Marcel Duchamp


1. Life and work

Source: Oxford University Press

(i) Early artistic experiments, to January 1912

Duchamp was born into a family of artists. His maternal grandfather, Emile-Frédéric Nicolle (1830–94), was a painter of still-lifes and an engraver of local village scenes. His older brothers Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon began their careers as illustrators but went on to make notable contributions to Cubism, while his younger sister Suzanne Duchamp (1889–1963) became a painter and with her husband, Jean Crotti, co-founded Tabu, an offshoot of Dada.

At the age of 15 Duchamp tried his hand at painting, beginning a series of landscapes executed in an Impressionist style, such as Church at Blainville (1902; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.); as he later acknowledged, they were inspired by reproductions he had seen of paintings by Claude Monet. On completing his schooling in Rouen he joined his older brothers in Paris, with the idea of pursuing his career as an artist. From October 1904 to July 1905 he was enrolled in painting classes at the Académie Julian, but by his own admission he preferred playing billiards. In these years he made quick sketchbook drawings of his family and casual renderings of people he had seen on the streets of Paris, including a policeman, knife-grinder, gasman, vegetable vendor, peasant and funeral coachman; these provided a repertory of images he recalled in his later work. Through contacts provided by his brothers, Duchamp supplemented his income by producing cartoons for publication in a number of Parisian journals, such as Le Rire and the Courrier français; some of these drawings were exhibited at the first Salon des Artistes Humoristes in Paris in 1907. His paintings were exhibited publicly for the first time in 1909, at the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne, as well as in the first exhibition of the Société Normande de Peinture Moderne in Rouen.

From 1910 Duchamp emulated the structured compositions and modulated brushstrokes of Paul Cézanne, although in most instances he used intense colour in an almost Fauvist manner. These qualities are particularly evident in his Portrait of the Artist’s Father and in the Chess Game (both 1910; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.); the latter is a relatively large composition depicting his brothers and their wives relaxing in the garden of their home and studio at 7, Rue Lemaître in Puteaux, a suburb of Paris. It was there that Duchamp joined his brothers for Sunday afternoon gatherings, encountering a host of artists and writers associated with the avant-garde, notably Guillaume Apollinaire, Henri-Martin Barzun, Albert Gleizes, Henri Le Fauconnier, Roger de La Fresnaye, František Kupka, Fernand Léger, Jean Metzinger and Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes. Through his contact with the painters and sculptors in this group, Duchamp’s own work began to incorporate the indeterminate spatial structure and planar fragmentation common to most Cubist painting, as in Portrait (Dulcinea) (1911; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.).

Cubism, together with his knowledge of the chronophotography of Etienne-Jules Marey and the photographic sequences of Eadweard Muybridge, directly affected Duchamp’s conception of Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (Jan 1912), based on a preliminary study painted in oil on cardboard, Nude Descending a Staircase No. 1 (Dec 1911; both Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.). This work, which later became his most famous painting, has often been described as a stylistic fusion of Cubism and Futurism, but Duchamp later maintained that at the time he had not yet seen any Futurist paintings at first hand; the first major Futurist exhibition in Paris opened at Bernheim-Jeune in February 1912.

A few months after it was painted, Duchamp submitted Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 to the Salon des Indépendants in Paris, but the hanging committee, dominated by Cubists, including his brothers and a number of friends, objected to it and particularly to its title, inscribed directly on the canvas, which they thought too provocative and not in keeping with the more traditional subjects they determined appropriate for serious Cubist painting. Duchamp withdrew his submission, an event that became the turning-point in his artistic career. Before the end of the year, however, the painting was given two public showings: first in May at an exhibition of Cubism at the Galeries Dalmau in Barcelona and in October at the Salon de la Section d’Or at the Galerie de la Boétie in Paris. It was only when it was shown in New York, however, at the Armory show in February 1913, where it became the cause célèbre of the exhibition, that Duchamp’s name and reputation became forever linked to the notoriety of this picture.

