Retinal art  

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This page Retinal art is part of the vision series. Illustration: Théatre de Besançon, interior view by Claude Nicolas Ledoux
This page Retinal art is part of the vision series.
Illustration: Théatre de Besançon, interior view by Claude Nicolas Ledoux

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Retinal art or retinal painting is an expression and concept attributed to the French-American artist Marcel Duchamp, who used it to refer to art which appeals mainly or exclusively to the eye rather than to the mind.

Its origins can be traced to the 1950s. In a letter of 1951, Duchamp writes to his patrons Louise and Walter Arensberg: "The portrait [Portrait of Dr. R. Dumouchel (Portrait du Dr. R. Dumouchel; 1910) is very colorful (red and green) and has a note of humor which indicated my future direction to abandon mere retinal painting."

The concept has been explored at greater length in an interview of Duchamp with Pierre Cabanne, recorded in Dialogues With Marcel Duchamp (1966):

"Since Courbet, it's been believed that painting is addressed to the retina. That was everyone's error. The retinal shudder! Before, painting had other functions: it could be religious, philosophical, moral. If I had the chance to take an antiretinal attitude, it unfortunately hasn't changed much; our whole century is completely retinal, except for the Surrealists, who tried to go outside it somewhat. And still, they didn't go so far!"

The expression "retinal art" was not exactly new, as Thierry De Duve notes in Pictorial Nominalism (2005) it had been used in Du "Cubisme":

"In fact, we should note that Duchamp demonstrated no originality in marking himself off from "retinal painting," since it was Gleizes and Metzinger, the most orthodox of the Cubists, who had accused Courbet of having "accepted everything that his retina communicated to him, without intellectual control [Il accepta sans nul contrôle intellectuel tout ce que sa rétine lui communiquait].""[1]

Praise of conceptual art

Duchamp matched his disparagement of "retinal art" with a eulogy of conceptual art. As recorded in "The Great Trouble with Art in This Country," an interview with James Johnson Sweeney, he states:

“I was interested in ideas – not merely in visual products, I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind.”

The excerpt reads in full:

"Futurism was an impressionism of the mechanical world. It was strictly a continuation of the impressionist movement. I was not interested in that. I wanted to get away from the physical aspect of painting. I was much more interested in recreating ideas in painting. ... I was interested in ideas -not merely in visual products. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind. ... 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 characteristic was lost little by little during the last century. ... Dada was an extreme protest against the physical side of painting. It was a metaphysical attitude. ... It was a way to get out of a state of mind -to avoid being influenced by one's immediate environment, or by the past: to get away from cliches -to get free. ... Dada was very serviceable as a purgative. ... There was no thought of anything beyond the physical side of painting. No notion of freedom was taught. No philosophical outlook was introduced. ... I thought of art on a broader scale. There were discussions at the time of the fourth dimension and of non-Euclidean geometry. But most views of it were amateurish. ... I felt that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter. ... This is the direction in which art should turn: to an intellectual expression, rather than to an animal expression. I'm sick of the expression 'bete comme un peintre' -stupid as a painter."

See also

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