Early Life and Education
Marcel Duchamp was born in 1887, in Blainville, a small town near Rouen, France and died in Paris 81 years later, in 1968. Marcel came from an artistic family and was the brother of the sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Suzanne Duchamp, the poet, and half brother of the painter Jacques Villon. He studied art at the Academie Julian in Paris and, as a student, he was influenced by Paul Cezanne, the Fauves, the Cubists and the Futurists, but soon began to experiment with artistic media and ideas in a manner that was unprecedented in the history of art.
Duchamp spent most of his life commuting between France and the United States, often living in New York City, and he became an American citizen in 1955. He was married twice, the first time for a very short period when he was young. Legend has it that on the wedding night, rather than attending to his bride, he left to play chess with his friends, and the marriage was soon annulled. His second marriage was quite happy. He and Alexina (Teeny) Matisse (she was divorced from Pierre Matisse, the art dealer) were married in 1954 and they were devoted to each other until his death.
Duchamp was a very influential artist in the 20th century, and in many respects, one of the strangest. His profound influence, his ideas, and his work influenced all of the arts in the 20th century, including visual art, music and dance. Some would say that many of the ideas that you will explore when you learn about other artists in this course can be traced back to Duchamp. Thus, although the subject of this course is art and music since 1945, we start with an artist whose most important work was done before 1945 because of his tremendous influence on those who followed him.
Duchamp was a leader in the avant-garde of art. This is an important concept that in many respects has guided the selection of many of the artists covered in this course, so let's spend a little bit of time defining it.
Avant-garde is a French expression that means "advanced guard." Its original use was as a military term describing a small group that would do very dangerous scouting. It is actually a pretty simple concept in military strategy; when armies are at war, rather than sending a large body of troops ahead to engage the enemy, a small group of volunteers often move forward as a scouting party. It is important that these people are volunteers rather than being assigned to the task, because, either out of courage or foolishness, they would often put themselves in grave danger. This takes the kind of commitment that only a volunteer can or will make. The scouting party would sneak up on the enemy to ascertain how many soldiers were there, and determine their position and how well equipped they were for battle. When and if the advanced group returned to the main body of troops, a decision would be made as to whether the army would move forward and engage in battle.
Because the scouting party was willing and able to enter territory no one else would, they were called "the avant-garde." This term began to be used for artists who were willing to explore artistic territory that no one else would or could explore. These artists try radically new ideas. The term began to be applied to art in the mid-19th century, and certainly applies to the work of Marcel Duchamp.
Examples of Work
Duchamp's first public recognition in the United States came in 1913, when his painting, "Nude Descending a Staircase," was exhibited in the Armory Show in New York. This painting, of a figure walking down the stairs, was painted in a manner derived from Cubism and Futurism, and it attempted to show movement through a series of overlapping figures progressing down a flight of stairs.
At the time "Nude Descending a Staircase" was shown in New York, it created a scandal not only because of its radical departure from realism, but also because it was against the law in those days to display a nude. The New York police had a list of the titles of the work in the show and came to take down the painting, which of course is hardly recognizable as a nude, much to their surprise, and they left it on the wall. Regarding the painting itself, a prominent American critic described it as resembling "an explosion in a shingle factory"; and another said that it was "dangerous to art and man [sic.] ".
Although the gender of the person in the painting is impossible to recognize, everyone who saw the painting thought that the nude was a female figure. This assumption was based on the gender biases in language at the time; when most people heard or saw the word "nude," they assumed it was a female nude because most nudes that they had seen were female. It was not until much later in his life that Duchamp disclosed the truth about the painting, that it was actually a self-portrait. He delighted in this misunderstanding because one of the main themes of his art explored human sexuality, and in particular, the notion of androgyny, a concept that implies that all humans have some elements of both male and female in their personalities and physical beings.
There is a famous photograph of Marcel Duchamp playing chess with a nude woman. This was a performance he did at a one-man show in the 1950s. The reason for this particular performance was that it expressed his two passions, which were chess and human sexuality and this performance combined the two. Now, if that sounds rather strange to you, you are absolutely right. Perhaps what follows will help.
Duchamp painted very little after 1915, although he continued until 1923 to work on his masterpiece, "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even," which is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This extremely complex work, also known as "The Large Glass," because it is painted on glass, involves a system of symbolism that is so complicated that entire university courses are sometimes devoted to this single painting. Suffice to say, for our purposes in this course, it portrays the actions of a large androgynous machine with female parts (the bride) and male parts (the bachelors) and has been described by some critics as an abstract androgynous self-portrait of the artist.
In 1923, he left "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even" unfinished to give up art altogether and to play chess. This action, like much of what Duchamp did, became a legend that was in fact untrue. Despite the fact that he could be seen playing chess in New York's Washington Square on almost any warm day, he more or less secretly maintained a studio in New York and produced art until the end of his life.
One of Duchamp's new ideas was his use of what he called the "ready-made." These were common, manufactured everyday objects, selected but not made by the artist, just as you would select an item in a store. They would then be slightly modified by Duchamp and shown as art.
One of the earliest "ready-mades," the "Bicycle Wheel" (1913), which is now in Museum of Modern Art in New York , actually includes two manufactured objects, an old kitchen stool and the front part of a bicycle. The bicycle wheel and frame are inserted through a hole in the seat of the stool. The wheel, standing above the top of the stool, can be spun. Not only is it a ready made, but is also an early example of kinetic art, which is art that has the capability of movement. Kinetic art is another important innovation by Duchamp.