(ii) Sexual themes, chance and the invention of the ready-made, 1912–14

During spring 1912 Duchamp continued to experiment with the imagery of Cubist forms in motion in a brilliant series of drawings and paintings that conflated human forms with mechanistic imagery. Rather than focus on the movement of a single figure, as in Nude Descending a Staircase, these works presented subjects of opposing sexual identity: the King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (May 1912; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), inspired by the pieces and movement of a chess game; Virgin (two versions, July 1912; both Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), showing a virgin and bride, followed by the Passage from Virgin to Bride (July–Aug 1912; New York, MOMA); and, finally, The Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors (July–Aug 1912; Paris, Pompidou), a drawing that consists of a mechanomorphic depiction of a bride who appears to be spun around and stripped of her clothing by two men by her side. This drawing, one of a group produced during the course of an intensely productive two-month sojourn in Munich in summer 1912, was the first work by Duchamp that explicitly identified a thematic preoccupation to which he returned repeatedly over the next ten years.

It may have been in Munich that Duchamp discovered the writings of Max Stirner (1806–56), an obscure German philosopher who believed that the right of an individual was to be held supreme, considered above and beyond the needs of society. As Duchamp later revealed, it was Stirner’s writings that motivated the conception of his Three Standard Stoppages (1913–14; New York, MOMA), conceived as measuring devices to be used exclusively in his own work in defiance of the authority of the standard metre. This work consists of three wooden slats whose lengths and curving profiles were determined by chance methods, allowing threads 1 m long to drop freely from a height of 1 m; the threads themselves, mounted on glass panels, also form part of the work. Duchamp similarly relied on chance operations to determine the sequence of notes in a number of musical scores that he composed in 1913, such as Erratum musical (priv. col.; see 1973 New York exh. cat., pp. 264–5).

In 1913 Duchamp abandoned the traditional tools and techniques of painting, prompted by his desire to elevate art and the art-making process beyond the purely visual or ‘retinal’, as he later called it; his adoption of an overtly intellectual approach was in conscious opposition to the French expression ‘être bête comme un peintre’, which presumed that painting was a mindless activity. Concerns such as these led Duchamp to investigate complex theories of geometry and to adopt techniques of mechanical drawing generally reserved for more scientific disciplines such as physics and engineering. Such preoccupations led Duchamp to ask himself in 1913 whether it was possible for an artist to make works that were not works of art in the sense of being motivated by aesthetic considerations. He answered this question before the end of the year with his creation of the Bicycle Wheel (lost or destr.; editioned replica, 1964; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig), a relatively simple assemblage consisting of nothing more than the inverted fork and wheel of a bicycle mounted on the seat of an ordinary household stool. Although he did not identify it as such when it was made, this was the first Ready-made, an existing manufactured object deemed to be a work of art simply through its selection by an artist.

(iii) New York and the ‘Large Glass’, 1915–23

Duchamp was exempted from military conscription because of a minor heart ailment. When World War I broke out in 1914, he was persuaded by Walter Pach, who had earlier helped organize the Armory Show, to travel to the USA. On 15 June 1915 he arrived in New York, where, because of the scandalous reception given to his Nude Descending a Staircase in 1913, he was immediately accorded celebrity status. Pach took Duchamp directly to the home of Walter and Louise Arensberg, who became the artist’s most enthusiastic and dedicated patrons. Duchamp was soon the centre of attention at evening gatherings held at the Arensbergs’ large and impressive studio on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. These soirées constituted an unofficial salon, comparable to the open house held by Gertrude Stein in Paris, at which avant-garde writers and artists sought artistic camaraderie. He renewed his acquaintance with other French exiles, such as Gleizes and Picabia, and also met Americans who became lifelong friends, notably Katherine S. Dreier, Charles Demuth, Man Ray and Charles Sheeler.

In 1915 Duchamp began the construction of his most complex and intricate work, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915–23; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), better known as the Large Glass. Most of its details, however, had been determined in sketches and preparatory studies completed in Paris in 1913–14, such as Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries No. 2 (1914; New Haven, CT, Yale U. A.G.) and Glider Containing a Water Mill in Neighbouring Metals (1913–15; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.). Mechanomorphic imagery, themes of sexual opposition, references to geometry and physics and a reliance on chance operations and existing objects were all factors in its conception and design. It consists of two glass panels, with the bride’s domain confined to the upper section and the bachelors below. Duchamp later explained that the idea for the subject had been suggested by the games he had seen in country fairs, where, in order to win a prize, contestants throw balls at the figure of a bride and her surrounding retinue; others, however, have chosen to interpret the Large Glass as a more personal and self-referential statement, pointing out, for example, that the conjunction of bride and bachelors in the French title contains an amalgam of Duchamp’s first name: MAR(iée) and CÉL(ibataires).

