Marcel Duchamp  

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"The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act." --"The Creative Act", Marcel Duchamp, 1957

 A lesser-known predecessor to L.H.O.O.Q.: Mona Lisa Smoking a Pipe by Eugène Bataille
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A lesser-known predecessor to L.H.O.O.Q.: Mona Lisa Smoking a Pipe by Eugène Bataille

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Marcel Duchamp (28 July 1887 – 2 October 1968) was a French-American painter, sculptor, chess player, and writer, known for such "readymades" as Fountain (1917) and L.H.O.O.Q. (1919).

Duchamp's work is associated with Dadaism and conceptual art, although he was not directly associated with Dada groups. By World War I, he had rejected the work of many of his fellow artists (like Henri Matisse) as "retinal" art, intended only to please the eye. Instead, Duchamp wanted to put art back in the service of the mind.

A playful man, Duchamp prodded thought about artistic processes, the art world and art marketing, not so much with words, but with actions such as dubbing a urinal "art" and naming it Fountain, and by "giving up" art to play chess. He produced relatively few artworks as he quickly moved through the avant-garde rhythms of his time.

He has had an immense impact on twentieth-century and twenty first-century art.

Contents

Leaving "retinal art" behind

retinal art

Around 1913, Duchamp read Max Stirner's philosophical tract, The Ego and Its Own, the study of which he considered another turning point in his artistic and intellectual development. He called it "...a remarkable book ... which advances no formal theories, but just keeps saying that the ego is always there in everything."

While in Germany in 1912, he painted the last of his Cubist-like paintings and he started "Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors" image, and began making plans for The Large Glass – scribbling short notes to himself, sometimes with hurried sketches. It would be over 10 years before this piece was completed. Little else is known about the two-month stay in Germany except that the friend he visited was intent on showing him the sights and the nightlife.

The same year, Duchamp also attended a performance of a stage adaptation of Raymond Roussel's 1910 novel, Impressions d'Afrique which featured plots that turned in on themselves, word play, surrealistic sets and humanoid machines. He credited the drama with having radically changed his approach to art, and having inspired him to begin the creation of his The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, also known as The Large Glass. Work on The Large Glass continued into 1913, with his invention of inventing a repertoire of forms. He made notes, sketches and painted studies, and even drew some of his ideas on the wall of his apartment.

Towards the end of 1912, he traveled with Picabia, Apollinaire and Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia through the Jura mountains, an adventure that Buffet-Picabia described as one of their "forays of demoralization, which were also forays of witticism and clownery ... the disintegration of the concept of art". Duchamp's notes from the trip avoid logic and sense, and have a surrealistic, mythical connotation.

Duchamp painted few canvases after 1912, and in those he did, he attempted to remove "painterly" effects, and instead to use a technical drawing approach.

His broad interests led him to an exhibition of aviation technology during this period, after which Duchamp said to his friend Constantin Brâncuși, "Painting is washed up. Who will ever do anything better than that propeller? Tell me, can you do that?". Brâncuși later sculpted bird forms, which U.S. Customs officials mistook for aviation parts and for which they attempted to collect import duties.

In 1913, Duchamp withdrew from painting circles and began working as a librarian in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève to be able to earn a living wage while concentrating on scholarly realms and working on his Large Glass. He studied math and physics – areas in which exciting new discoveries were taking place. The theoretical writings of Henri Poincaré particularly intrigued and inspired Duchamp. Poincaré postulated that the laws believed to govern matter were created solely by the minds that "understood" them and that no theory could be considered "true". "The things themselves are not what science can reach..., but only the relations between things. Outside of these relations there is no knowable reality", Poincaré wrote in 1902. Reflecting the influence of Poincaré's writings, Duchamp tolerated any interpretation of his art by regarding it as the creation of the person who formulated it, not as truth.

Duchamp's own art-science experiments began during his tenure at the library. To make one of his favorite pieces, 3 Standard Stoppages (3 stoppages étalon), he dropped three 1-meter lengths of thread onto prepared canvases, one at a time, from a height of 1 meter. The threads landed in three random undulating positions. He varnished them into place on the blue-black canvas strips and attached them to glass. He then cut three wood slats into the shapes of the curved strings, and put all the pieces into a croquet box. Three small leather signs with the title printed in gold were glued to each of the "stoppage" backgrounds. The piece appears to literally follow Poincaré's School of the Thread, part of a book on classical mechanics.

In his studio he mounted a bicycle wheel upside down onto a stool, spinning it occasionally just to watch it. Although it is often assumed that the Bicycle Wheel represents the first of Duchamp's "Readymades", this particular installation was never submitted for any art exhibition, and it was eventually lost. However, initially, the wheel was simply placed in the studio to create atmosphere: "I enjoyed looking at it just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace."

After World War I was declared in 1914, with his brothers and many friends in military service and himself exempted, Duchamp felt uncomfortable in Paris. Meanwhile, Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 had scandalized Americans at the Armory Show, and helped secure the sale of all four of his paintings in the show. Thus, being able to finance the trip, Duchamp decided to emigrate to the United States in 1915.To his surprise, he found he was a celebrity when he arrived in New York in 1915, where he quickly befriended art patron Katherine Dreier and artist Man Ray. Duchamp's circle included art patrons Louise and Walter Conrad Arensberg, actress and artist Beatrice Wood and Francis Picabia, as well as other avant-garde figures. Though he spoke little English, in the course of supporting himself by giving French lessons and through some library work, he quickly learned the language.

For two years the Arensbergs, who would remain his friends and patrons for 42 years, were the landlords of his studio. In lieu of rent, they agreed that his payment would be The Large Glass. An art gallery offered Duchamp $10,000 per year in exchange for all of his yearly production, but Duchamp declined the offer, preferring to continue his work on The Large Glass.

Société Anonyme

Duchamp created the Société Anonyme in 1920, along with Katherine Dreier and Man Ray. This was the beginning of his lifelong involvement in art dealing and collecting. The group collected modern art works, and arranged modern art exhibitions and lectures throughout the 1930s.

By this time Walter Pach, one of the coordinators of the 1913 Armory Show, sought Duchamp's advice on modern art. Beginning with Société Anonyme, Dreier also depended on Duchamp's counsel in gathering her collection, as did Arensberg. Later Peggy Guggenheim, Museum of Modern Art directors Alfred Barr and James Johnson Sweeney consulted with Duchamp on their modern art collections and shows.

Dada

Dada or Dadaism was an art movement of the European avant-garde in the early 20th century. It began in Zurich, Switzerland in 1916, spreading to Berlin shortly thereafter. To quote Dona Budd's The Language of Art Knowledge,
Dada was born out of negative reaction to the horrors of World War I. This international movement was begun by a group of artists and poets associated with the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Dada rejected reason and logic, prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition. The origin of the name Dada is unclear; some believe that it is a nonsensical word. Others maintain that it originates from the Romanian artists Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco's frequent use of the words da, da, meaning yes, yes in the Romanian language. Another theory says that the name "Dada" came during a meeting of the group when a paper knife stuck into a French-German dictionary happened to point to 'dada', a French word for 'hobbyhorse'.
The movement primarily involved visual arts, literature, poetry, art manifestoes, art theory, theatre, and graphic design, and concentrated its anti-war politics through a rejection of the prevailing standards in art through anti-art cultural works. In addition to being anti-war, Dada was also anti-bourgeois and had political affinities with the radical left.

Dada activities included public gatherings, demonstrations, and publication of art/literary journals; passionate coverage of art, politics, and culture were topics often discussed in a variety of media. Key figures in the movement included Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Hans Arp, Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch, Johannes Baader, Tristan Tzara, Francis Picabia, Richard Huelsenbeck, Georg Grosz, John Heartfield, Marcel Duchamp, Beatrice Wood, Kurt Schwitters, and Hans Richter, among others. The movement influenced later styles like the avant-garde and downtown music movements, and groups including surrealism, Nouveau réalisme, pop art and Fluxus.

Dada is the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for performance art, a prelude to postmodernism, an influence on pop art, a celebration of antiart to be later embraced for anarcho-political uses in the 1960s and the movement that lay the foundation for Surrealism.

New York Dada had a less serious tone than that of European Dadaism, and was not a particularly organized venture. Duchamp's friend Francis Picabia connected with the Dada group in Zürich, bringing to New York the Dadaist ideas of absurdity and "anti-art". Duchamp and Picabia first met in September 1911 at the Salon d'Automne in Paris, where they were both exhibiting. Duchamp showed a larger version of his Young Man and Girl in Spring 1911, a work that had an Edenic theme and a thinly veiled sexuality also found in Picabia's contemporaneous Adam and Eve 1911. According to Duchamp, 'our friendship began right there". A group met almost nightly at the Arensberg home, or caroused in Greenwich Village. Together with Man Ray, Duchamp contributed his ideas and humor to the New York activities, many of which ran concurrent with the development of his Readymades and 'The Large Glass.'

The most prominent example of Duchamp's association with Dada was his submission of Fountain, a urinal, to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit in 1917. Artworks in the Independent Artists shows were not selected by jury, and all pieces submitted were displayed. However, the show committee insisted that Fountain was not art, and rejected it from the show. This caused an uproar amongst the Dadaists, and led Duchamp to resign from the board of the Independent Artists.

Along with Henri-Pierre Roché and Beatrice Wood, Duchamp published a Dada magazine in New York, titled The Blind Man, which included art, literature, humor and commentary.

When he returned to Paris after World War I, Duchamp did not participate in the Dada group.

Selected works

See also




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