Using the Mona Lisa to mediate between high and low culture is not new. Soon after the turn of the 20th century, the Dada movement revolted against the "high cultural" content of the visual arts. In doing this, in some cases the Dadaists elevated the mundane into the world of the "aesthetic" by forcing observers to look at everyday objects in surprisingly new contexts. At other times cherished objects and symbols were ridiculed. The most well known act of degrading a famous work of art is probably Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q., a cheap postcard-sized reproduction of the Mona Lisa upon which in 1919 the artist drew a mustache and a thin goatee beard. On one hand L.H.O.O.Q. must be understood as one of Duchamp's "readymade" works of art -- works that he didn't make, but which, by having been placed intellectually within a conceptual framework of "Art," he forces the observer to see ordinary objects from new perspectives. In this way their innate aesthetic contents would make themselves manifest -- as happens in one of his more infamous works: the urinal turned on its side and rebaptized "Fountain." However, to most observers, instead of elevating the ordinary, Marcel's Mona Lisa works in the opposite direction; it defaces (literally) that which has been cherished, and brings a famous work down to the level of vulgar vandalism and cheap reproduction. The title makes the point, too, but obscurely, since when pronounced in French "L.H.O.O.Q." reports as a pun on the phrase "Elle a chaud au cul," which translates colloquially as "She is hot in the ass."
In his 1968 catalogue for the Dada and Surrealism exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (p. 19), curator and author William Rubin suggests that L.H.O.O.Q. is a puzzle, made enigmatic by its title, the "scurrilous solution" to which is posed as a explanation for Mona's mysterious smile. We have already seen some contemporary efforts to suggest (witty) explanations for this leonardesque emblem of puzzling contentment. But if the Duchamp's graffito removes Mona from her ancient pedestal, it also works in the other direction, since it elevates the crude commercially printed card from that of a cheap distributable image to a signature work of art. In this fashion, it may be understood as the mother of pop-art Monas, especially those by Andy Warhol, and, in this respect, a direct predecessor of the kinds of kitsch Monas presented at the outset of this article.
[Note: The Mona Lisa Cookie Jar (above) manipulates the relationship between the aesthetic and the functional in the opposite direction: By turning an aesthetic object into a utilitarian one, Mona Lisa is "de-aestheticized." It is quite possible that the process by which the Mona Lisa is transformed into a cookie jar would be impossible without Marcel Duchamp's precedent.
One should note that whereas the Warhol prints are made to be collectable works of art, L.H.O.O.Q. was made as ephemera -- a throwaway. In fact, Duchamp had to recreate the object several times to respond to need. Duchamp uses the innate worthlessness of the mass media to create aesthetically significant works that have no economic value (as least as far as his intention is concerned). In contrast, Warhol's subject is less involved with the image represented than it is with the process by which mass media projects that image. Whereas Duchamp revolted against giving aesthetics monetary value, Warhol's art begins with images that we assume have no economic significance, but turns them into marketable products.
The "defacement" of the Mona Lisa begins its own tradition. In homage to Duchamp, Franšois Picabia recreated Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. A more remote, but yet linked reverberation of the Duchamp can be found in a postcard advertisement made for Thomas Hoving's addition to the "For Dummies" series: Art for Dummies. In this example a manuscript addition to the postcard by artist Carol Selkin, a small tear emanates from Mona's eye, as if to lament the degree to which her image has become a commodity. Indeed, that Hoving's book is being offered by a publisher of technical "how-to" books, speaks a world about the diffusion of diametric universes.]
If Duchamp's Mona is posed as a political image mediating high and low, and as a self-consciously created milestone -- as a "key monument" for the history of art -- it also has human biographical and auto-biographical dimensions. In the above-cited catalogue William Rubin notes that Duchamp was "drawing attention to a sexual ambiguity [understood to have been] in Leonardo's life and work." This is meant to be a reference to Leonardo's supposed homosexuality, a reference that is significant to Duchamp "in relation to the quite different dualism [that is] reflected in his own creation of a female alter ego, Rrose SÚlavy" (p. 19). So while on the surface this work is a "defacement," its paradoxical underlying message may better be taken as a "re-facement." The artist is using this image to refer to Leonardo's homosexual biography and to his own multi-sexual poses all at once. The multi-sexual content shocks, much as Hellenistic hermaphroditic sculpture shocks the unsuspecting observer.
