all detective stories that deserve respect, Duchamp's Gioconda story
begins with a flashback. It is the autumn of 1919 and the world
is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Leonardo's death. Gabriele
D'Annunzio proclaims Leonardo's artistic genius. The poet Paul Valery
pays tribute to his scientific gifts. Sigmund Freud analyzes his
neuroses. Marcel Duchamp, who was already known for his reputation
as a provocateur, even within the Dadaist circle, celebrates the
anniversary in his own way. He takes a postcard reproduction of
the Gioconda from an antique stand on the Rue Rivoli and adds to
it a mustache and beard. This gesture changed the history of modern
At least this was the
way in which he told the story: "It was such an admired and
well-known image that it turned easily into an ideal subject for
scandal." Duchamp later declared, "I tried to do the mustache
in an artistic way, noticing that with beard and mustache, the poor
girl became very masculine." To the masterpiece was given the
title L.H.O.O.Q. -- initials which, when pronounced in French, sound
like the French expression for "she has a nice ass." The
word play was overshadowed by the desanctifying power of the violence
inflicted upon the Mona Lisa, which summarized all the ghosts that
haunted art at the turn of the millennium: the role of the artist
and his desecration, sexual ambiguity, political identity, questions
about the originality of the work of art, the rise of graffiti and
pop art. These and other issues have been seen and admired by artists
and critics in the smile of Duchamp's Mona Lisa for the last 76
years, apparently failing to grasp the most important point.
a very loud laugh, itself a Dada move, could overturn all these
theories at once. According to Rhonda Roland Shearer, a New York
sculptor who has authored a number of scientific articles, underneath
Duchamp's Mona Lisa is hidden Duchamp's face. "It is a montage;
probably a lithograph born from a superimposition of two images,"
says Shearer, after two years of research, to Panorama. On one of
the walls of her Soho loft which she shares with her husband Stephen
Jay Gould, the famous evolutionist, there are many postcards of
the Gioconda which could be bought at the beginning of the century,
"but none are of the dimensions used by the artist." In
her library, there is a collection of magic books and photographic
tricks that fascinated Duchamp -- "he did all of the experiments
described in each volume." On the computer screen we can see
the incriminating images: Leonardo's original, Duchamp's version
and a portrait of the artist when he was 25 years old, which was
probably used in the photomontage. The enigmatic smile is the same
as the one in the Mona Lisa.
prove her theories, Shearer prepared a book, a series of four CD's,
and a symposium, which will take place at Harvard University in
November. The February edition of ArtNews, an authority on contemporary
art, dedicated an article to her research with the title "Did
Duchamp Deceive Us?" Apparently the deception is not only limited
to the Gioconda, but to all of the readymades--the found objects
that once displaced from their context are transformed, by the artist,
into art. It is thanks to Duchamp and his toilet seat, tea cup,
shovel and bicycle wheel, that a generation of artists could transform
their feces and vacuum cleaners into art. But, according to Shearer,
Duchamp deceived them here as well; the readymades are in reality,
as the Gioconda, unique, carefully crafted pieces, in which the
artist's intervention is far more complex than the simple application
of mustache and beard.
his career Duchamp produced about twenty readymades. Most of them
were lost. Many were never exhibited or the only proof of their
existence is through photos that friends like Man Ray would shoot.
All of the objects that inspired Duchamp are now collected in Shearer's
studio, after laborious research in both Paris and New York antique
shops. Here is the urinal, titled Fountain, that the artist sent
in 1917 to the Independent Artists Society exhibition in New York
and that was rejected as an insult. "Obviously this is not
the original, that one has been lost," Shearer informs us.