Another early ready-made was titled "Bottle Rack" which was unchanged except that it was signed by the artist. The original purpose of this object was to dry wine bottles after all the wine had been consumed. Duchamp claimed it as a work of art by putting it in the artistic context. Duchamp's most radical idea was that anything can be a work of art if it is placed in the artistic context. This extremely bold move then would free artists to do just about anything they wanted, which, of course is exactly what happened in contemporary art.
Perhaps the most notorious "ready-made" attributed to Duchamp was titled "Fountain." It is nothing more than a urinal turned on its back, with the name "R. Mutt" signed in its side, along with the date, 1917. The "R," stands for Richard, a name that means "rich person." For almost a century, historians thought that the Urinal shown in New York was Duchamp's work, but recent research has uncovered that this is likely not the case.
First of all, the name "Fountain" was coined by a critic in 1917. In fact the urinal disappeared after it was shown, and no one is sure what happened to it. Also, the Urinial was sent to the exhibition anonymously. But in 1982, in a letter written by Duchamp, he revealed that the urinal was not his entry and that it was submitted by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, a ground breaking dada artist. Later in the 1930s Duchamp made a replica of the urinal and Andre Bréton attributed "Fountain" to Duchamp much later in the 1930s. So, at least in this case, Duchamp must now shares credit for being one of the groundbreakers of modern art with a female artist.
The urinal was turned on its back and named "Fountain" to show that its function had changed from a device for collecting fluids to the potential opposite function of a fountain. It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to see "Fountain" as an androgynous object, having both male and female qualities.
Duchamp also explored the concept of randomness. A work that clearly shows this is called "The Three Standard Stoppages" (1913). This work consists of three pieces of string, each a meter in length, that had been dropped from the height of one meter onto a piece of flat glass and then covered with another piece of glass the same size. Because of the random action of air currents and gravity as they fell, the three pieces of string are not the same in length on the glass, which ironically defies the notion of the title, which refers to standard units of measurement.
Another example of art with an element of randomness was a work called "With Hidden Noise" (1916). It consists of two brass plates held together by four long bolts. In the space between the two plates is a ball of twine. Duchamp had a friend place an unknown object inside the ball of twine. The ball of twine was then bolted down between the two plates so that the object cannot be removed or examined. If shaken, the object would make a noise, but we will never know what the object is, as well as Duchamp, who never knew what was in the ball of twine. Randomness here is expressed by the fact that the artist has given up an essential part of the art process to another person and the true nature of the art could never be known to the artist.
Duchamp also invented Body Art, in which the artist's body becomes the work of art and Performance Art, in which the artist's actions become the work of art.
In what is considered by many to be the first example of body art, Duchamp had a star shaved into his hair with a trail of partially shaved hair leading up to the star, as if a falling star had skidded across his scalp and landed on the back of his head. Clearly, this alteration of his body means that the artist had become the canvas, rather than the artist painting on the canvas. This was a radical idea in the visual arts at that time. Of course, it is not the least bit radical in dance or theater, where the dancer or actor has always been the art.
One of the earliest examples of Performance Art in the visual arts is Duchamp's creation of a female alter-ego, one Rrose Selavy, in 1920. There are a number of photographs of Duchamp dressed in drag, including a very famous one taken by Man Ray, an important photographer and friend of Duchamp's. As far as we know, Duchamp was not a cross dresser for the usual reasons. Rrose was created as an artistic act to explore the androgynous aspect of his personality. Her name was sometimes spelled "Rrose" (the double Rr is because in French the R is rolled) and sometimes "Rose." In either pronunciation, her first name sounds like "eros," which means love (or sex). Selavy is an Americanized pun based on the French term "C'est la vie," which translated from the French means "that's life." Her name then, in translation, is: "Love (or sex), that's life." Duchamp not only appeared in public as Rrose Selavy, but also created a number of works of art under her name.
Perhaps one of the funniest pieces by Duchamp relating to androgyny is a reproduction of "The Mona Lisa" called "L. H. O. O. Q." (1919). The famous painting by Leonardo DaVinci had been enhanced with a mustache and goatee, and at the bottom, the letters L. H. O. O. Q. had been added. Now why would Duchamp do such a thing and what could it mean?
Duchamp was aware that a small minority of art historians had developed a theory that the person who modeled for the "Mona Lisa" was not a woman, but a man. This theory is based on the fact that the original drawings, which served as studies for the "Mona Lisa" did not have drapery on the arms and the bare arms seem too muscular to be a woman's. There also has been some speculation among historians that Leonardo DaVinci was gay. As you might guess, these theories appealed to Duchamp because of his interest in androgyny. So, he added the moustache and the goatee to make her more "male."
Duchamp, like many people before him and after, was fascinated by the mystery of the Mona Lisa's smile. Many theories have been presented about her enigmatic smile, and Duchamp puts forward his own with the letters, L.H.O.O.Q. Although the letters stand for nothing, when pronounced in French, they sound much like a vulgar term that was used in France at the time, which meant that "she has a hot ass." In other words, his theory about the smile, in more correct terms, is that "she smiles because she wants sex." Irony only begins to describe Duchamps work. While influencing immense change in the art world, we can only guess that he must have laughed at the art world becomeing so enamoured over a urinal!