News Retrospective

She Has a Hot Smile: Dalí on the Mona Lisa Attacks

And other excerpts from our coverage 100, 75, 50, and 25 years ago


Overhead view of Armory installation, 1913. From the upcoming “The Armory Show at 100” exhibition at the New York Historical Society Museum & Library.


Needless to say, the Armory is thronged daily. The centre of attraction, however, for the mob is the so-called “Chamber of Horrors,” due of course to the American sense of humor, as it is really a room full of mirth-making spectacles, which no one has yet been found to take seriously.

There is every evidence that New York has decided to give the “Cubists,” “Futurists” and other freakists, “the laugh,” a bad sign for these “jokers of the brush.” In fact, some predict that New York’s laugh will bury these new apostles of art in obvlion.
From “The Armory Show,” by L. Merrick, March 1, 1913


Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1906, oil on canvas.


The number of Cézannes in America has lately been augmented by a picture of great importance: Les Grandes Baigneuses. The acquisition of this painting by the Pennsylvania Museum of Art brings to this country the most impressive canvas that Cézanne ever attempted. He worked on it, as he did on so many of these late pictures, over a number of years, and considered it still unfinished at the time of his death. Though we may for once agree with him concerning the state of completion, this painting nevertheless embodies many of his essential characteristics, epitomizing his monumental “architectural” vision, his subordination of detail to general design, and the irrepressible, if somewhat awkward poetry of his imagination.
From “Cézanne in America,” by Robert J. Goldwater, March 26, 1938


Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, detail, c. 1503-06, oil on poplar.


The mysterious attraction of Leonardo’s masterpiece for aggressions of all kinds is explained for the first time—with an assist from Sigmund Freud.

It was inevitable that Salvador Dalí should reveal publicly why the Mona Lisa—a “simple portrait” painted by the most complicated and ambiguous of all artists— has had a power, unique in all art history, to provoke the most violent and different kinds of aggressions.

The Mona Lisa has undergone two main species of typical attacks upon her archetypal presence: 1. The ultra-intellectual aggression, perpetrated by the Dada movement. Marcel Duchamp, in 1919, draws a mustache and goatee on a photograph of the Mona Lisa, and at the bottom he letters the famous inscription “L.H.O.O.Q.” (Elle a chaud au cul). 2. The primitive or naïve type of aggression, perpetrated by anonymous more-or-less Bolivians. It consists either of throwing a pebble at the picture or temporarily stealing it.

The first is a case of aggression by an artist against a masterpiece that embodies the maximum artistic idealization. It is explained by an insight of Freud whose sublime definition of the Hero is: “The man who revolts against the authority of the father and finally overcomes it.” This definition is the antithesis of Dada which represented a culmination of the anti-heroic, anti-Nietzschean attitude to life. Dada seeks the anal, erogenous zone of the Mona Lisa, and while accepting the “thermic agitation” of the Mother as a Work-of-Art, rebels against its idealization by masculinizing it. Dada paints the mustaches of the father on the Mona Lisa to enlist his aid in the denigration of the Art. In this gesture, the anti-artistic, anti-heroic, anti-glorification and anti-sublime aspects of Dada, epitomized.

To explain the “naïve aggressions” against the Mona Lisa, bearing in mind Freud’s revelation of Leonardo’s libido and subconscious erotic fantasies about his own mother, we need the genius of Michelangelo Antonioni (unique in the history of the cinema) to film the following sequence: A simple naïve son, subconsciously in love with his mother, ravaged by the Oedipus complex, visits a museum. For this naïve, more-or-less Bolivian son, the museum equals a public house, public rooms—in other words, a whorehouse, and the resemblance is reinforced by the profusion he finds there of erotic exhibits: nudes, shameless statues, Rubens. In the midst of all this carnal and libidinous promiscuity, the Oedipean son is stupefied to discover a portrait of his own mother, transfigured by the maximum female idealization. His own mother, here! And worse, his mother smiles ambiguously at him, which, in such surroundings, can only seem equivocal and outrageous. Attack is his one possible response to such a smile—or he can steal the painting to hide it piously from the scandal and shame of exposure in a public house.

Anyone who can offer different explanations of the attacks suffered by the Mona Lisa should cast his first stone at me; I will pick it up and go on with my task of building the Truth.
From “Why they attack the Mona Lisa,” by Salvador Dalí, March 1963


These pictures are witty, staged and lit to dramatize the subject’s persona: Mick Jagger preens as The Blue Boy, and sexy Cyndi Lauper, in flimsy silks, surrenders to a fainting couch in a seedy garret. Leibovitz has a flair for the theatrical and is astute enough to turn her melodrama to comic rather than pathetic effect. The example of Keith Haring, who appears naked, studio-posed on a coffee table with body, table, lamp, couch, wall—the whole environment, down to the artist’s genitals—Harring-ized in painted zappy black-and-white patterns, should be enough to make the point.
“Annie Leibovitz,” by Peter Clothier, March 1988

Copyright 2019, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.

  • Issues