From the time of the conception and throughout the physical construction of the Large Glass, Duchamp kept a series of elaborate and detailed notes referring to every facet of its iconography and production. Initially he wanted these notes to be compiled and made available to viewers in the form of a catalogue attached to the Large Glass itself, a sort of literary guide that was to be consulted in order to follow the workings of its individual elements in a step-by-step fashion. This catalogue never materialized, but Duchamp eventually published his notes in two limited, facsimile editions: La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The Green Box) (Paris, 1934) and A l’infinitif (New York, 1966). Both serve as important sources of information on the preparation and theoretical framework of the Large Glass. With Duchamp’s approval and assistance, these notes were subsequently ordered and translated by a number of scholars.

Even when Duchamp’s notes are consulted, however, it is unclear whether or not the stripping bride, whose biomorphic forms are derived from an earlier picture, ever attains union with the sexually aroused bachelors represented by the nine mouldlike figures below. What is evident, however, is that the pseudo-machinery of this elaborate construction is designed with one primary function in mind: to exercise the rites of courtship and lovemaking. According to the notes, it is the bride’s desire that stimulates the bachelors and in turn causes the flow of ‘illuminating gas’ into their mouldlike bodies. In response they seem to receive a constant source of energy from an ‘imaginary waterfall’ that descends upon the blades of a ‘glider’ or ‘sleigh’ attached to the base of the ‘chocolate grinder’ positioned in the immediate central foreground. The fact that none of the elements in this fanciful construction appears to function either literally or figuratively, contributing to a sense of the ultimate lack of fulfilment, is just one more intentionally frustrating or futile aspect of its design. Appropriately to its theme, Duchamp left the Large Glass in a state of permanent incompletion when he signed the unfinished work in 1923. After an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 1926, the glass was shattered in transit. Duchamp accepted the accident as yet one more aspect of its design determined by chance; in 1936 he spent weeks painstakingly reassembling the pieces.

In December 1916 the Arensbergs and their coterie were the principal founders of the Society of independent artists, a group devoted to staging annual, jury-free exhibitions in New York. For their first exhibition, held at the Grand Central Palace in April 1917, Duchamp submitted an ordinary urinal, to which he gave the simple but suggestive title Fountain (lost; editioned replica, 1964; Ottawa, N.G.; for illustration see Ready-made) and inscribed ‘R. Mutt/1917’. A majority of the Society’s directors declared that this object was by no definition a work of art, and they consequently refused to exhibit it. Duchamp and Arensberg immediately resigned from the organization, but Fountain was not quickly forgotten. Positioned on its back, it was recorded in a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz that appeared in the second and final issue of Blind Man in May 1917, accompanied by editorials devoted to its defence by the American ceramicist Beatrice Wood (b 1893) and Louise Norton (1891–1989). Shortly after the exhibition opened, the controversial sculpture mysteriously disappeared.

During his first two years in America, Duchamp was a passive though influential participant in the New York avant-garde: he showed his work in a number of small group exhibitions, continued the construction of the Large Glass and occasionally issued ready-mades. These included both straightforward objects, such as a snow shovel to which he gave the title In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915; second version, 1945; New Haven, CT, Yale U. A.G.), and ‘assisted’ ready-mades such as 50cc of Paris Air (Dec 1919; second version, 1949; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), a broken and mended glass ampoule. To earn some extra pocket money, he gave French lessons; his pupils included the Stettheimer sisters—Carrie (d 1944), Ettie (d 1955) and Florine (1871–1944)—wealthy socialites and artists in their own right, who were to become exceptionally close friends. Although Duchamp generally resisted accepting specific commissions, at Dreier’s request he painted Tu m’ (1918; New Haven, CT, Yale U. A.G.), designed in a long rectangular format to fit into a space above a bookshelf. It includes a number of visual puns and ironic references to painting, including a row of superimposed diamond-shaped colour samples viewed in perspective, and allusions to earlier works, including various ready-mades and his Three Standard Stoppages. Its title was probably derived from the French tu m’emmerdes, a vulgar expression loosely translated as ‘you bore me’, which is precisely what the activity of painting seems to have done to Duchamp. This was his last oil painting.

In August 1918 Duchamp left for Buenos Aires, Argentina, remaining there for a little less than a year. He spent most of his time there playing chess but also managed to complete a study for the lower section of the Large Glass, a construction on glass bearing the elaborate title To Be Looked at with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour (1918; New York, MOMA). He returned to Paris in June 1919, staying with Picabia for about six months. There he came into contact with many of the members of the French Dada group, including André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard and the French writer Philippe Soupault (1897–1990). During this visit he inscribed a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with the letters L.H.O.O.Q. (1919; Paris, priv. col., see 1973 New York exh. cat., opposite p. 128); when read aloud in French, the result, loosely translated as ‘she has a hot arse’, produces a ribald commentary on a widely acknowledged masterpiece.

On his return to New York in January 1920, Duchamp resumed contact with a number of his American friends, particularly Man Ray, whose aesthetic sensibilities were so much in keeping with Duchamp’s that, over the course of the ensuing year and a half, he was to become Duchamp’s closest artistic confidant and collaborator. Together they tried to produce an anaglyphic film, which was supposed to give the illusion of three dimensions, but the film was destroyed in the developing process; Man Ray was also enlisted to document photographically a number of Duchamp’s works. In a photograph entitled Dust Breeding (1920; see 1988 exh. cat., p. 88) he recorded layers of dust that had accumulated on the surface of the Large Glass, and in the same year he took several pictures of an optical construction on which Duchamp was working at the time. Man Ray also took the only known pictures of Duchamp dressed in drag (e.g. see 1973 New York exh. cat., p. 17), in which he posed as Rose Sélavy, his notorious female alter-ego. With Man Ray’s support, in 1920 Dreier and Duchamp founded the Société anonyme in New York to display and promote modern art in the USA. In 1921 Duchamp and Man Ray produced the single issue of New York Dada, the only such manifestation of the Dada movement in the USA.

(iv) France, 1923–42

Duchamp returned in 1923 to France, where, apart from three brief trips to the USA, he remained for the next 20 years, although he also travelled within Europe to attend various chess tournaments, usually participating as a member of the French team. For ten years after he became chess champion of Haute-Normandie in 1924 his passion for the game intensified as his professional play improved; his particular enthusiasm for endgame situations resulted in the publication of L’Opposition et les cases conjuguées sont réconciliées (Paris and Brussels, 1932), written in collaboration with the German chess master Vitaly Halberstadt. While the book shall probably forever be judged an obscure contribution to the literature of chess, it remains of interest for its layout and design, painstakingly prepared by Duchamp.

Duchamp’s decision to abandon painting became well known in art circles during the early 1920s, and his professional involvement with chess caused many to conclude that he had ceased artistic activities altogether. While it is true that he preferred to assume a low profile in the art world, steadfastly declining offers to exhibit his work publicly, he continued to develop ideas from his earlier work. When the occasion presented itself, for example, he made amusing plays on words, often with scurrilous implications, as part of a literary game that had been a growing interest from the time of his youth in Paris. But, perhaps in an effort to perpetuate the notion of a private persona, these puns were usually published under his female pseudonym, Rrose Sélavy: the first name was now spelt with a double r, which Duchamp thought created an appropriate and amusing reference to the French arroser, meaning ‘to wet’, or ‘to moisten’.

