the artist marcel duchamp -- 1/27/23

Today's selection -- from The Visual Arts: A History by Hugh Honour and John Fleming. Marcel Duchamp was one of the best-known artists of the Dada movement:
"A state of mind rather than a literary or artistic movement, according to its spokesman the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara (1886-1963), Dada was anarchic, nihilistic and disruptive. Dadaists mocked all established values, all traditional notions of good taste in art and literature, the culture symbols of a society based, they believed, on greed and materialism and now in its death agony. The name Dada -- a nonsense, baby-talk word -- means nothing, so was well suited to Dada's wholly negative nature. Dada even denied the value of art, hence its cult of non-art, and ended by negating itself. 'The true Dadaist is against Dada.' …
"Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), the younger brother of the sculptor Duchamp-Villon, was perhaps the most stimulating intellectual to be concerned with the visual arts in the twentieth century -- ironic, witty and penetrating. He was also a born anarchist. Like his brother, he began (after some exploratory years in various current styles) with a dynamic Futurist version of Cubism, of which his painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 is the best known example. It caused a scandal at the famous Armory Show of modern art in New York in 1913. Duchamp's ready-mades are everyday manufactured objects converted into works of art simply by the artist's act of choosing them. Duchamp did nothing to them except present them for contemplation as 'art'. They represent in many ways the most iconoclastic gesture that any artist has ever made -- a gesture of total rejection and revolt against accepted artistic canons. For by reducing the creative act simply to one of choice 'ready-mades' discredit the 'work of art' and the taste, skill, craftsmanship -- not to mention any higher artistic values -- that it traditionally embodies. Duchamp insisted again and again that his 'choice of these ready-mades was never dictated by an aesthetic delectation. The choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference, with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste, in fact a complete anaesthesia.' However, he may be thought to have protested too much about this. His ready-mades do have, willy-nilly, a certain visual attraction and distinction.

The Large Glass (1915–1923) Philadelphia Museum of Art collection

"The earliest was a bicycle-wheel mounted on a kitchen stool (1913); the most outrageous was the Fountain, an industrial porcelain fitting for a public urinal, set sideways and signed 'R. Mutt'. When it was rejected by the New York Independents in 1917 it was defended (anonymously but probably by Duchamp himself) as follows: 'Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance, he CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view -- created a new thought for that object.' In other words, the significance of ready-mades as 'art' lies not in any aesthetic qualities that may or may not be discovered in them, but in the aesthetic questions they force one to contemplate.

"Together with a wealthy Cuban painter, Francis Picabia (1879-1953), Duchamp formed a New York wartime Dada group -- Dada in spirit if not in name. Picabia's satirically simplified drawings of actual or invented mechanical forms conveying private symbolic meanings -- in deliberate contrast to Futuristic machine aesthetics -- paralleled the most extreme and baffling of Duchamp's works, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, often known as the Large Glass. Duchamp had been evolving this extraordinary configuration in his mind since 1912 and worked intermittently on the actual construction, in oil paint, lead wire and foil, dust and varnish between two sheets of glass, in New York between 1915 and 1923, when he abandoned it unfinished. In 1927 it was shattered on returning from an exhibition in Brooklyn. The glass cracked in complementary directions due to its being transported in two halves, one on top of the other, and this entirely fortuitous effect 'completed' his work, Duchamp declared.

"The Large Glass is an insoluble enigma and was intended to be so. It is an illusion of an illusion, all the more disorienting because the changing 'real world' on the other side of the glass forms part of it, as well as the viewer, who is occasionally caught in its reflectivity. It can be deciphered only in the most general terms. In the upper half the bride, a fusion of mechanical and biological functions that Duchamp had evolved separately in an oil painting of 1912, is shown undressing while she both attracts and repulses her suitors, whose orgasmic frustrations are indicated diagrammatically in the bottom half. Is it simply a joke? -- a complicated and meaningless visual puzzle? When questioned about it Duchamp once said that 'there is no solution because there is no problem'.

"Whatever its meaning may be -- and it has inspired the most varied and abstruse interpretations ranging from Hindu mysticism to medieval alchemy -- it has been enormously influential. For painters and artists of every kind it has become a talisman. They have recognized in it the most fully committed and radical opposition to a purely visual conception of art. It asserts the value of the work of art as a 'sign', as a 'machine for producing meanings' and for compelling the active contemplation and creative participation of the viewer. Duchamp was quite explicit about this. It was not his intention, he said, to make 'a painting for the eyes'. He wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind. If his work was dubbed 'literary' and 'intellectual' that wouldn't bother him, he said. The term 'literature' has a very vague meaning. 'And in fact until the last hundred years all painting had been literary or religious: it had all been at the service of the mind.' This quality was only lost during the nineteenth century -- culminating in Impressionism and Cubism. Dada had been for him, he went on, an extreme protest against such purely visual attitudes to painting.

"Duchamp always kept on the margin of politics but the Dada movement had obvious political implications, especially during the immediate post-war years in Berlin. The German painter Max Ernst (1891-1976), for instance, held a notorious exhibition in Cologne in 1920, entered through a public lavatory. Visitors to a Surrealist exhibition were met by a young girl in communion dress reciting obscene poems and were then handed an axe with which to destroy the exhibits. By such provocative gestures against the pomposities of respectable bourgeois society, by mocking everything that was taken seriously, especially everything that was revered as 'art' and 'culture', Dadaists might seem to have been preparing the way for a new social, intellectual and artistic order. Few of them had any such positive intentions, of course."



Hugh Honour & John Fleming


The Visual Arts: A History


Laurence King Publishing


Copyright 1982, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2002, 2005, 2009 Fleming-Honour Ltd.


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