PRINT April 1968

Freud and Duchamp: The Mona Lisa “Exposed”

CRITICISM OF THE MONA LISA over the past 4 1/2 centuries has been both voluminous and varied, but no phase of the long history of these opinions is more unusual than the period extending from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, and climaxing in the works of Freud and Duchamp with which this paper is mainly concerned. During this period critics most often indulged themselves in anecdotes either about the personality and expression of Mona Lisa, or about Leonardo’s relation to his model. Romantics like Gautier and Pater and Symbolists like Laforgue discovered and rediscovered the notorious “enigmatic” smile and interpreted the Gioconda as a femme fatale, a fascinating woman with sinister powers. Gautier in 1858 described the magic charm of Mona Lisa whose “expression attracts you irresistibly . . . while the serpentine mouth . . . mocks you . . .” On looking at the painting you are driven to despair, and “you discover that your melancholy arises from the fact that La Joconde 300 years ago greeted your avowal of love with this same mocking smile . . . here simple fidelity to nature has completely disappeared; the eternal feminine has taken its place.” Pater, in 1869, building on Gautier’s ideas, soared to even greater heights of rhetoric in his famous passage on Lady Lisa, who is “older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas . . . and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as St. Anne, the mother of Mary . . .” etc. In a poem of 1885 Laforgue produced some striking images involving the enigmatic smile, and associated the Gioconda with Eve and Delilah.

Before the mid-19th century writers rarely felt impelled to spin out fantasies about the Gioconda’s smile, even when they referred to it. One such writer, T. G. Wainewright, the author and poisoner much admired by Oscar Wilde, in a story published in 1822, told of a young lady, alone in her bedroom, who looked up at a reproduction on the wall, and “. . . gazed on the wily eyes of Gioconda,” a phantom, the corners of whose mouth “curled slightly upwards.” The lips of this spectral Gioconda, “indued with the power of evoking like phantoms” suddenly called up the apparition of a young man, at whom she “leered amorously.”

Romantic biographers of Leonardo, such as Charles Clement (1861), assumed a love affair between artist and sitter, and explained the Gioconda’s expression as the amorous look of a mistress. On the other hand the mystic Sar Peladan (1910), obsessed with the old notion of Leonardo as a magician and man of mystery, emphasized the master’s androgyny, and his spiritual communion with the Gioconda.

Freud’s study, Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (1910), like those of his romantic forerunners, concerned itself more with biography and iconography than with formal questions, and indeed looked through the work of art in order to study the artist’s personality. In attempting to reconstruct on scientific grounds the psychic life of this genius, Freud read widely in the literature on Leonardo, and produced some genuine insights into the great artist’s character; however, Freud never wholly cut loose from the romanticism prevalent in the Europe of his youth, and which we usually term “Victorian.” In the stiffly inhibited moral climate of the 1870s through the 1890s, women appeared as contradictory creatures, alternately tempting and rejecting, much like Pater’s Gioconda. Some of Freud’s strongest critics, both sympathetic, such as Thomas Mann, and unsympathetic, such as Jung, noted important romantic elements in his thinking throughout his career. Freud displays his affinity to this romantic viewpoint in the study of Leonardo by uncritically adopting Pater’s lyrical appreciation of the Gioconda. Most serious 20th-century critics have regarded Pater’s essay as at best irrelevant to the painting. T. S. Eliot condemned the piece as an example of Pater’s metaphorical criticism, which had little to do with his subject, while Pater’s admirers, in full agreement about the subjectivity of the essay, either like Oscar Wilde unabashedly extolled it as superior to the painting, or, like Yeats, lovingly edited it as a poem.

In his book on Leonardo, Freud, attempting to apply psychoanalytic methods to the understanding of such paintings as The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (Louvre), asserted that the recurrent smile on the faces of Leonardo’s female figures in the paintings of his late maturity reveals an aspect of the artist’s homosexuality, and represents a yearning on his part to return to the blissful years of infancy when his real mother smiled down on him, before he was separated from her forever. According to a footnote in his book, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious of 1905, Freud had already been interested in the explanation of any infant’s smile, and could have advanced a second explanation for Leonardo’s association of the smile with infancy. As Freud put it: “So far as I know, the grimace characteristic of smiling, which twists up the corners of the mouth, appears first in an infant at the breast as it falls asleep.”