[Note: See the combination of male (Christ) and female (Mona) attributes in a work by Don Baum, here illustrated on a T-Shirt in the collection of Howard Besser. The fusion of these two faces seems to imply on one hand the innate duality of sexuality, and on the other, a dual spiritual model that undoes the male-only dominance of religious iconography. At the same time, the duality seems likely to refer to images of Janus, the two-headed gatekeeper of the Roman household (hence Janitor), who looks forward and backward (at past and future) at the same time. That same notion, certainly unintended, is nevertheless conveyed by Lillian Schwartz's hypothetical construction of Leonardo's autobiographical intent in the Mona Lisa where male-female and young and old are contrasted . See below. The eye-to-eye fusion also seems to refer to Picasso's well-known overlay of figures with their mirror image.]
The idea of suggesting that Mona Lisa's face holds autobiographical content and refers both to artist and sitter at once, had preceded Duchamp. In his novelized treatment of Leonardo's life, The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci, first published not after 1902, and translated into French and English soon after, Dimitri Merejkowski (who, during the Russian upheavals, came to live in Paris) may have been the first to cast Leonardo and Mona Lisa Gioconda as reflections of each other. But Merejkowski's pre-Freudian description falls short of suggesting that the painting implies a commingling of sexual identities; he leaves it at the level of a mutual intermingling of human souls:
Most probably it was Sigmund Freud's influential essay on Leonardo's homosexuality and Freud's consequential analysis of the Mona Lisa which was the direct or proximate impetus for Duchamp's image. But, whereas Duchamp seems to imply that the picture fuses artist and sitter, male and female, Freud suggests that the Mona Lisa (specifically her smile) is a manifestation of Leonardo's submerged memory of the birth mother from whom he was estranged at age four and who Freud theorizes expressed an unnatural affection toward her young son. In fact, Freud refutes the notion that there is a physiognomic similarity between the artist and the sitter, but goes on to suggest that the device of the smile was obviously so meaningful to the artist, using it frequently in his works of the time, it must have repressed significance. The person behind the Mona Lisa, Freud suggests, may have had such a smile, a smile that evoked long ago suppressed memories of his mother. Indeed, as Freud is quick to point out, this seems to have been a persistent theme: Vasari even noted that at the earliest age Leonardo was known for having created images of smiling women:
Mona Lisa's smile, of course, for ages has been the subject of both scholarly and popular speculation. In the wake of the romantic 19th century, it was not uncommon to find commentators looking at the perplexing self-contradiction hidden in the smile as a materialization of Leonardo's dream of an ideal image, or as a mysteriously sinister expression, or as the "embodiment of the entire erotic experience of modern man." (Freud, p. 80, explaining Walter Pater). Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. in this context seems to play on the restrained eroticism attributed to the image by important critics of his generation. Just as the penciled additions remove Mona from her pedestal as an ideal female, so does the title Duchamp gave it cut through the pretensions of the institution of art criticism and through the pretenses of conventional decorum.
Freud, for his part, needs to debunk the already common notion that assumes that the Mona Lisa represents a projection of Leonardo's inner self. We have already noted how this idea appears in Dimitri Merejkowski's novel. Freud relates how it forms in the work of M. Herzfeld. In Freud's words Herzfeld believes "that in Mona Lisa Leonardo encountered himself and therefore found it possible to put so much of his own nature into the picture, 'whose features from time immemorial have been imbedded with mysterious sympathy in Leonardo's Soul.'"
[Freud: Leonardo da Vinci, p. 88 (probably Marie Herzfeld. Leonardo da Vinci, der Denker, Forscher, und Poet. Diederichs, Leipzig, 1904.)]
It is not our purpose to pass on the merits of Freud's thesis, but merely to indicate that Freud opposes the hypothesis that the smile of the Mona Lisa, and the Mona Lisa, herself, manifests an unconscious projection Leonardo made of himself into his model. Freud, in contrast, argues that the smile of the Mona Lisa, whatever its proximate source, brings up in Leonardo a repressed or forgotten memory of his mother, and that the Mona Lisa and other pictures of the time, especially the St. Anne, are used as vehicles with which to render the inexpressible ancient relationships between mother and child. In Freud's words:
Thus Freud, while insisting that the Mona Lisa is first and last a portrait, and while he does not follow the novelists and critics in looking for reflections of Leonardo in Mona's face, does come around to the notion that in some of the more poetic works, at least, Leonardo is projecting some elements reminiscent of his personal union of male and female.