Just as Duchamp had presented an alternative to traditional sculpture in the form of the ready-made, it may have been the reputation he had established for having ceased painting that led him to investigate an alternative mode of artistic expression that still pertained to the concerns of traditional painting. As early as 1918 he began a serious study of the scientific principles of perspective and optics. Through experiments that continued over the course of the following 20 years, Duchamp made repeated efforts to generate effects of depth on a two-dimensional surface, at first through the use of shadows or stereoscopic images and later by means of elaborate motorized devices. In Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics) (1920; New Haven, CT, Yale U. A.G.), for example, the sensation of a compressed space is created when a series of fragmented circular shapes (painted on the ends of rectangular glass plates) are aligned and spun rapidly. This experiment was followed by Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics) (1925; New York, MOMA), in which a series of concentric circles aligned in the shape of a spiral and painted on to a convex surface are spun in a circular motion, producing the sensation of an ambiguous, undulating space. Similar experiments were conducted throughout the 1920s and 1930s, culminating in an unsuccessful attempt to market them commercially. He designed a series of spirals and objects positioned on spiral patterns, which he had inexpensively printed and mass-produced in an unnumbered edition of 500. When set in motion on the turntable of an ordinary record player, these discs were intended to create a sensation of depth. In 1935, these Rotoreliefs, as he called them, were offered for sale at an annual inventor’s fair on the Concours Lepine in Paris, but few sales resulted.

Throughout his life Duchamp maintained an aversion to the more commercial aspects of the art system, particularly where his own work was concerned, yet he openly acted as an agent or broker in placing work he admired in various public and private collections; he continued in these years to serve as the principal adviser and European agent for the Arensbergs and Dreier. In partnership with Henri-Pierre Roché (1879–1959) and Mrs Charles Rumsey, Duchamp arranged in 1927 to purchase a group of Constantin Brancusi’s sculptures, as well as three of his own paintings, from the estate of John Quinn; he sold these over the years to supplement his income but still lived frugally, inhabiting a small and sparsely decorated studio on the Rue Larrey in Paris.

Although Duchamp had many friends who participated actively in Dada and Surrealism, his work bore little stylistic affinity with either of these movements. Nevertheless, he continued to promote the activities of his friends, supporting the basic ideology of Dada throughout his life, and he participated in various Surrealist exhibitions in Paris and New York. Perhaps recognizing the inappropriateness of his work in a traditional context, in 1935 he began a six-year project of assembling miniature reproductions of his work for inclusion in a one-man portable museum, which, because the first limited editions were packed into a leather suitcase, he called Boîte-en-valise (New York, 1941).

(v) Final years in the USA, 1942–68

In 1942, during the Nazi occupation of Paris, Duchamp again left for the USA, taking with him many examples of his newly assembled miniature museum. He renewed contact in New York with his Surrealist friends, many of whom gathered at the home and gallery of Peggy Guggenheim, who exhibited Duchamp’s valise in her gallery, Art of This Century, in a special installation designed by Frederick Kiesler. Shortly after his arrival in the USA Duchamp seems to have concluded that, in order for an artist to remain free of outside influences, he needed to keep his activities secret. In 1942 he moved into a studio on West 14th Street, and, with the exception of one or two close friends, he told no-one about a major project on which he worked intermittently for the next 22 years: Given: 1° The Waterfall; 2° The Illuminating Gas (1946–66; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), often referred to by its original title in French, Etant donnés: 1° La Chute d’eau, 2° Le Gaz d’éclairage. Essentially, as the complete title implies, this work represents a literal manifestation of those elements that were meant to be invisible or rendered only abstractly in the Large Glass. It is a large, three-dimensional tableau, where, through two tiny peepholes in an old Spanish door, we are accorded the view of an unclothed, anonymous woman lying on her back with her legs spread open; in one hand she holds a glowing gas lantern, while in the background a waterfall flows endlessly in silence.

Duchamp began construction of Etant donnés in 1946, although he seems to have had the idea for the work some years earlier. Just as for the Large Glass, the finished work was preceded by a number of preparatory studies, and several independent works were derived from it. Three small erotic objects are particularly closely related to its production: Female Fig Leaf (1950; Paris, priv. col., see Moure, pl. 119), the phallic Objet-Dard (galvanized plaster, 1951; Paris, priv. col., see Moure, pl. 120) and Wedge of Chastity (plaster version, 1954; New York, MOMA). In accordance with Duchamp’s wishes, Etant donnés was placed on public display immediately after his death, next to his other works in the Arensberg Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Francis M. Naumann

From Grove Art Online

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