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Duchamp, Marcel

Source:
A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art
Author(s):

Ian Chilvers,

John Glaves-Smith

Duchamp, Marcel (1887–1968) 

French-born artist and art theorist who became an American citizen in 1955. His output was small (most of his key works are in the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and for long periods he was more or less inactive, but he is regarded as one of the most potent figures in modern art because of the originality and fertility of his ideas.

Duchamp was born at Blainville, Normandy, one of six children (three sons and three daughters) of a successful notary. Their grandfather was an amateur engraver, and Marcel's two brothers and one of his sisters also became artists—Suzanne Duchamp, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Jacques Villon, and Suzanne Duchamp. In 1904 Duchamp followed his brothers to Paris, where he studied for a year at the Académie Julian. His early paintings were influenced by Impressionism and then Fauvism, and he also did humorous drawings for various journals to help earn his living. In 1909 he began exhibiting his work in public, at the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d'Automne, but he had no interest in achieving conventional career success.

By 1911, Duchamp was part of the Cubist circle, but his works were hardly orthodox examples of the style. He was interested in the possibility of using Cubist fragmentation to represent movement. Dulcinea (1911, Philadelphia Museum of Art) was inspired by a woman whom Duchamp saw frequently walking her dog but to whom he never spoke. The title probably refers to the woman idolized from afar by Don Quixote in the Cervantes novel. She is depicted five times in the painting in various states of undress. The preoccupation with voyeurism recurred in subsequent work. Duchamp shared with other Cubists, notably Léger, an admiration for the forms of the machine, but in Coffee Grinder (1911, Tate), instead of Cubist fragmentation he provides a diagrammatic view of the device at work. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 1 (1911, Philadelphia) depicts a stylized, semi-abstract figure walking down a spiral staircase, movement being suggested by the use of overlapping images, in the manner of rapid-fire multiple-exposure photography. In 1912, he painted a more sophisticated version, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (Philadelphia), in which the figure is more machine-like and the movement more dynamic. This was shown in Barcelona and Paris in 1912, but it was in New York the following year that it first made a great impact, becoming the most discussed work in the Armory Show. The attention it received was mainly negative (probably the most quoted comment about it was that it looked like ‘an explosion in a shingles factory’), but there were also more appreciative remarks, and the publicity made Duchamp suddenly much better known in the USA than he had ever been in France. For all the fame of the work, Duchamp's masterpiece as a painter is probably the far more complex Passage from the Virgin to the Bride (1912, MoMA, New York), a painting less about movement than about change of state. In 1913, Duchamp produced the Three Standard Stoppages. These were the result of the dropping of a metre-length string from a metre's height. From the chance curves created by this process wooden templates were made, the lines reoccurring as a generative principle in subsequent works.

In 1915, after two years as a library assistant at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, Duchamp moved to New York and spent the rest of the First World War there (he was excused military service on account of a minor heart complaint). His fame (or notoriety) from the Armory Show had not been forgotten, and he was greeted by reporters as he disembarked, and he was made welcome in intellectual circles. The art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg provided him with a studio, but he refused all offers from dealers to handle his work (he had a disdain for making money as an end in itself) and instead supported himself by giving French lessons. With Man Ray and Francis Picabia he formed the nucleus of New York's Dada movement.

An important aspect of Duchamp's Dada activities was his development of the ready-made, an object which achieved its status, not by the artist's actions, but by the artist's choice, although it is not clear how far Duchamp saw the ready-made as art. Sometimes his works of this type were merely chosen, but they were usually inscribed, so some kind of intervention nearly always took place, even when Duchamp did not nominate them as ‘assisted ready-mades’. In 1913 he placed a bicycle wheel on top of a stool. This is usually regarded as the first ready-made (claims have also been made for the Bilboquet (1910, a wooden toy given to a friend after a visit to a brothel; Duchamp did not coin the term until 1915). The most famous ready-made is the urinal which he submitted anonymously in 1917 to the New York Society of Independent Artists as Fountain. This was rejected, although the constitution of the organization stated that any artist who paid five dollars might enter. Duchamp did not, in fact, present the object unchanged. There was a crudely painted signature ‘R. Mutt’ (R. Mott was the name of a leading supplier of such products). The effect was of the ‘artistic’ intervention as a rude interruption of the white porcelain perfection of the manufactured object. When photographed, the object was positioned in such a way that any usage would result in urine dribbling on to the toes. In other words, the object would literally become a fountain. With the exception of the Fountain the ready-mades were little-known until rediscovered in the context of Surrealist objects in the 1930s. Most are now lost and are known by reconstructions made in the 1960s. In 1918–19 Duchamp spent nine months in Buenos Aires playing chess, then returned briefly to Paris, where in 1919 he produced his most extreme piece of iconoclasm—a reproduction of the Mona Lisa to which he added a moustache, beard, and rude inscription, ‘LHOOQ’, which read phonetically sounds something like ‘She has a hot tail’ in French. (Picabia used a version of it on the cover of 391 in March 1920.)

