The work above probably needs no introduction. Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., in which the French Dadaist drew a moustache and goatee on the Mona Lisa, inscribing a cheeky pun beneath the image. As modern art jokes go, it's the most widely known.
The piece is an example of one of Duchamp's "Readymades," or – more specifically – it belongs to a subcategory of same which Duchamp called "rectified" Readymades, on account that they involved some minor addition or alteration on the artist's part. It's also a piece that is usually cited in relation to a couple of general, overarching generalization that are commonly made about Duchamp’s work – survey-level Intro to Art History clichés that are often and endlessly repeated; with each amounting to a problematic oversimplification.
The first of these being: By putting his Readymades on display, Duchamp said that anything could be art. Well, yes and no. He did and he didn't. It was really more of a theoretical question than a flat declaration. More a hypothesis than a prescript, more of an ideal than a charter or project. The second usually come up in relation to the work above, regarding it as an épater–le-bourgeois masterstroke; as a first-order avant-gardist attack on the classical canon, if not on art and notions of beauty in general. This second point also seems a bit inadequate, if only because it reduces the work to a mere act of petty vandalism, or some offhanded prank – effectively making it no different from a bored schoolboy idly defacing illustrations in a history book.
But as far as the Western canon is concerned, it’s an easy and fair enough assumption. Mainly because there’s no reason that the Mona Lisa couldn’t serve as a representative (or in this case, prospective effigy) for the canon, the painting’s iconic status being what it is. For instance, here's the Victorian über-aesthete Walter Pater waxing effusive in his 1873 book The Renaissance, singling the painting out as an exceptional work by Da Vinci:
"Hers is the head upon which all 'the ends of the world are come,' and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there,...
"She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants, and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has molded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands."
For Pater, the painting wasn't so much a portrait of its sitter, but rather an embodiment of the essence of timeless, archetypal femininity. Which may or may not have had something to do with why Duchamp added the sniggering pun of a title beneath the image, commenting on the nature of the woman's (undepicted) badonk.1
Despite whatever case Vasari or Walter Pater might've made for it, Da Vinci's Mona Lisa didn't always top the list of the artist's masterpieces, as far as critical and popular consensus was concerned. Sure, it was ranked among the artist's Greatest Hits, but it didn’t hold the same iconic status that it’s held in popular culture over the past century. That degree of notoriety and ubiquity didn't come until 1911, when the painting was stolen from the Louvre.
Whatever the painting's place in the art historical canon at the time, it was still considered the Museum’s most valuable possession. So naturally the theft was a huge scandal, one that immediately called in question the laxity of security at the museum (which itself quickly led to the resignation of the Museum's director). Police posted “MISSING”-styled posters that sported a photographic reproduction of the painting throughout the streets of Paris. The press offered constant updates on investigation, reporting loads of ill-founded speculation about the painting's whereabouts and the possible motives for the theft. French newspapers competed in offering the highest reward for the return of the painting, with one publication going so far as to consult a clairvoyant on the case. Law enforcement agencies the world over eventually took part in the investigation, pursuing an ever-escalating swirl of rumors and bogus leads.
Conspiracy theories made the rounds. Some thought the thief must've been German, others suspected an Italian; but the majority suspected that the heist was done at the bidding of some American tycoon, with financier J. P. Morgan being everyone’s favorite candidate. Still others thought the whole thing a hoax, a distraction staged by authorities to get the public’s collective mind off of the threat of an impending world war.
If the disappearance of the painting had been an orchestrated ruse, then it seems that it must’ve worked. In the months that that followed, the Mona Lisa became an international fixation, if not a household celebrity, a pop-culture sensation. Songs were written about the painting (and about the woman depicted therein), fanciful tales were spun, thousands of likenesses appeared in publication and on commercial products, and many thousands more postcards were printed. The way people talked about the Mona Lisa sometimes, one might’ve thought the incident involved the kidnapping of an actual person rather than the theft of an artwork.
The painting was finally recovered in the autumn of 1913, eighteen months after it vanished, when authorities received a report of someone offering to unload the painting on a art dealer in Florence. This led the to the hotel room of Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian immigrant carpenter who’d been living in Paris for several years, and who had been doing miscellaneous handyman work at the Louvre. There they found the painting, which Peruggia had removed from its frame during the theft, carefully rolled up and tucked away beneath the false bottom of a homemade trunk.
As it happened, the years of 1911-1913 were very pivotal ones for Duchamp. They began with Duchamp working on an ambitious suite of canvases, quasi-"orphic cubism" variations on a compositional theme that would soon yield the famous "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2." While the painting brought him some degree international outré renown, Duchamp experienced his share of frustration trying to get it exhibited. Ultimately it proved to be neither here nor there, because the paintings were to be among his last. Deciding that he’d had enough of "retinal art" and that he didn't want to be – as an old French expression had it – "stupid like a painter," he eventually packed in the oils and brushes and the turps and decided his interested lay elsewhere. To hell with all that. He immigrated to the United States in 1915, by which time he'd already embarked on the next phase of art-making, his series of Readymade objects. First the bicycle wheel on a stool, then the bottle rack and a snow shovel, and eventually the famously rejected "R. Mutt" submission of a urinal to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in 1917. It was a theoretical turn, an ontological exercise hinging on the defamiliarization and displacement; removing a mundane, manufactured object from their everyday mundane context and placing them elsewhere – in an inappropriate artworld context where notions of utility or use-value didn’t apply.2
En prévision du bras cassé.