[Note: In Martin Kemp's 1988 introduction to a re-edition of Kenneth Clark's monograph on Leonardo (London, Penguin Books), he quotes Clark accepting Freud's theory that some of Leonardo's figures seem to reveal hidden memories and also the notion that Leonardo's use of the smile evokes, even in the male figures a feminine attraction: "Only in the last ten years have wee been made aware publicly that the theories of sexual psychologists were not fantasies. Leonardo, who could depict the fiery ascetic of the desert with a smile and gesture of feminine allurement, was quite capable of transfering the attrbutes of one sex to another, and of expressing some of his obsession with [his servant] Salai's smile in the smile of the 'Mona Lisa'." (As quoted by Kemp from Clark, "Mona Lisa," in Burlington Magazine (1973), p. 149.)
Richard Turner (Inventing Leonardo, p. 48) suggests that if the Mona Lisa began as a portrait, it may have evolved into an idealized image of womanhood. Its title, to indicate this, might better be rendered, he suggests, as Portrait of a Lady on a Balcony.]
At this point we have traced the origin of many of the kitsch images with which this essay began to the interests of the early 20th century, especially to Duchamp's elevation of the ordinary -- perhaps as seen through the filter of Andy Warhol's example. While the kitsch images seem to ignore the possibilities suggested in the literature, their suggestions and the intensification of the Mona Lisa puzzle must be feeding the general popularity of the image. These literary and psychological threads have provided keys to the Mona Lisa as auto-biography, as multi-sexual, and as a manifestation of the artist's mother. While Duchamp's image is obviously the progenitor of all those images, such as Warhol's which revel in popular and commercial styles, it also suggests forms by which the biographical and sexual dimensions could be expressed. If they didn't survive in kitsch, what happens to these trends?
Several of these threads have been braided together with typically self-conscious gusto as Salvador Dali's and Philippe Halsman's self-portrait/portrait of the artist as the Mona Lisa. Obviously referring to Duchamp's Mona Lisa parody, Dali's replaces Duchamp's understated additions with the artist's elaborate signature mustache; Mona/Dali looks out at the observer with decidedly non-leonardesque eyes while holding an avalanche of gold currency in hands that must be the photographic simulacrum of Dali's own. To this observer it seems as if the purpose of this picture is to paint Dali as both creator and self-created; playing on the notion that the artist is his own subject. It is interesting to observe that by the 1950s Duchamp's invention had become such a topos that it could easily be subverted or adapted to serve other purposes.
One should not be surprised that there are some ideas that just won't go away, but are reborn without so much as an acknowledgement that they have been around before. Thus is the case with two contemporary additions to the mystique of the popular Leonardo. The first of these is a computer study comparing the physiognomies of the Mona Lisa and a self-portrait drawing of Leonardo, and the second is a "biography" of Leonardo's birth mother, Caterina, the information for which came to the author as a "vision" narrated to her by Leonardo, himself.
In an article appearing in the April 1995 issue of Scientific American, Lillian Schwartz, a specialist in computer graphics and a practicing computer artist, claims that through comparisons aided by digital image manipulation, it is defensible to assert that "in completing the work [on the Mona Lisa] in the absence of his sitter, Leonardo used himself as a model and infused the portrait [of Mona Lisa] with his own features." (p. 106) Unfortunately, there is no indication that the author is familiar with the literary tradition (such as represented here by Merejkowski's novel and Freud's interpretation of Herzfeld), that interprets the Mona Lisa and Leonardo as reflections of each other. One is left to wonder if the computer analysis Schwartz puts forward is built upon a foundation of inherited but unrevealed romantic interpretations. At the same time the author seems unaware that it was not uncommon for portraits, especially idealized ones, and caricatures or, better, physiognomies and character types (into which category Leonardo's so-called self portrait can be placed) to be built on sets of proportional relationships. Indeed, Leonardo's so-called "Vitruvian Man" from around 1490 establishes the exemplar for this kind of practice -- an example that was to have a remarkable history for several centuries thereafter. Indeed, in many of his own drawings, Leonardo used these proportional formulae to establish facial types. If the application of proportional theory preceded the formation of Leonardo's portraits, then the computer comparison might just be evidence that related proportional systems had been used in both images, and not proof that they are of the same person. More damaging is the suspicion that the red chalk drawing from the Royal Library at Turin upon which Ms. Schwartz' comparison is based -- a drawing that has become "a talisman of Leonardo" (to use Richard Turner's apt phrase) -- earned its self-portrait status only in 1840, and has a good chance of not being a record of Leonardo's countenance at all since it seems to represent a personality type that was invented before Leonardo had reached the age represented in the drawing.