From 1920 to 1923 Duchamp again lived in New York, and during this period he was engaged mainly on his most complex and ambitious work—an enigmatic construction entitled The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, also known as The Large Glass (Philadelphia; replica by Richard Hamilton, 1965–6, in Tate). (The French title is ‘La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même’, which contains a characteristic Duchampian pun, for ‘même’ sounds the same as ‘m'aime’, which would give the translation ‘The bride stripped bare by her bachelors loves me’.) Duchamp's plans for this work go back as far as 1912 (important elements such as the chocolate grinder appear in other works) and he began constructing it in 1915. He abandoned it as ‘definitively unfinished’ in 1923, but it was damaged while being transported in 1926 (following its first public showing at the ‘International Exhibition of Modern Art’ at the Brooklyn Museum) and ten years later he made repairs, incorporating cracks in the shattered glass as part of the image and declaring it completed ‘by chance’.

The Large Glass is a structure about nine feet high, featuring an upper and lower glass panel in an aluminium framework; each panel is painted in oil paint with lead wire and foil, dust, and varnish. The foil was placed behind the paint to keep it airtight, supposedly to preserve the colour forever in a pristine wet state. The upper panel features ‘the bride's domain’ and the lower panel ‘the bachelor apparatus’. The mysteries of the work are partially elucidated by the elaborate notes which Duchamp published as a set of disordered and incomplete fragments as the Green Box (1934). The first person to attempt to make sense of them was André Breton in his essay ‘The Lighthouse of the Bride’ (1934), published in Minotaure. Since then readings of the work have become a major scholarly industry. It is certainly, at the very least, by far the most complex of the various attempts by the early 20th-century avant-garde to represent human life in mechanical terms. It is also a work of extraordinary technical complexity incorporating highly elaborate perspectival constructions and the operation of chance in, for instance, the effects of the random fall of dust or holes drilled in the spots where paint-soaked matches were fired at it. Chance continues to operate after the work was finished. Because of Duchamp's choice of glass, the painting is not just a surface but a window and is never seen exactly the same way twice. Like many of his contemporaries he was fascinated by conceptions of the fourth dimension, and the perpetual frustration of the bachelors confined in their ‘malic moulds’ (special suits designed for auto-erotic purposes) may be because they are trapped in a different dimensional system in the lower section.

In 1923 Duchamp returned to Paris and lived there until 1942 (although he made several visits to New York). He devoted much of his time to his passion for chess. His obsessive devotion to the game ruined his first—rather frivolous—marriage in 1927, of which Man Ray wrote: ‘Duchamp spent the one week they lived together studying chess problems, and his bride, in desperate retaliation, got up one night when he was asleep and glued the chess pieces to the board. They were divorced three months later.’ Unlike Picasso, he was generally discreet about his amorous relationships. The most intense may have been with the Brazilian Surrealist sculptor Maria Martins (1900–73), the wife of a diplomat. In 1954 he made a second marriage, to Alexina Sattler, who had previously been the wife of the art dealer Pierre Matisse, son of Henri Matisse.