In his pursuit of an explanation of the peculiarities of Leonardo’s genius, Freud made much—perhaps too much—use of the artist’s childhood memory of a bird (a kite, which Freud mistakenly—as several scholars have shown—called a vulture) whose tail beat at his lips. Freud interpreted the memory as a reference to those early years when Leonardo’s abandoned and over eager mother pushed her breast to his lips. Usually the suckling male infant, according to Freud, fantasies that his mother has a genital like his own, a notion which normally disappears later as the child becomes aware of his similarity to his father and difference from his mother. But in Leonardo’s case—and this to Freud is the mainspring of his homosexuality—there was coupled the absence of a strong father and the presence of a mother who engulfed him in an intense love relationship, to satisfy her own needs. In Freud’s view, Leonardo, like all homosexuals, later repressed his intense feelings of tenderness for his mother for reasons unknown. As Freud put it, the boy “puts himself in her place, identifies himself with her, and takes his own person as a model in whose likeness he chooses the new objects of his love. In this way he becomes a homosexual.”

In order to support his explanation of Leonardo’s homosexuality, Freud next turned to an analysis of the well known Leonardesque smile in his paintings, including the Mona Lisa. Freud quotes several authors to the effect that the Mona Lisa has “produced the most powerful and confusing effect on whoever looks at it,” and has even caused persons to lose their heads. He notes “the indisputable fact that her smile exercised no less powerful a fascination on the artist than on all who have looked at it for the last 400 years,” and cites approvingly Pater’s remarks about “the unfathomable smile, always with a touch of something sinister about it, which plays over Leonardo’s work.” In seeking a “deeper reason behind the attraction of La Gioconda’s smile,” Freud tries to show that the public’s constant fascination with the painting corresponded to Leonardo’s own profound involvement with his subject. In this connection Freud takes literally Pater’s remark that “from childhood we see this image defining itself on the fabric of his dreams.” To whom does this image of a smiling woman refer? Freud answers that on the one hand the mysterious smile belonged to Leonardo’s mother, and on the other hand, it belonged to Leonardo himself, as a contented infant identifying with his mother. Here, Freud finds his theoretical analysis of Leonardo’s homosexual narcissism or self-love supported by the view of Marie Herzfeld (1906), that “In the Mona Lisa Leonardo encountered his own self.” Freud is now in a position to explain the enigma of the smile, and the source of its continuous fascination for the public: For “. . . Leonardo was successful in reproducing on Mona Lisa’s face the double meaning which this smile contained, the promise of unbounded tenderness and at the same time sinister menace (to quote Pater’s phrase) . . .”

Freud’s book has had its critics. MacLagan in 1923 and I. A. Richter in 1952 pointed out the notorious vulture/kite confusion already referred to, and Meyer Schapiro, in an essay of 1956, brilliantly summarized the scope and limitations of Freud’s approach to art history in it. One of the major sources of Freud’s difficulties certainly derives from the psychoanalyst’s attempt to apply to art history psychological methods which in his hands remained essentially non-historical. To Freud the unconscious is a constant, above history; consequently men have felt the same thing about the Gioconda for the last 400 years. But this position, while consistent with some subtle psychological insights, is historically simplistic. One can easily show that at least in this instance Freud’s assumption of a constant taste founded on an unconscious impervious to cultural and historic change is untenable by considering surveys of past opinions about the painting such as those prepared by Lionello Venturi (1919), by Focillon (1932), and especially by Boas (1940). These studies demonstrate that to earlier writers the painting had little of that aura of mysticism and enigma of which the romantic 19th century made so much. According to the reliable Pedretti (1957), the oldest eye-witness account of the Mona Lisa is that of Dal Pozzo in 1625 (despite authorities such as Sir Kenneth Clark, it was surely not Vasari’s, who never saw the painting). Dal Pozzo does not refer to the smile, but passes from discussing the “tenderness” of the cheeks and lips to the masterful execution of the face and hands, which are painted so beautifully that they enrapture whoever sees the painting.

With regard to engravings of the painting, probably the oldest is that of Bohm of 1724 (Focillon, writing in 1932 on engravings of the painting, knew of no example before the 19th century). Bohm’s Gioconda has the quiet domesticity of a German hausfrau, and little trace of enigma. The engraver, not having received his cues from the 19th century, barely hints at a smile.