[Note: A. Richard Turner, Inventing Leonardo, 1992, p. 10-11. Lillian Schwartz informs me that my characterization of her ideas about the Mona/Leonardo connection are incomplete and wrong in places, based, as they are, on the Scientific American article, which is but a short summary. I await opportunity to study her ideas in greater detail in order to make the appropriate corrections.]
[Note: James Elkins. Why are our Pictures Puzzles? On the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity. Routledge, New York and London, 1999. Speaking on the number of ideas about the Mona Lisa that have been picked up in the literature, Professor Elkins notes that, "a review of the literature on the Mona Lisa ... shows that most ideas spring from a few essays, and ideas succeeding generations have found interesting do not grow in proportion to the number of people who find something to say in print. Instead a relatively small number of ideas has been repeatedly cited and discussed. There is no good correlation between the number of people writing on the Mona Lisa -- a number that has been growing sharply over the last hundred years -- and the number of claims that have been registered about the painting or about previous scholarship. Some ideas, such as Freud's guess that the face echoes Leonardo's wet nurse's face, have been stated and restated without clear concensus. Others, such as a recent computer study that found similarities between the Mona Lisa and the late self-portrait drawing, have yet to find any response at all. [Elkins, note 44] Many subjects have fallen into oblivion: the notion that she smiles from only one side of her mouth, in compliance with Renaissance manners; the idea that the Mona Lisa is a sublimated version of Leonardo's contemporaneous anatomical studies; a pediatrician's diagnosis that the figure is pregnant since she has swollen glands; Carlo Pedretti's interest in the columnar chair, which is reminiscent of Bramante's Tempietto. [Elkins, note 45] Arguments about the sitter's identity are a common theme in the literature, but the guesses don't grow from one another: rather they alternate in strident succession. [Elkins, note 46].
The computer study to which Elkins refers is the one conducted by Lillian Schwartz, discussed in this section. The reference to the notion of a pregnant Mona Lisa, while not picked up in the scholarly literature has become a theme in popular imagery and in the fine arts. Of special note in this regard are three self-portraits in the series "Self Portrait as Art History" by Morimura Yasumasa: Mona Lisa in its Origin, 1998, Mona Lisa in Pregnancy, 1998, and Mona Lisa in the Third Place, 1998. Mona Lisa appears pregnant in an advertisement for a DNA Paternity Testing service in Baltimore, MD. that bears the caption: "Who's The Daddy?"]
It is only by borrowing from the romantic myths which attribute to Leonardo's Mona Lisa significances beyond that of descriptive portraiture, that is, which attempt to find in the painting hidden meanings of supernatural and biographical significance -- epitomized by Walter Pater's famous description: "She is older than the rocks among which she sits..." -- and which secretly implicate the soul of the artist in the work, that the computerized comparison seems to make historical sense. But the author's process of "morphing" one image into the next, eight stages of which are illustrated in the Scientific American article, serves to underscore the differences between the subjects as much as they identify the similarities. The author finds a supporting clue to her thesis in the supposed name of the knot used to fashion Mona's bodice. "The Italian word for the osier branches used for basketry [which she says the knots resemble] is vinco." (p. 106) This knot, she believes alludes to the identify of the subject represented, but (even if her identification of the knot is correct) she does not tell us why it does not allude to the name of the maker, a more reasonable and conventional explanation. Without further passing on the plausibility of the author's contention, for the purposes of this survey all one needs to understand now is that (for whatever purpose) Ms. Schwartz is continuing one strand of the tradition of that multi-threaded mythology that surrounds the mystery of the Mona Lisa.
