Some years ago I wrote a piece called "My Friend Marcel Duchamp." I began by describing why I feel he is my friend. Mainly, he made "L.H.O.O.Q." -- that is, Mona Lisa with a mustache and goatee. I like Mona Lisa parodies and other playful uses of Art with a capital A. Appreciating and collecting Mona Lisa parodies as I do, L.H.O.O.Q. is a touchstone for my collecting activity. In fact, it may be my first collected item. Whoever makes Mona Lisa parodies is my friend.
In my first dream about Marcel Duchamp all those years ago, I had an insight into this. I was walking with Marcel Duchamp, and discussing an image of Mona Lisa with a mustache. As it happened, the work in question included a color photographic reproduction, not the usual etching that one gets on postcards of the real L.H.O.O.Q. This Mona Lisa reproduction appeared to the right of a larger scene, which I do not remember, and which I had not seen outside my dream. As we walked, Marcel Duchamp explained that he had wanted Mona Lisa to be in this work as a joke, but was afraid that Americans wouldn't recognize it, so he put the mustache on to make sure it would be funny to everyone. I answered yes, it was funny.
Do you get the pun in L.H.O.O.Q? I didn't get it until I read an explanation in a book somewhere. It's a joke on the order of CDB being read childishly as See The Bee, with a picture of a Bee. You pronounce the letters in French and make them into French words: Elle (L) A Chaud (HO) Au (O) Queue (Q), which means "She has a hot piece of tail!" The French have many jokes like this, and the Dadas loved them.
The genre of L.H.O.O.Q. — as invented by Marcel Duchamp — is "Rectified Readymade." A post card, readymade, is rectified by the addition of the beard and mustache. Or in another version published in one of the early Dada chronicles or manifestos, only a mustache. And later, L.H.O.O.Q. Rasee: the "shaved" version, which you could mistake for a simple post card from the Louvre or any tourist shop if you weren't in the know.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, much later in their careers, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, the inventors of Dada, later re-made their earlier disposable artworks and readymades, such as L.H.O.O.Q., "In advance of the broken arm," "Why not sneeze," and the famous urinal titled "Fountain by R.Mutt." All is in service of the Dada view of the concept of a masterpiece and of Mona Lisa worship.