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Marcel Duchamp

(1887—1968) French-born artist

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French painter and sculptor and a leading influence on anti-art movements in the USA.

Born into a family of artists, Duchamp made his living in Paris between 1905 and 1910 by drawing cartoons and illustrations for the Courrier français and Le Rire. At the same time he studied painting and developed a special interest in depicting movement. In 1912 he exhibited his now famous Nude Descending a Staircase, which contained elements of cubism and had much in common with the new futurist movement in Italy. The following year he began to produce three-dimensional works and ‘ready-mades’, such as Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Bottlerack (1914), choosing mundane objects as subject matter in an attempt to destroy the mystique of good taste and aesthetic beauty.

In 1915 Duchamp left for the USA, where he worked until 1923 on his masterpiece Large Glass: the Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors Even, a construction of metal and glass nine feet high. Like much of his art, this unfinished work invites thought rather than a conventionally aesthetic reaction. Already notorious on his arrival in America, he increased his impact by, among other things, submitting for exhibition a urinal to which he gave the title Fountain and, in 1920, a reproduction of the Mona Lisa with added beard and moustache. He virtually gave up creative work from 1923 in favour of organizing exhibitions, editing a magazine, experimenting with film, and playing chess.

Although Duchamp had a continuing influence on anti-art movements, he acknowledged a certain failure, saying in 1962, ‘When I discovered ready-mades, I thought to discourage aesthetics …. I threw the bottlerack and the urinal in their faces and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.’ However, he appears to have made a contribution to the disturbed and elusive concept of art in the twentieth century.

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