When the painting first came to public view at the Louvre in 1804, Friedrich von Schlegel saw it and found the Gioconda to have “the same delicious smile” that Correggio’s portraits have. Although as early as 1815 Hazlitt noted that in general the expression of Leonardo’s women was equally characteristic of “The mistress or the saint,” he had little to say about the Gioconda other than to note its fault of being “too mathematical.” It was not until after the middle of the 19th-century that critics and writers popularized the enigma of the Gioconda and her smile.

By the end of the 19th century some perceptive critics, acting, in a sense, like restorers, tried to scrape away the thick accretions of romantic comment with which the painting seemed overlaid, and to look directly and freshly at the actual work of art beneath. Parenthetically we may note that when Freud applied a frank pathography to a genius whose personality was veiled in myth in order to understand him better, he belonged to a tendency similar to that of the anti-romantic critics. The psychologies of men such as Nietzsche, von Hartmann and McDougall denied the romantic and—in their view—superficial approach of earlier 19th-century psychologies, and sought “truth” by penetrating beneath the “masks” and deceptions of consciousness. In art, the most powerful innovators—from the post Impressionists to the Fauves and Cubists—increasingly turned from Romantic and Symbolist content to plastic and formal considerations. Valery, who, like Denis in 1890, and Signac in 1935, made the literary approach to the Gioconda secondary to the appreciation of its formal qualities, summed up the correspondingly changed attitude to the painting in his Introduction to the Method of Leonardo Da Vinci (1894), saying: “No example I could give of the general attitude toward painting would be more amusing than the celebrity of the ‘smile of the Mona Lisa,’ to which the epithet of ‘mysterious’ seems irrevocably fixed. This wrinkle in her face has aroused the sort of phraseology which justifies, in all literatures, the title of ‘sensations’ or ‘impressions’ of art. It is buried beneath a mass of words, and disappears among the myriad paragraphs which commence by calling it ‘troubling,’ and end by a generally vague description of a state of soul . . . Leonardo made no use of inexact observations and arbitrary symbols, or Mona Lisa would never have been painted.”

Apparently Valery’s irony hardly reached or affected more than a very small circle. Indeed, the sensational theft of the picture in 1911 and its recovery in 1913 evoked from the public precisely the kind of emotional response to which he objected. Few responded like Bernard Berenson, who “was glad to be rid of her.” Indeed, Parisian newspapers received many letters containing declarations of love to the painting, with phrases such as: “The Mona Lisa is the Louvre . . . the very model of beauty.” Another letter denied that the painting was the Louvre’s masterpiece, insisting that it “charms some and irritates others, for sexual reasons.” Georg Heym’s story, Der Dieb, published in 1913, and inspired by the actual theft, describes how the thief, alone in his room with the painting and in mortal combat against the Gioconda’s evil fascination, cuts out her eyes and mouth. In a fantastic climax, the eccentric old man, having placed the disfigured painting before his face as a mask, peers through the eye slits and sticks his tongue mockingly out of the mouth hole.

Heym’s grotesque image is characteristic of the intense and ambivalent feelings not only toward the Mona Lisa, but toward the whole tradition of “great” Western art preserved in the museums, feelings intensified by World War I. By 1920 a Dadaist periodical could ask, “Should we burn the Louvre?” Even before the war, the Italian Futurists, finding their own magnificent Renaissance oppressive and confining, assumed a hostile stance toward their tradition, as exemplified by the Mona Lisa. Although in 1909 Marinetti, equating museums to cemeteries, merely advised with mock seriousness that his contemporaries place flowers before the Gioconda, as at a relative’s grave, Soffici, in 1915, observing on the wall of a building the face of Mona Lisa beneath which in large letters was printed the words “Gioconda: Acqua Purgativa Italiana,” an ad for a laxative, quipped, “At last, even we Italians are beginning to produce good art criticism.”

It is against this background that Duchamp, in 1919, the year in which the 400th anniversary of Leonardo’s death was commemorated, defaced a colored print of the painting by giving Mona Lisa a moustache and beard in the manner of graffiti. Beneath the altered print Duchamp lettered an obscure caption, “LHOOQ,” which reads in French “Elle a Chaud au Cul,” meaning, “She has a hot behind.” This obscenity, which, by the way, resembles Soffici’s remark about the laxative both in manner and in its point of reference, intentionally degrades the exalted lady, but as I shall try to show, at the same time offers an explanation—however bizarre—for the still-persisting sexual fascination of the Gioconda. As we have seen, Duchamp’s iconoclastic mockery, far from being an isolated gesture, culminated a series of antagonisms directed against the romanticism which the painting epitomized. We might add, as a curious footnote to these unexpected emphases on the backside of a frontally-posed portrait, that according to Vollard, Degas used jokingly to praise his more naive models for having buttocks as beautiful as the Gioconda’s, whereupon they often went about displaying their praised assets.

Duchamp’s addition of masculine hair to a woman’s face, coupled with his caption, makes clear and vulgar reference to bisexuality. A link-up to the widely-held notion of Leonardo’s homosexuality is inescapable, and forms a striking parallel to Freud’s explicit discussion. It is even not ruled out that although Freud’s works only began to be published in French in 1920, Duchamp knew Freud’s views on the Mona Lisa, perhaps through Breton who was acquainted with psychoanalysis. If this were so, then LHOOQ would be a Dada equivalent to Freud’s discussion of the painting, and would in a sense “explain” its fascination as based on its underlying sexual ambivalence. There is a final curious parallel already touched on between Freud and Duchamp which helps situate them in the first decades of the 20th century: their desire to expose what the superficial conceals, Freud through frank analysis of the sexual and aggressive aspects of all experience, Duchamp through humorous obscenity and playful aggression against Western culture. Duchamp’s combination of obscenity and pederasty in the LHOOQ falls directly in line with Freud’s analysis of smut as linked to anal sexuality. In his book on jokes already mentioned, Freud explicitly stated that the starting point for the comic of sexuality and obscenity is exposure, and that “unmasking“ includes as a comic technique “the method of degrading the dignity of individuals by directing attention . . . (to) the dependence of their mental functions on bodily needs.” Especially relevant to LHOOQ is Freud’s point that “the sexual material which forms the content of smut includes more than what is peculiar to each sex; it also includes what is common to both sexes and to which the feeling of shame extends—that is to say; what is excremental, in the most comprehensive sense.”

Anyone acquainted with the curious life and productions of Duchamp would find a ready subject on which to apply Freud’s analyses; for at times Duchamp raised a facade of bisexuality and transvestitism; e.g., when he posed in 1921 as Rrose Sélavy for the label on his own bottle of perfume. Moreover, psychoanalysis would find much to ponder in Duchamp’s preoccupation with Leonardo and his ambivalence toward the Renaissance genius. On the other hand, it seems to me that Freud’s attraction to the romantic image both of Leonardo and of the Mona Lisa would also warrant psychoanalytic study. His biographer, Ernest Jones, no more than hints at the personal roots of Freud’s various intellectual enterprises, while the master himself undertook a self-analysis which, despite limitless materials, hardly exposed as much of himself as he did of Leonardo with a few scraps of data.

But whatever may have been their prejudices and personal involvements, both Freud and Duchamp in their different ways cast light on the Mona Lisa: Freud, though wrongly accepting a romantic image as timelessly valid, nevertheless brilliantly linked the Gioconda to other paintings of Leonardo and to biographical facts, and fashioned his own impressive portrait of the great artist; Duchamp, with his act of taste (or distaste) cut through the popular mystery and adulation which modern (and perhaps aristocratic) sensibilities like Valery’s had already found disgusting. Thus, Duchamp’s LHOOQ makes an important, though offensive contribution to art criticism, for through it the sentimentally elevated (and misunderstood) image still acceptable to Freud was unpedestaled. However, there is also a point of agreement between Freud and Duchamp, as I have tried to show; for they both expose—explicitly in the one case, implicitly in the other the concealed bisexuality of the Gioconda. My interpretation appears corroborated through a witty caricature by David Levine, for a review in 1965 by Gombrich of Freud’s Leonardo. Levine, who, like Gombrich, probably knew the LHOOQ, makes much the same point as Duchamp.

Both Freud and Duchamp went beyond their predecessors, the bemused romantics’ suggestions about the Mona Lisa’s contrary qualities of attraction and repulsion, and, in linking up Leonardo’s homosexuality to this intellectually aloof lady, they exposed the raw sexual ambivalence underlying her image. But more than for their insights into the Gioconda, Freud’s book and Duchamp’s caricature have value as epitomizing the attitudes of some early 20th-century Europeans toward a great painting. In this instance, then, a document of psychoanalysis and a document of criticism serve from complementary angles to illuminate one more moment in the history of a long suffering but enduring work.

Jack Spector