In 1919, Marcel Duchamp drew a moustache and goatee on a postcard of the Mona Lisa, renamed it with a bawdy French pun L. H. O. O. Q., and called it art. Half a century later, he framed an unmodified Mona Lisa postcard and named it L. H. O. O. Q. Shaved.
Marcel Duchamp loved to take common objects out of their normal context and – by the simple act of renaming and re-positioning them as art – turned them into something confronting, confusing, and sublime. His most famous work, Fountain, was a porcelain urinal lying down flat on a pedestal with the signature “R. Mutt” attached to it.
That simple act of contextual transformation became one of the most influential pieces of art of the 20th century. Nowadays the “what is art, really?” question is old hat, but in 1917 the simple act of renaming, re-orienting, elevating, and exhibiting a toilet was a revolution against those old staid ideas of artistic identity.
Having appropriately weirded the squares, Duchamp took aim at that most hallowed of artistic objects: the Mona Lisa. He took a black and white postcard reproduction of the painting, drew a moustache and goatee on it, and handwrote the title “L. H. O. O. Q.” underneath it. If you read out the letters in French, the title forms a sentence that roughly translates as “she has a hot ass.”
Duchamp had a willing audience in the publisher of the literary and art magazine 391, Dadaist Francis Picabia. Just one problem: he wanted to publish it right away, and didn’t want to wait for Duchamp’s original to be sent to him in New York. So Duchamp gave him permission to make his own and publish that instead. Picabia did so, although in his haste he only added the moustache.
Supposedly another famous Dadaist artist, Jean Arp, found Picabia’s original version in a bookstore twenty years later and brought it back to Duchamp to add the missing goatee… but I am a little bit suspicious about the veracity of that anecdote.
Duchamp, ever the cheeky artist, revisited L. H. O. O. Q. in 1965. He took a colour postcard of the Mona Lisa and added absolutely nothing except for a new title: Rasée L. H. O. O. Q. In English, “L. H. O. O. Q. Shaved.”
Endnote: this post does not include a copy of either L. H. O. O. Q. because the work is still under French copyright, so I encourage you to print out a copy of the actual Mona Lisa, reproduced above, and draw on your own facial hair. I think Duchamp would approve of that.
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