In 1919 at the height of Dada activities in Paris Marcel Duchamp created a work of art that has claimed a rightful place in history as the single greatest expression of Dada negation. Indeed, many consider this image to represent the ultimate gesture of aesthetic iconoclasm. Yet to the average viewer, the minor alterations Duchamp made to a simple reproduction might appear fairly innocent: to an inexpensive color reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa (which was then as it is today the most popular painting in the Louvre), he enhanced the female figure's famous enigmatic smile with a moustache and goatee (drawn graffiti style). But in a space below the reproduction, he pasted a strip of white paper (likely in order to obliterate a printed caption that provided the title and location of the painting) on which he penciled five letters: L.H.O.O.Q. To the casual observer, this inscription is unintelligible, but when spoken aloud in French, it is quickly discovered that these letters generate a somewhat vulgar phonetic pun: "Elle a chaud au cul," which means "She has a hot ass," or as Duchamp himself once more politely translated it: There is fire down below."
At the time when this work was made, most would have understood its reference to the issue of Leonardo da Vinci's alleged homosexuality, which was speculated upon openly after the publication of Sigmund Freud's monograph on the artist in 1910. Through a rather convoluted path, Freud argued that the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile can be linked to a childhood dream that Leonardo recorded in his notes. Although Freud's reasoning would proved flawed, he concluded that the smile could be equated with Leonardo's memory of his mother, which the artist, in turn, identified with his own suppressed desiresevidence, in Freud's mind at least, of Leonardo's self-love, or homosexual narcissism. In this context, the pun contained in the inscription is obvious. "The Gioconda was so universally known and admired," Duchamp later explained, "it was very tempting to use it for scandal. I found that poor girl, with a moustache and beard, became very masculine -- which went very well with the homosexuality of Leonardo."
Duchamp's fellow Dada co-conspirator, Francis Picabia, immediately understood the biting iconoclastic message of this verbal-visual pun, so he requested his friend's permission to reproduce the image in a special issue of 391, a magazine he had been publishing for several years. In December of 1919, however, Duchamp had returned to New York, probably bringing the original example of this work with him. Picabia wrote and asked if he could send the treasured artifact back, but, apparently, the work was held up in transit and Picabia could wait no longer. "My original did not arrive in time and in order not to delay further the printing of 391," Duchamp later explained, "Picabia himself drew the moustache on the Mona Lisa but forgot the beard."
Indeed, we can now reconstruct exactly that happened. Picabia purchased a relatively inexpensive engraving of Leonardo's celebrated masterpiece of the type that can still be acquired on the bookstalls along the Seine even today inked in a handlebar moustache and, on a separate piece of paper pasted below the image, wrote the same five letters that Duchamp wrote on the original. Finally, at the bottom of the reproduction he wrote in block letters: "TABLEAU DADA PAR MARCEL DUCHAMP." Before sending it off to the printers, he circled the portion of the image he wanted reproduced in the magazine, and penciled instructions for the printer along the right margin (requesting that the image be reproduced the same size as the engraving, and that the text be typeset rather than handwritten).
In the very next issue of 391 (March 1920), which was devoted to presenting Manifestos of Dada, the image appeared more or less exactly as Picabia had instructed. For all intents and purposes, this image represented an accurate facsimile of the original, except for the fact, as Duchamp was probably the first to notice, Picabia forgot the goatee. In spite of this missing detail, in Dada circles the reproduction of this image made the work famous, and its author infamous. Whereas Duchamp was best known in America as the painter of the Nude Descending a Staircase, which had caused such a sensation at the Armory Show in 1913, the avant-garde artists and writers of Paris and New York preferred to recall more controversial events, such as the "rejection" of his Fountain at the Independents exhibition in 1917, or the artistic blasphemy represented by his symbolic effacement of a revered Renaissance masterpiece.
Over the years, whenever the subject of Picabia's replica came up, Duchamp always delighted in pointing out the fact that his old friend had forgotten the goatee. Some twenty years would pass before he would be given the opportunity to rectify this omission. In the early 1940s, the original Picabia replica of the L.H.O.O.Q. mysteriously resurfaced, found by no one less than another important Dada artist, Jean Arp. Arp brought the work to Duchamp for authentication, telling him that he had discovered it "while browsing in a bookstore." Duchamp seized the opportunity to "complete" the image by very carefully adding in black ink the goatee that Picabia had forgotten and, using a blue fountain pen, writing the following inscription: "moustache par Picabia / barbiche par Marcel Duchamp," indicating, of course, that whereas he had made the goatee, Picabia was responsible for the moustache. This incident represents the very first time in Duchamp's career that he was asked to indicate the conformity (or lack thereof) of a work he made that had been replicated by another artist, a practice that would be repeated on numerous occasions throughout the remaining years of artistic career.
The present work represents a unique example of Dada collaboration, being that it began with a reproduction by Duchamp that was copied by Picabia, and only completed and signed some twenty years later when Jean Arp found the "original replica" and presented it to the artist for authentication. Duchampšs radical effacement of one of the best-known images in art history not only established a separation from the time-honored and conservative traditions of the past, but clearly pointed in a completely new direction for the art of future.