Because historical novels and other kinds of fiction need not depend too heavily on facts, attitudes toward the Mona Lisa are relatively easy to discern in these genre. Rina de' Firenze's, novelized biography, The Mystery of the Mona Lisa (Hastings House, 1996 - ISBN: 0803893817) is about the early years of the artist -- the period during which he resided with his birth mother Caterina. Without any apparent reference to Freud's contention that the Mona Lisa awoke in its creator a submerged memory of his mother, the novelist claims that the true source of inspiration for the Mona Lisa is the artist's mother, whose original name, according to the author, was Lisa. This information comes to the author in a series of visions during which information not previously known to the world is revealed.
[Note: I have not read this book. For further information consult reader reviews at: <http://library.advanced.org/13681/data/rina22.htm>. Also see: <http://library.advanced.org/13681/data/rinadf.htm>]
It may be relatively easy for the advanced scholar to belittle propositions such as those described above, but when viewed from the standpoint of what kinds of answers these studies are attempting to provide, or, better, when one asks what kinds of questions are being asked, it is not impossible to see that these efforts are significant monuments in the public perception of Leonardo and the Mona Lisa, and that they are intimately related to the monalisiana objects cited in the first part of this essay. Ms. Schwartz and Ms. de' Firenze, each are driven to pose answers to long-standing questions. For them, the mystery is not allowed to exist for its own sake so that some form of answer, no matter how inventive, must be provided to the reader. Walter Pater could leave the riddle in the Mona Lisa; he could excite the imagination without providing definitive answers; in fact, his answers only inflame the mystery. Even Freud allows his readers to leave his essay knowing that his speculations are merely theory; but here, in these modern, popular, speculative studies, no slack is given for conjecture. In the first, the computer serves as the omniscient revealer of truth; in the second, truth comes to the reader by way of extraterrestrial revelation. The point is that, here, as in the kitsch objects, every question is answered and no mystery is left for the observer to ponder.
Compare, for instance, the narrative sequence of Mona Laughing to Ms. Schwartz' "Morphed Mona." (Also see above.) In the former, the smile is explained as the midpoint of an evolving expression. The cinematic sequence has a beginning and an end. The static convention of Renaissance portraiture is undone in this work. Similarly, the "morphing" of the drawing of Leonardo into the portrait of Mona Lisa offers the viewer a sequence of images that subverts the conventional stasis of the works by creating a pseudo cinematic narrative. Like the laughing sequence, it has a beginning and an end. Indeed, given our familiarity with sequential morphing in movies and advertisements where the transformations are understood to take place in narrative time, it is easy to drop the pretense that the Leonardo/Mona morph sequence is merely a demonstration to prove a point, and it is just as easy to find oneself referring to it as if it really explains the process by which one work comes from the other. (See also Mona flipbook.)
At the start of this discussion it was noted that the image of the Mona Lisa is frequently used by vendors of products to bestow the cachet of quality on their wares; but, business has found that Mona can also be used to signify satisfaction. Recently, some advertisements have turned the riddle of the famous smile into the advertisement's conceit. Understanding the cause of the smile -- demystifying it -- becomes the key to comprehending the commercial message, as can be seen in an advertisement for Gateway Computers that appeared in the June 9th, 1998 edition of PC Magazine. And, of course, in the world of computers, satisfaction is just about the same thing as power. Indeed, what computers provide is power.
The solution of the riddle, the acquisition of indisputable knowledge, like owning the kitschy variants, serves only to bestow authority, power and significance on those who possess these magical totems. It is they who are privy to Mona's secret and who possess the key to the riddle -- to as much of it that is left. For modern audiences, when the jigsaw is complete, the puzzle has been solved and the mystery vanishes. It seems as if the 20th century, just like nature, abhors a vacuum. Owning it is, after all, "such an obsession -- really."
And why is it an obsession? Following the laws of the dysfunctional collector, collecting images that bestow power may be evidence that the collector feels as if he has none, or that he is suspect of the power he does have, or that he suspects that his power base is built on unethical practices and his chance of everlasting fame is in jeopardy -- or he is certain of it. In the end, emblems of power, like escutcheons bearing symbols of warning, frequently service deep-seated feelings of unworthiness. These, of course, are not the only motives for collecting, but when considering an obsession that focuses on a single image, these motives are worth considering.