Marcel Duchamp
Biography of Cubist painter, Dadaist, inventor of "Ready-mades".
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LHOOQ (1919) Private Collection, NY.
The most famous example of Dada
anti-art, by Marcel Duchamp, one
of the great figures of Modern Art.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)

Contents

Summary
Early Days & Training
Conventional Early Works
Cubism and Futurism
Ready-mades and Object Art
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors
The Armory Show
New York Dada
Surrealism
Legacy, Influence on Contemporary Art


Nude Descending Staircase No 2 (1912)
Philadelphia Art Museum. One of the
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

MODERN SCULPTURE
For a list of modern artists
see: 20th Century Sculptors.

Summary

A key figure in avant-garde French painting and sculpture, the mixed media artist Marcel Duchamp is considered the father of Object Art, from which Conceptual Art emerged. Although he avoided allegiances to any specific movement, he explored most of the modern art movements including Fauvism (1905-7), Cubism (1908-14), Orphism (1910-13) Dada (1916-20) and Surrealism (1925 onwards). When he signed a urinal and proclaimed it a work of art (Fountain, 1917, replica in Tate Gallery, London), he broke all boundaries, stating that it is the artistic idea that counts, and not the artistic craftsmanship.

He was undoubtedly one of the most famous exponents of avant-garde art, and is best-remembered for his famous Nude Descending a Staircase No 2 (1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art); his series of "found objects" which he called "readymades"', including Bicycle Wheel (1913, Replica in Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris), Bottle Rack (1914, Replica in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), and his iconoclastic Dadaist work L.H.O.O.Q. (1919, New York, private collection) an image of the Mona Lisa complete with moustache and goatee beard.


Fountain (1917). (Tate, London)
An early form of Junk Art.

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Early Days and Training

Duchamp was born in Blainville-Crevon, a town in the Normandy region of France. His family were middle class and well educated; they played chess, music, painted and read books together. His two elder brothers, the painter and graphic artist Jacques Villon (1875-1963), and the Cubist sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876-1918) were also involved in the arts. Duchamp began painting in 1902 (Chapel at Blainville, Philadelphia Museum of Art) and in 1904 went to study art at the Academie Julian in Paris (1904-5), but by his own admission he was more interested in billiards than fine art painting.

Conventional Early Works

After leaving the Academy, he produced landscapes and portraits in the manner of Neo-Impressionism and the Nabis (Portrait of Yvonne Duchamp, 1907; Maison Rouge Dans Les Pommiers, 1908; both in private collections, New York). He also executed a number of drawings in the style of Toulouse-Lautrec and the fin-de-siecle humorists, for the Courrier Francais and Le Rire (1905-10), and until 1910, under the influence of Cezanne and the Fauves, continued to paint in a fairly modern manner, without any notable aggression or daring (Nude with Black Stockings, 1910, New York, private collection).

 

Cubism and Futurism

However, while staying at Puteaux with his brothers, who knew the Cubist painters Roger de La Fresnaye (1885-1925), Albert Gleizes (1881-1953), and Frank Kupka (1871-1957), he began to absorb some of the lessons of Analytical Cubism and, in 1911, produced works in which he added to the multiple schematizations and perspectives of Cubism a personal idea of movement (Dulcinea, Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Was he inspired by Futurism? It has been shown that when he painted the Puteaux canvases he was perfectly conscious of their aesthetic background and also that he must have been aware of the series of figures in movement that Kupka had been painting since 1910, or even 1909 (Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris). Duchamp's first Nude Descending a Staircase, in fact, dates from 1911 (Philadelphia, Museum of Art), and it was followed, in 1912, by a series of important works created while he was a member of the Section d'Or group of Cubist painters. These works were devoted to the expression of movement, and took important elements from Futurism, chronophotography, and paintings by Kupka. In these dark-coloured canvases, figures face one another or are intertwined, figures that are either still or quick, like machines, and not without humour: examples include: Portrait of Chess Players (1911, Philadelphia Museum of Art; King and Queen Surrounded by Quick Nudes 1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Another important work was the more complex Passage From the Virgin to the Bride (1912, MoMA, New York), depicting not movement but change of state. These paintings cannot be separated from those of Francis Picabia (1879-1953) who, at about the same time, was producing dynamic works that carried abstract art to its limits.

From this point onwards Duchamp painted less and less as he grew disillusioned with what he called 'retinal' art - the type that only appealed to the eye. He wanted to create a new art that would appeal to the mind.

Ready-Mades and Object Art

In 1913 Duchamp abruptly turned his back on his work to that date in order to elaborate an entirely personal system of art, dominated by the study, at once serious and lighthearted, of the exact sciences. From this philosophical activity came the Three Standard Stoppages (MoMA, New York). These half-scientific objects foreshadowed his 'ready-mades', the first of which, a Bicycle Wheel perched on a stool (Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris), dates from the same year. There followed, among others, the Bottle-Carrier (Milan, Arturo Schwarz Collection), Apolillere Enamelled (1916-17, Philadelphia Museum of Art), L.H.O.O.Q. (New York, private collection), as well as variants on the 'ready-made'.

The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (Mariee)

After 1913 Duchamp began to plan his famous painting on glass, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (1915-23, Philadelphia Museum of Art). In this masterpiece, Duchamp reveals his gift for pure absurdity, together with his philosophy of love and desire. The work has been seen as a plan of a machine for loving, which through its actual arrangement (the feminine symbol in the upper part, the masculine ones below) expresses the fundamental difficulty of physical unity, in which the woman through her imaginative power is always above, and the man, held down by his instinct is below. The nine ridiculous 'moulds', representing bachelors, fiercely show their impotence (priest, department store delivery man, gendarme, soldier, policeman, undertakers' man, flunkey, waiter, stationmaster), while the chocolate grinder at the bottom on the right is the image of the lonely pleasure of the bachelor who grinds his own chocolate, all alone. A second version of the Mariee was made in 1961 by Duchamp and Ulf Linde (Stockholm, Moderna Museet).

Armory Show

Meantime Duchamp also managed to trigger an enormous scandal at the famous American exhibition of Modern Art, better known as The Armory Show, when his painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2 was attacked by an angry mob, ensuring that he became the best known of all the modern artists on show. The exhibition which took place in New York in Feb-March 1913, before travelling to Chicago and Boston, attracted more than 250,000 visitors, and still ranks as the most influential art exhibition ever held in America.

From 1915 to 1918, with Picabia, Duchamp was settled in New York, to which he brought what was to be the spirit of the Dada movement, as expressed by activists like Tristan Tzara (1896-1963). In 1917 Duchamp submitted a urinal to a New York exhibition of contemporary art. He signed it with the pseudonym R.Mutt, and called it The Fountain. The show organisers were not impressed, and the object was 'misplaced' during the show. It disappeared again soon after, although there are replicas of it today (one in the Tate Gallery, London). In 1919 Duchamp took a postcard of Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and drew a moustache on her and added the caption L.H.O.O.Q (an obscene abbreviation of the French words "Elle a chaud au cul" meaning "She's Hot In the Ass".) It quickly became a humorous icon of the Dada Art Movement.

New York Dada

From 1920 to 1923, following trips to Paris and Buenos Aires, he remained in New York where - together with Picabia and Man Ray - he founded the New York branch of Dada. He also completed The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, as well as a few 'ready-mades' (Optique de Precision [Precision Optics, 1920, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven). But above all he was devoted to the game of chess, which he adored, and taught for a living.

Surrealism

In spite of this, his fame continued to grow; the Dadaists considered him one of them as did the Surrealists, who celebrated his break with art and his choice of life-style, noisily spreading his views, although Duchamp himself, in fact, made little of them. It was not so much his work as his life that was put forward as an example of perfect moral strictness. In his absurd objects the authentic poetry of black humour was seen, and behind his themes a consistent metaphysical attitude. All this, however, did not deflect him from the life he had chosen. In spite of his constant support of Surrealism, he never went back to its views.

Even so, during the 1930s, Duchamp was one of the more visible surrealist artists. He was heavily involved in the establishment of major surrealist exhibitions in Paris (1938) and also in New York (1942), for which he also contributed an innovative piece of installation art.

In 1967-8, he produced some drawings and engravings, that were both humorous and erotic, made up of details from famous works, including: Rodin's The Kiss, Ingres' The Turkish Bath, Courbet's Woman in White Stockings. Others took up the themes of the Mariee, or of love. The first edition of the Boite en Valise, which contained, in a miniature form, his main works (one example in the Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris), appeared in 1938. A philosopher who strayed briefly into the plastic arts, Duchamp adopted a way of life that embodied the prime philosophical virtue: freedom.

Legacy and Influence on Contemporary Art

Duchamp died in 1968. Several retrospective exhibitions of his work took place, including at the Tate Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Art Museum. In 2004, his Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 artists and art critics in Britain.

Although he is considered one of the masters of modern art, his work (esp. his 'ready-mades') now looks rather tired and old-fashioned - like museum pieces of a bygone age. It is after all, difficult to get enthusiastic about a bicycle wheel or a urinal. Yet to speak ill of Duchamp is to invite the wrath of the arts establishment, for whom conceptual art is regarded as the cutting edge of 21st century creativity. Even so, he remains one of the great iconoclasts in the history of art in the 20th century, and his influential works can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world. A huge collection of his work is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, thanks to the Walter and Louise Arensberg Bequest, made in 1950.

• For biographies of other great avant-garde artists, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For information about contemporary artists, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.


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