"There is no identical piece to the one that Duchamp photographed
in 1917 in any catalogue of the time, and the reason is simple:
because it was created intentionally." The same, according
to Shearer, occurred with the snow shovel that he called In Advance
of the Broken Arm. "He took a shovel and got rid of the supports
that hook it up to the handle. Anyone that used the shovel would
have definitely ended up with a broken arm." And what about
the birdcage filled with marble cubes named Why Not Sneeze Rrose
Selavy? "The cage was cut in half." And the small perfume
bottle Belle Haleine – Eau de Toilette? "The one which
was for sale at the time was a different color than Duchamp's bottle,"
According to Shearer,
Duchamp applied a complex geometrical model to his readymades, derived
from the theories of French mathematician Henri Poincaré.
But to deliver a readymade together with the list of modifications,
as Duchamp often did, was an attack on the viewer's abilities to
see. "Duchamp said that he applied beard and mustache to the
Gioconda, and so everyone only saw that for years. But that was
the trick of an illusionist with an immense knowledge of the functioning
of human perceptions," declares Shearer. "More than once
Duchamp dismissed what he used to call 'retinal' art: now we can
better understand what he was referring to."
Shearer's work is also going to help gain a better understanding
of the artist, who in 1912 declared his intention to destroy art
and who in1923 actually quit making art--when he was only 33 years
old--yet continued to create sculptures. Or the man who signed most
of his work Rrose Selavy and frequently showed up at the photographers
in women's clothing: "It is better to change sex than religion,"
he would declare.
Duchamp was acclaimed
as a genius by Surrealists and Dadaists and was the source of inspiration
for Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol who attributed him with a fundamental
understanding of the mechanisms involved in becoming a celebrity.
The importance is not only to create art but to live one's life
as a masterpiece. -- this is advice that Duchamp followed, traveling
and living between Paris and New York until his death at 81, in
If we consider the world
of Art at the end of the millennium, Duchamp rises as a primary
figure. "He influenced the art of this century more than Picasso
and Matisse," wrote biographer Calvin Tomkins. It is also because
of this -- his status as a pivotal figure -- that Rhonda Shearer's
discoveries have triggered a war among contemporary art history
scholars even before her theories have been published or verified.
if Shearer's theories were found to be true, then all the aesthetic
that lies behind the creation of the readymade will collapse,"
Arturo Schwarz told Panorama. Schwarz, biographer and friend of
Duchamp, used to be the greatest collector of Duchamp's work before
donating it to museums all over the world. "But the truth is
that most of Shearer's conclusions are wrong; why would Duchamp
have had to deceive the entire world?"
In 1964 Schwarz produced
thirteen readymades, each one signed and supervised by Duchamp.
One of the pieces was Hatrack, a coat hanger that was originally
lost by Duchamp. But the object produced by Schwarz has six hooks
of equal length, whereas in Duchamp's photos and drawings the original
had five hooks of different lengths. "The truth is that I too
did a model with unequal hooks but Duchamp told me that the photos
where wrong, I had to change it at my own expense," explains
A similar conversation
was held between Duchamp and Ulf Linde, who in 1961 was the first
to reproduce Duchamp's readymades under Duchamp's supervision. "I
redid the Bicycle Wheel and was told by him that it didn't have
anything to do with the original one, but anyway it was fine and
if needed I could have altered it later." Linde told us this
from Stockholm where he runs the Thielska Gallery. Linde is also
convinced that behind Duchamp's Mona Lisa is hidden the artist.
"Shearer has taken the mask off." Of the same opinion
is Charles Stuckey, curator of the Kimbel Museum at Fort Worth.
"Her hypothesis is absolutely coherent with Duchamp's biography."
Mona Lisa, now property of a Swiss collector, will be exhibited
to the public again next March at the Museum of Modern Art in New
York. But according to Stephen Jay Gould, who has closely followed
his wife's research in the last two years, the original is not going
to add anything to Shearer's discovery. "Her discoveries are
based upon scientific method and not upon art criticism, this is
why they are different from other ones."
It could be that her
approach is the only possible one if we want to trap an illusionist
master like Duchamp, as he is described in a document of the French
national chess team, of which he was a member: "his style is
ingenious and his impeccable ability to profit from even the smallest
advantage makes him a formidable opponent."
1, 2 ©2003 Succession, Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris.