first appearance there: Tristan Tzara who had arrived from Switzerland, where the movement had started in 1916, joined the group around Andr Breton in Paris. Picabia and I had already shown in America our sympathy for the Dadas. This Mona Lisa with a moustache and a goatee is a combination readymade and iconoclastic Dadaism. The original, I mean the original readymade is a cheap chromo 8 x 5 on which I inscribed at the bottom four [sic] letters which pronounced like initials in French, made a very risqu joke on the Gioconda" (A. d'Harnoncourt and K. McShine, eds., Marcel Duchamp, New York, 1973, p. 289).
L.H.O.O.Q. also contributed to Duchamp's ongoing play with notions of gender identity. As he remarked, "'The curious thing about that moustache 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.' L.H.O.O.Q. thus functioned as another move in the confusion-of-gender game that Duchamp liked to play and that would lead him soon enough to add a female identity to his complex persona" (C. Tomkins, Duchamp, A Biography, New York, 1996, p. 222).
There are seven different readymade versions of L.H.O.O.Q. The present work was painted in 1960 over a handpainted copy of the Mona Lisa and was made by Duchamp expressly for fellow Surrealist Max Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning. She described the events leading up to its fabrication as follows: "One day, to match a moment's levity, I showed Marcel our Mona Lisa, a handpainted copy, actual size, that had been a mock 'prize' for Max at a party. Here she was, a sinewy, all-wrong creature, powerfully painted on a wooden panel, her crooked leer a categorical repudiation of all artists including Leonardo da Vinci. 'All she needs is a mustache,' I said, to prolong the fun. Duchamp: 'Well, give me two small brushes and a little white and raw umber.' That afternoon our Mona Lisa became a masterpiece after all, for he painted every hair of mustache and goatee, just as he had on his famous original. Another golden moment" (D. Tanning, Birthday, Santa Monica, 1986, p. 118).