Or: "In advance of the broken arm."
So says the inscription on the shovel's handle. One thing written on another, and the uncertain relationship (if any) between the two. A nonce, in the end – with the words having no concrete correlative association. Nominalism, arbitrary connections., the contingency of meaning. Les mots et les choses, abstracta and concreta, noumena versus phenomena.
The inscription tells the viewer very little in the guise of foretelling a prospective or inevitable injury. As an art critic once mused: What would’ve happened if a custodian had ventured onto the premises one snowy morning, and – mistaking the shovel for what it wasn’t, for a shovel – took the item in question from its place on the wall and used it to clear the sidewalk out front, thereby breaking an arm in the process of the chore.
A likely scenario in one respect, perhaps, but unlikely in others. Starting with the statistical fact that broken arms rarely result of shoveling snow. But the inscription on the handle doesn’t read, "In advance of a heart attack."
Octavio Paz in his 1968 essay "The Castle of Purity," writing about Duchamp:
"The Readymades are not anti-art, ...but rather anartistic. Neither art nor anti-art, but something in between, indifferent, existing in a void. ...Their interest is not plastic but critical or philosophical. It would be senseless to argue about their beauty or their ugliness, firstly because they are beyond beauty and ugliness, and secondly because they are not creations but signs, questioning or negating the act of creation. The Readymade does not postulate a new value: it is a jibe at what we call valuable."
That notion of value as being assigned to or associated with a work of art, with art in general being what philosopher Joseph Margolis described as a distinct category of culturally emergent entities. And by extension, how that value factors into the hierarchy of taste, which in turn shapes a larger cultural economies of objects and idea(l)s. "For Duchamp," Paz concluded, "Good taste is no less harmful than bad."
If not an act of defacement and sneering desecration, then there's clearly some aspect of mockery at play in Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q.. Perhaps he was responding to the media glut of La Jaconde-related news items and updates, complete with its sensationalism and unfounded conjecture. Or the way said journalistic coverage incited and pandered to cheap a public fervor and cheap sentiment. Or perhaps it was just an instance of familiarity breeding contempt, a chaffing against the inability to turn either a page in a newspaper or a street corner without seeing that same face.
On this latter count, one could just as easily reach for Walter Benjamin at this point, specifically to his oft- (if not overly-) cited essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Particularly Benjamin's core thesis that the power of a work of art resides in its material and handcrafted uniqueness -- in its "aura." And that in the modern era of reproductive technologies such as photography, each copy or simulacrum siphons of a portion of the work's singularity, diminishing its aura by degrees. Such was the case in 1912 with the popular mania that arose around the purloined painting -- a portrait, an image, the personage depicted therein taking on a sudden iconic status, incessantly reprinted in newspapers and on a vast array of postcards, adopted for any number of commercial products or at least being used in adverts, merchandized in almost every conceivable way. Mona Lisa is missing, but in her sudden absence we now have thousands of Mona Lisas rushing in the fill the void -- so many that there's plenty to go around, perhaps even a Mona Lisa each for every man, woman, and child.3
At any rate, it wasn't until 1919 that he got around to penciling facial hair on a postcard of the Mona Lisa. By which point the replications of Mona Lisa had long outlived the heat of the cultural mania, had become only so much residual dross, an icon of dulled luster, another pop-culture victim of death by overexposure. Just another thing – effectively – among an ever-proliferating array of so many other things.4
1. Some have argued that on one level, the piece was a private joke -- not lost on Duchamp’s associates -- about Da Vinci’s sexual orientation; a topic that had been brought to public attention by Freud’s writings on the Renaissance artist nearly a decade earlier.
2. It’s far more complicated than that, actually; and there’s plenty more that could be said about it. But for the sake of keeping things moving, the simplified version will do for the topic at hand.
3. On this aspect, a line might be drawn connecting Duchamp’s Mona Lisa with a reading of the emblematic, serial treatment given to Marilyn Monroe in Warhol’s famous 1962 diptych. With Warhol's, the iconic image of the recently-deceased Hollywood star becomes a semiotic cipher by way of brute reiteration -- cipher depicting the face of a glamorous yet remote and unknowable celebrity, which itself signifies a culture of mass production and consumption. Add to this that Warhol would do something very similar with the Mona Lisa a year after doing his Marilyn series.
4. Initially, the version of L.H.O.O.Q. that circulated in public was not Duchamp’s original, but rather a facsimile done by Francis Picabia. The latter had requested to include the work in an edition of his Dadaist journal 391, but when it Duchamp was unable to pass the piece along in time for the journal to go to press, Picabia quickly executed his own version of the thing with Duchamp’s permission (penciling in the moustache, sans goatee). Duchamp’s version reputedly went unseen by the public until it was included in an exhibition in 1930.
MISC: Some of the images above were found at The Missing Piece, a promotional blog for Joe Medeiros's 2010 documentary of the same name, which dealt with the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa.