Part 20. A Hanging in the Louvre
If I did however happen to talk about ‘Tombstone Blues’ from Highway 61 Revisited then I would have to remark that the topical expression that was good enough to be coined by world leaders in 2003, had already been minted by Bob Dylan back in the 60’s of the last century. But of course, instead of using the expression ‘road map’ for spin, Dylan used it in protest. Remember this cynical twist from ‘Tombstone Blues’:
National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul
Whatever expedition you want to take with words, you’ll find that Dylan got there first!
Now I am fully aware that the musings of this particular scribe don’t amount to a hill of beans when you are standing in front of a massive screen that portrays a world gone wrong, but I have my own road map: the route is directly through the verses of ‘Visions of Johanna’, encompassing all the wonderful twists and turns of that classic Dylan song; and the destination is at the site of a completed canvas containing the images of all the people and places I have seen along the way. Those who have stayed with me on this journey, (and there can’t be that many), may consider that I have strayed from the road map too often but no one can ignore the continuing presence of my travelling companion, the person to whom, in my view, all my roads lead: namely Joan of Arc.
As an aide-memoire to those who have had the energy to stay with me thus far, and as a point of reference to those who may wish to watch me as I enter the home straight, I am not contending that Joan of Arc is ‘Johanna’ (although she signed her name in a similar fashion shortly prior to her execution); but rather that her legend is the prevailing impetus throughout the images contained in the song and her story underscores the very essence of Dylan’s masterpiece. To explain all this I have taken the song apart and reconstructed it, piece by piece, on to my own canvas: the completion of which is, as I have said, the destination of my road map. Before I plod on yet further, I must look over my shoulder again and remind myself that Joan of Arc was burned alive for two main reasons: (a) her visions and (b) her ambiguity of gender as demonstrated by her transvestism. In part 19 of this article I combined the images of Joan of Arc and (the) Madonna as referred to in the final verse of ‘Visions of Johanna'. Now it is time to bring that other famous female icon from the fourth verse into focus: the Mona Lisa.
It seems quite in vogue to be writing about the Mona Lisa in the year 2003 because this year sees the 500th anniversary of the year when the painting was completed by the artist, inventor, scientist, architect and all other sound things to all other sound men: Leonardo da Vinci. To coincide with this anniversary numerous projects on grand scales have been undertaken but one particular project that is pertinent to my study is the publication of the book ‘Mona Lisa – The History of the Words Most Famous Painting’ by the author Donald Sassoon.(132) This books tells you, in an informal yet informative fashion, everything you wanted to know about the worlds most famous painting. Indeed, the book endeavours to answer the following questions posed in its jacket notes:
‘What has made the Mona Lisa the most famous picture in the world? Why is it that, of all the six thousand paintings in the Louvre, it is the only one to be exhibited in a special box, set in concrete and protected by two sheets of bullet proof glass? Why do thousands of visitors throng to see it every day, ignoring the masterpieces which surround it?’
Deceptively complex questions and understandably, as we are dealing with the appreciation of art, accompanied by no straightforward answers. Whilst Sassoon starts at the very beginning and lays out a history of the artist and his painting, my own observations must be limited to the connection between the use of the image of the Mona Lisa by Dylan in the penultimate verse of ‘Visions of Johanna’ and the mainstay of my interpretation of the song, namely Joan of Arc. There are so many intriguing aspects to the appreciation of the Mona Lisa that I could quite easily get bogged down in side issues but that would mean throwing away my road map and perhaps never reaching my destination. So let me get straight to the point and adopt the colour that I have continually used in my own pictorial study of the song: the colour that represents the matter of gender ambiguity: a matter which I have highlighted on many previous occasions in this study and indeed a matter for which Joan of Arc was burned alive. In linking the matter of gender ambiguity to the Mona Lisa I have to refer to what Donald Sassoon calls ‘the androgyny theme’ which he explains as follows:
‘One of the most popular theories is that the Mona Lisa is in fact Leonardo’s self portrait. Such claims were made at the beginning of the twentieth century, and have remained current. For instance, in 1913 the painter Maurice Vieuille claimed that while the lower half of the face is that of a woman, the upper half is that of a man. And not just any man: ‘That gaze, it is Vinci’s’. However, it is only since the 1952 X-ray examination carried out by Madame Magdalene Hours, the director of the Louvre laboratory, that the androgyny theme, first ventilated in the nineteenth century, has really blossomed.
In that year, on the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of Leonardo, the art critic Georges Isarlo, claimed that Mona Lisa was a transvestite…….On the basis of Isarlo’s claims, in June 1953 the New York journal Sexology published a picture of Mona Lisa with cropped hair looking like an effeminate young man – as many young men with longish hair would in female dress – with a veil. In 1986 Lillian Schwarz, a computer-art scientist working at Bell Laboratories on New Jersey, ‘conclusively’ proved that the Mona Lisa was a self portrait of the young Leonardo. This prompted the London Daily Telegraph to report the news with the headline ‘Mona Lisa was Leonardo in drag!’(133)
Perhaps one of the reasons behind ‘the androgyny theme’ related to Leonardo’s own sexuality. Sassoon investigates this situation as follows:
‘In the nineteenth century, Leonardo’s supposed homosexuality was unmentioned. The presumption rests on his trial for sodomy in 1476 (when he was twenty-four), although he was acquitted. There is also no trace of any involvement with a woman in his life. Later, when the issue could be discussed openly, new interpretations were produced. Thus, in 1973, Kenneth Clark decided that Leonardo’s sexual preferences were a key to understanding his work and that the artist ‘gladly allowed his homosexuality to penetrate to the depth of his being’. Leonardo understood, explained Clark, that: ‘the creative process… was predominately a female process. The male part of procreation was short, easy and beyond his powers of analysis. The female part was long, complex and a possible subject for investigation.’(134)
One person who took the idea of the Mona Lisa being ‘Leonardo in drag’ to another level was the French surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968). Duchamp was something of an anarchist when it came to the matter of art and one of his most famous creations was a painting that he entitled L.H.O.O.Q. which demonstrated his philosophy that nothing, absolutely nothing, was sacred when it came to art. Before graffiti appeared on the walls of the New York subway, Duchamp, to the horror of art lovers everywhere, graffiti-ised the sacred icon by taking the Mona Lisa and turning her into a man. Donald Sassoon takes up the story and provides some interesting comments with regard to Duchamp’s intentions, which are indeed pertinent to certain lines from the fourth verse of ‘Visions of Johanna':
‘In 1919 the French artist Marcel Duchamp took a postcard of the Mona Lisa and drew on her face a moustache and a goatee beard. He had been developing the idea that as art could only be defined by its context, it could be made out of anything at all, including what he called a ‘ready made’ such as a urinal (The Fountain, Arturo Schwartz Collection, Milan). Context was like the miracle of transubstantiation: it could transform anything. If a vulgar wafer can become the Body of Christ, a urinal can become a work of art, provided it is so regarded by an artist and positioned in an art gallery.
In adding a beard and a moustache to the Mona Lisa, Duchamp was making free with a work of art whose popular fame had reached mythic proportions. It was bound to appear provocative. Though Duchamp’s act now appears, at best, mildly amusing, at the time it caused consternation.
Nowadays even rotting animals in formaldehyde do not shock many people; those who are shocked provide artists and gallery owners with gratifying publicity. But in Duchamp’s day assaults on convention provoked more dismay. Thirty years later L.H.O.O.Q. was still causing anxiety, at least in some quarters. T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbins Mona Lisa’s Moustache, a rambling book published in 1948, argued that the Surrealists ‘proposed to destroy utterly the entire universe erected by western logic, by inducing the superstition that reality was not reality as it was conceived by Western logic and the normal mind’. By depicting the Mona Lisa ‘ with a moustache’ the Surrealists hoped that the ‘bourgeoisie would begin to teeter between what was real and what was hallucination’.
To superimpose a moustache on a face is a typical schoolboy prank indicating mockery. When Gaultier said that, before the Mona Lisa ‘we feel timid, like schoolboys in the presence of a duchess’, he was building up an icon. When Duchamp chose to behave like a schoolboy , he was questioning its value. His friend the artist Francis Picabia wanted to publish L.H.O.O.Q.in the March 1920 issue of his Dadaist magazine 391. As Duchamp had taken his postcard to new York, Picabia got hold of another Mona Lisa postcard, added the moustache and published it with the caption’ ‘Dada painting by Marcel Duchamp…’, forgetting the beard. Duchamp’s card had temporarily become as ‘unique’ as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.
Later he explained that he intended L.H.O.O.Q. to be an aggressive response to the curiosity he had aroused among members of Picabia’s circle, deliberately using ‘the symbol of everything that was sacred in museum art’. He also followed Freud in raising the issue of Leonardo’s homosexuality by ‘masculinising’ the Mona Lisa.
There are numerous interpretations of L.H.O.O.Q., mostly from a Freudian perspective: the facial hair stresses the androgyny of the painting, the male side of the Mona Lisa (androgyny is a major theme of Duchamp). Perhaps the beard is a transfer of Lisa’s pubic hair to her face. Perhaps Duchamp wanted to remind us that, in some way, Mona is Leonardo.’(135)
The comments here are perhaps of interest when considering the opening line of the fourth verse of ‘Visions of Johanna’:
‘Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial’
for that was exactly what Duchamp was doing in defacing the Mona Lisa: questioning the bottomless reverence for a sacred work of art.
Don’t however just take my word as being the only disclosed link between Marcel Duchamp and that fourth verse of Visions of Johanna’: a copy of Duchamps painting actually adorns the front cover of Stephen Scobies illuminating booklet aptly entitled ‘Visions of Johanna' (to which I have previously referred)(136). Stephen is actually writing about the line:
‘ …..the one with the moustache….’
when he observes:
‘But another curious echo lurks in these lines.: I refer to the infamous painting, or ‘ready made’ by Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q (1919). What Duchamp did was to take a reproduction of the Mona Lisa (who, being three- quarter length, has no knees) and draw a moustache and beard on it. Then he added the title , which reads in French as an obscene pun. The two gestures – moustache and pun – are both adolescent nose-thumbing at the seriousness of ‘high art’, and at the institutionalisation of the museum which places the Mona Lisa behind bullet proof glass. Duchamp’s gestures are performed with a cool, detached irony: while puncturing the pretention which surrounds the adulation of the Mona Lisa, Duchamp also proposes that his own piece, which is deliberately devoid of conventional artistic ‘craft’ is just as worthy of a place ‘inside the museums’ as Leonardo’s masterpiece.
I have no way of proving that Dylan knew of Duchamp or intended this reference (and in nay case, I would argue that the reference is valid even if it could be proved that he didn’t). But Duchamp was much in vogue in the 60s (he was in fact still living there), and many of the artistic gestures of Andy Warhol (with whom Dylan was certainly familiar) are deeply indebted to Duchamp’.(137)
On re-reading that extract from Stephen Scobies booklet, I consider that he has probably made a better case than me for the view that Duchamps L.H.O.O.Q. is linked in some kind of way to ‘Visions of Johanna’. Unless you have fallen asleep by now, you will have noticed, time and time again, that my overriding link to Dylan’s classic song is in the legend of Joan of Arc. Whilst, at the beginning of this corner of my canvas I intimated that the link related to the ‘androgyny theme’ of the famous painting taken together with one of the reasons for Joan of being burned alive i.e. her transvestism; there is another link , and this link relates to Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q.
I have again previously referred(136) to another lengthy article about ‘Visions of Johanna’ , written by the French reviewer Alain Blondot that was published in the fanzine ‘Homer The Slut’. Alain also makes reference to the painting by Duchamp and provides a crucial translation:
‘Was Dylan aware that a French surrealist artist - Marcel Duchamp- once painted a parody of Mona Lisa, adding a moustache to her face? He called it L.H.O.O.Q., which phonetically reads “Elle a chaud au cul” i.e. “her ass is hot” or even “ she’s got her ass on fire”…….’(138)
Hopefully I will not have to state the obvious here but just how did Joan of Arc die? In her martyrdom was not her ass, literally, on fire? It’s all a little ridiculous really isn’t it, but it is in the translation and the correspondence between what is said and what is in my own painting of the song. And if you are looking for more correspondences, the next stop on my road map will be at the house of one of the most famous French poets that has ever lived! Meet me in the morning.
(132) ‘Mona Lisa – The History of the Words Most Famous Painting’ by the author Donald Sassoon published by Harper Collins in 2002
(133) Ibid page 271
(134) Ibid page 119
(135) Ibid page 214
(136) Freewheelin’ 199. Part 10 Like Ice, Like Fire
(137) ‘Visions of Johanna’ by Stephen Scobie page 25
(138) ‘Visions of Johanna’ by Alain Blondot page 7
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