Duchamp, while never fully committing himself to Surrealism, remained active and supportive of Surrealist activity. Like Picasso, he was a person sufficiently highly regarded by André Breton to be permitted such a half-hearted relationship without suffering terrifying anathemas. He was active in the novel installation of the Surrealist exhibitions in Paris in 1938 and in New York in 1942 (see installation). In 1935 he began to assemble materials for the Boîte-en-valise, an edition of reproductions of all his work in miniature. (Certain privileged individuals received personalized versions. Maria Martins's box had a special work, Paysage fautif, painted in the artist's semen.) Also in 1935, Duchamp exhibited his Rotoreliefs, not in an art gallery but at a Paris trade fair. These were circular cardboard cards which created illusions of depth when rotated on a turntable, so looking forward to Op art. Duchamp's persistent interest in optics forms an interesting parallel to the theme of voyeurism already enunciated in Dulcinea and the Large Glass, the latter containing ‘Temoins oculistes’ (eye witnesses). In 1942 Duchamp settled permanently in New York although he regularly visited France. By this time he seemed to have abandoned the practice of art, but he did a good deal to promote avant-garde art in France and the USA, notably through the activities of the Société Anonyme. In his final years he was revered as a kind of patron saint of modern art, giving numerous interviews in which he showed his characteristic graciousness and wit. In 1954 the Arensberg collection became publicly available at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1959, exhibitions of his work were held in London, New York, and Paris, and many others followed, including ‘The Almost Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp’ at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1966.

Near the end of his life Duchamp revealed that he had been working in secret for 20 years (1946–66) on a large mixed-media construction called Etant donnés: 1° La Chute d'eau, 2° Le Gaz d'éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas). It features a naturalistic painted sculpture of a nude reclining woman holding a lantern, with behind her a simulated landscape, including a trickle of water representing a waterfall; this elaborate tableau is viewed through peepholes in a heavy wooden door. The viewer is placed in the position of the bachelors in the Large Glass. Duchamp tried to prevent any reproduction of the interior for twenty years so as to preserve the surprise. He presented it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it joined the majority of his other works. Duchamp died on a visit to France and was buried with other members of his family in Rouen. He composed the inscription for his gravestone, jesting to the last: ‘D'ailleurs c'est toujours les autres qui meurent’ (All the same, it's always other people who die). Many years after his death, his wife told an interviewer that he had literally died laughing.

Duchamp became a major influence on modern art fairly late in his life, when Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns found in his ironic detached stance an antidote to the increasingly manufactured frenzy of Abstract Expressionism. Duchamp's idea of appropriation and his irreverence toward fine-art traditions was significant for Pop artists such as Warhol and Hamilton. Histories of Conceptual art sometimes cite Duchamp as a kind of founding father and Kosuth saw him as the first artist who had made the condition of art itself the centre of interest. Duchamp's idea of the ready-made has certainly been important for more recent artists such as Jeff Koons, Cornelia Parker, and Tracey Emin, although they often emphasize the preciousness and uniqueness of the object rather than its commonplace quality. The philosophical issues raised by Duchamp's work have continued to engage scholars and in recent years the issues of sexuality and gender have also been addressed in critical studies of the artist.

In spite of Duchamp's enormous historical importance he has not always been seen as a positive force, even by those who have, in some way, continued his challenge to traditional art. The cool, detached attitude to the world has seemed inappropriate to artists who seek to extend their work into political activism or more overt personal expression. In 1965 three young painters, Eduardo Arroyo, Gilles Aillaud, and Antonio Recaltati exhibited a set of paintings entitled Live and Let Die or the Tragic End of Marcel Duchamp. It showed the three artists strangling the old man and kicking him downstairs. The final panel made a cruel political point by showing his coffin draped in the American flag and borne by the United States military. Breton protested but Duchamp remained ‘indifferent’. Joseph Beuys once gave a demonstration entitled ‘The Silence of Duchamp is overrated’. The Performance artist Alastair Mackintosh, writing on Beuys, provided a succinct critique of Duchamp: ‘He belonged to the old European tradition of artists—elegant, sensitive, aristocratic. If the language of art were tainted, then the only thing a gentleman could do was lapse into enigmatic silence. Duchamp's art is one of defeat’ (S. and T. Pendergast, Contemporary Artists, 2002).

See also popular prints.

Further Reading

D. Ades, N. Cox, and D. Hopkins, Marcel Duchamp (1999)Find this resource:

J. Mundy (ed.), Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia (2008)Find this resource:

F. Nauman, ‘The Bachelor's Quest’, Art in America (September 1993)Find this resource: