Marcel Duchamp is considered
as one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century by the modern art
world. Duchamp, who participated in artistic movements from Fauvism to Surrealism,
was an innovator and a revolutionary within the art world. Duchamp, being
a founding force in the Dada movement, was also a main influencing factor of
the development of the 20th Century avant-garde art. All in all Duchamp has
become a legend within the art world.
Marcel Duchamp was born on July 28,1887
in Blainville France. Being the brother of two prominent artists, Raymond Duchamp-Villon
and Jacques Villon, it seemed only natural that the young Marcel Duchamp would
participate in the arts. Also, his childhood home was abundantly decorated
with seascapes, landscapes, and etchings produced by his grandfather Emile-Frederic
Nicolle. As he himself put it, When you see so many paintings youve got
to paint. In 1907, at age 17, Duchamp resolved to become an artist.
Marcel Duchamp had the great fortune of entering the world of art at a most exciting
time when the birth of Fauvism and Cubism was in the not so distant future.
Although Marcel incorporated these styles he was never satisfied with any
single style. He felt that styles were learned techniques which put creativity,
exploration, and imagination in the background of the art scene. Duchamps
view of the lack of creativity and originality may have prompted many of his
later creations which, at the time of their production, seemed absurd.
Marcel Duchamps career he dabbled in a wide variety of styles ranging from
Fauvism to Cubism, all the way to the art of Ready-mades. Although he openly
expressed that painting bored him, he did it quite well. Early in his career
he, like most young artists, painted friends and family, things he was familiar
with. Duchamps only formal training came at the Academie Julian in Paris from
where he dropped out after only eighteen months to pursue his own interests.
This seems to be a defining characteristic of Marcel Duchamps career, he
did things that suited him, not what others felt was the correct thing to do.
Duchamps artistic output began with portraits of people close to him such
as family members and close friends. At this time Duchamp was experimenting
with Fauvism, the art of the wild beasts. In this from of art one could
use arbitrary colors. This is the reason one might see portraits made by Duchamp
from around 1910 in which people are represented with greenish skin or blue
hair. Throughout Duchamps career it was not as important to be totally accurate
as it was to get a creative point or theme across.
One negative view of Fauvism
was that it was not intellectually stimulating for artists. This is a main
reason why many artists, one of them being Duchamp, turned their artistic focus
the avant-garde. Cubism, with complex planes and geometrically sound shapes
gave artists the intellectual stimulation that they craved. Colors of the
early cubist period were muted which put the spotlight more on the visual effects
of the art. The possibilities of manipulation of the shapes to Duchamps own
interests benefited him immensely.
Duchamp prospered as he turned away from
the conservative Fauvism moving towards the avant-garde and experimentation
within the cubist mode of art. He discovered ways to manipulate his paintings
to be able to show the intricacies of his favorite game chess. Duchamp believed
that art should be left up to the mind rather than the eyes, just as in chess.
His first production of the Cubist origin is titled The Sonata. It is said
that many of the characteristics of this painting reveal influence from a group
of Cubist artists, which included his two brothers, called the Puteaux Cubists.
This group of artists rebelled against casual cubism ,which was practiced by
the likes of Picasso and Braque, in favor of geometric precision.
was a pioneer in Cubism by the way he showed movement in his paintings. His
first attempt at showing movement through the geometric shapes is titled Sad
Young Man On A Train. In this work Duchamp uses four or five overlapping profiles
moving from left to right across the canvas. The colors were dark symbolizing
Duchamps mood at the time. He was preparing to leave Paris in favor of, what
he believed to be a less commercial area, Munich. In another attempt at movement
in Cubism, Duchamp created a painting known as Nude Descending A Staircase
No.1. In viewing this work, the first version of one of his most famous works,
one can see the motion is much more explicit. This painting and its other version
was a combination of cubism and a play on futurism. In the second version
of this work, Nude Descending A Staircase No. 2, Duchamp further developed
and refined the movement of the piece through the use of swirling lines and
When the painting was introduced in Europe the Puteaux Cubists
reac ted violently which ended Marcels affiliation with the group. When the
painting was shown in America at the New York Armory Show in 1912 the American
critics reacted quite the same as that of those in Europe. Although the painting
was very much criticized at the time, four decades after it was unveiled people
began to refer to Nude Descending A Staircase No.2 as a masterpiece.
Duchamp completed his painting of Nude Descending A Staircase No.2 he ventured
to Munich where he started such projects as a watercolor titled Virgin and
two mastery oils titled Bride and Passage From the Virgin to the Bride. He
also began to sketch what was to be a project of his for the next decade of
his life, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. The effects of
two of Duchamps paintings at this time, Virgin and later in Passage From the
Virgin to the Bride, he ventured into uncharted artistic territory with the
use of Cubist techniques but the effect was not cubist at all.
The images were
unusual and almost machine-like in form. Duchamp had created a new form of
art but, as he tended to do, he abandoned the form in favor of letting others
develop his ideas. This virtually closed Marcel Duchamps career as a painter.
In 1915, at age 25, Duchamp moved to New York taking him out of the world of
Duchamp became bored with retinal art, art for the
eye alone. He wanted to remove himself from all his previous ties with painting
in order to produce something different and new. One idea he had to produce
something different was to execute his workings on glass instead of the traditional
canvas surface. This would certainly be different but the art would still be
the same, and Duchamp recognized this. His answer to this problem was a new
technique of drawing which was derived from an engineering method called mechanical
drawing. Although this now seems to be quite ordinary, at the time it was
a major breakthrough in the art industry.
Now, with a new idea at hand, Marcel
began to derive the ways in which he would develop this new style. To carry
out the task of drawing unlike your hand tells you to Duchamp said he had to
unlearn to draw to execute his new ideas and technique. In a manner of speaking
this is what he did. Duchamp first experimented with the media which was to
be used on the glass. At first he used paraffin fluoridic acid as an engraving
tool for the glass. The fumes were quite strong and he quickly gave that up.
Next, he tried outlining his design with fine wire which would serve to keep
colors in place. This was perfect for Duchamps needs. The wire kept the colors
neatly in place while it could be manipulated to make lines as straight or
wavy as he desired. As difficult as this task was to execute, Marcel Duchamp
Now that he had the tools and ideas Marcel could begin his
work. He completed a work known as Glider which was ultimately produced to
be employed into his later work referred to as The Large Glass or more formally
named The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Glider ,or Sleigh as
it is sometimes referred to as, was produced as a part of the Bachelor Machine
which was a main part of the Large Glass.
Although the Large Glass was
Duchamps primary project in the mid 1910s he did venture into other controversial
subjects. In 1914 Duchamp signed his name to a bottle rack in effect creating
his first ready-made. Ready-mades are objects that are signed and titled becoming
more an object of observation rather than a functional one. The ready-mades
were an attack on traditional western art. Duchamp felt that any man-made object
was a work of art therefore treating them as such by signing his name on them
and displaying these objects. This type of art was an instrumental part of
the artistic movement known as Dada which Duchamp was a main contributor to.
addition to Bottle Rack Marcel Duchamp produced controversy with other ready-mades.
Two of the better well know ready-mades were In Advance of the Broken Arm
and Fountain. In Advance of the Broken Arm was the first American ready-made.
This work of art was a shovel, bought in a Columbus Avenue hardware store,
which had been signed and hung from the ceiling. In 1917 Fountain was scheduled
for display at an art show put on by a group in which Duchamp helped found,
The Society of Independent Artists. Although the showing was supposedly to
have no restrictions on content the committee refused to show Fountain which
was simply a urinal signed under the name of R.Mutt.
Duchamp also pioneered
another form of art known as kinetic art. Kinetic art, for our purposes, is
art which employed actual movement. In 1913 Duchamp employed the front wheel
from a bicycle in a type of sculpture. He mounted the wheel to a kitchen stool
in effect making the first mobile sculpture. Duchamp would later name the kinetic
sculptures of Alexander Calder simply as mobiles. These simple sculptures
named mobiles and ready-mades were designed to make people think, to use their
mind to understand art instead of only using their eyes.
In early 1916 the
Dada movement was born in a direct result of World War I. This was not really
even an artistic movement. To be more accurate the Dada art was more a frame
of mind. This frame of mind was anti-art and, as time progressed, anti-everything
else. The Dada movement was seen by conservatives as dangerous. The French
almost felt as if it could have been of German or even Bolshevik origin. In
any case the Dada movement started as a protest to the war which tore apart
Europe. In time Dada seemed to not only protest the war but everything else
also. In the end Dada was destroyed by achieving acceptance that it could
Duchamp, in the spirit of a true revolutionary and pioneer,
became somewhat of a leader of the Dada period. Returning from Buenos Aries
to Paris, Duchamp joined with fellow artist Picabia whom also was a prime leader
of the Dada period of art. Duchamp took no part in Dadaist demonstrations
which seemed to enhanced his reputation even more in the eyes of other Dadaists.
One of the more controversial and defining works of the Dada period was an
assisted ready-made in which Duchamp drew a mustache and goatee to a photograph
of DaVincis Mona Lisa. This, being an ideal example of Dada artwork, represented
his view that art had become too precious and expensive. Once again, Duchamp
had stirred the conservatives of the art world into an uproar.
In 1918 Duchamp
painted his first new picture after a four year absence. Duchamp produced
this work, titled Tu m, for a narrow space above an admirers door in New
York. This composition depicts images of three of Duchamps ready-mades. The
image depicts a bicycle wheel, a corkscrew, and a hat rack. Also a long row
of overlapping colored squares stretched across the canvas. This proved to
be Marcel Duchamps last formal painting on canvas.
After this frantic
time in Europe Marcel returned to life in New York in early 1920. At this
point in his life Duchamp began experimenting with optics and motion as well
as resuming work on his masterpiece, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors,
Even. In a rather accidental discovery, Duchamp somehow found that when two
spirals rotated on a common axis but somewhat off center that one appears to
come forward and the other appears to move backwards producing a corkscrew
effect. In 1920 Duchamp constructed something titled Revolving Glass which
demonstrated this movement through the usage of five glass plates at varried
Soon after Duchamps return to New York he decided that he needed
a change of identity. To meet this need of change Duchamp adopted a female
known as Rrose Selavy. Duchamp even went as far as to appear in
a photograph by Man
Ray while wearing womens clothes. Ready-mades were also
signed by this name. Two
of which appeared in 1920 and 1921. The first of
the two, Fresh Widow, was a
carpenters French window sample in which the
panes were covered with highly polished
black leather. The second, titled
Why Not Sneeze, was a birdcage filled with pieces of
white marble. This marble
was frequently mistaken for lumps of sugar. Works like these
to get people to view objects in a different way in effect creating a type
new or revoloutionary thought. These were described by Duchamp as not
objects only in
the physical sense but also as mental objects or as brain
Duchamp had returned to Paris in 1923 leaving his
masterpiece, The Large Glass, unfinished. In 1924 Duchamp participated in
the only performance of Relache, a ballet developed by fellow artists Picabia
and Sati. During the intermission of this ballet Duchamp appeared in a short
film with Picabia, Man Ray, and Sati which was formed by Picabia and Rene
Clair. These two projects proved to be the last flicker of Dadaism.
Duchamps parents died within a week of each other in 1925. Duchamp, who had
inherited a modest sum of money, ventured into the art market purchasing a
few pieces of art. In 1926 Duchamp funded a show for a sculptor he greatly
admired, Brancusi. Duchamp would later, with friend H.P. Roche, purchase a
quite sizable collection of Brancusis sculptors. It is known that later in
Duchamps life he would sell these sculptures if he needed money for his quite
During the rise of Surrealism time period Duchamp was considered
an icon by the artists of this movement. Although Duchamps paintings could
not even be considered part of the Surrealist movement, he was championed.
It was Duchamps actions which gave him the impressive reputation which was
thrust upon him. Surrealist artists thought it was a most impressive move to
abandon what would have been a brilliant career. Many took the saying similar
to life should be lived, not painted as a defining point of their admiration
for Marcel Duchamp.
By this time in Duchamps life he began to play chess
more and more. He learned chess as a child and had picked it up with a passion
again during the first World War. At times in the 1930s he represented his
country on the French championship chess team. Duchamp had time to devote
most of his time to his favorite sport for the simple fact that Duchamps only
goal in his life at this time was to make it through, to break even.
June of 1942 Duchamp moved back to what was to be his home for the remained
of his life, New York. Like most other artists whom moved away from France
at this time, Duchamp left to escape horrors of the war. Duchamp, whom never
enjoyed the art factory in Paris, enjoyed life in New York. Duchamps New
York residence, a small studio at 210 West 14th Street, had no phones. Although
Duchamp was not producing much art at this time he was not out of the scene.
after his arrival in New York Marcel, along with Andre Breton, executed a Surrealist
exhibition for the benefit of French children and war prisoners in the old
Villard mansion on Madison Avenue. Also Duchamp found joy in promoting the
careers of young artists in effect helping to develop modern art. What little
art that Duchamp did at this period consisted of one certain picture which
was made for the cover of the March 1943 issue of VVV which was founded by
Andre Breton and Max Ernst. The picture, entitled George Washington, showed
our first president in a bandage gauze, covered in stars and bloodstains.
This picture, which was funded by Vogue, was rejected.
During this same period
Duchamp was becoming quite popular with many American art students and artists
alike. In 1945 the Yale University Art Gallery hosted an exhibition of the
three Duchamp brothers. If that was not enough to heighten Marcels reputation,
the art-literary magazine View devoted a whole issue to articles dealing with
Duchamp and all of his accomplishments. Duchamps reputation was starting
to transform from a revolutionary artist to a legendary one.
After the war
most of the European artists whom were exiled in the United States returned
to their native countries. When faced with the question of moving back to France
or not Duchamp opted to stay in New York where he later became an American
citizen in 1955. He felt that in Europe, artists considered themselves grandsons
of earlier artists which hindered new and revolutionary ideas. He believed
Americans could care less about the history of art, in effect making America
a better place for new developments.
Marcel must have been wrong in this aspect
for future young American innovators would come to considered themselves as
grandsons of Marcel Duchamp. In the 1963 Duchamp exhibition at the Pasadena
Art Museum effectively canonized Duchamp as a patron saint of modern art.
living in New York, once again Duchamp played chess, but only on a pleasurable
level. He married for the second time in 1958 to Alexina Sattler, a woman
known throughout the art world simply as Teeny. Together they apparently
lived a extremely happy life making residence in a West 10th Street New York
apartment. Marcel ventured to art gatherings from time to time but had no desire
to return to its production. In fact Duchamp was offered $10,000 per year by
an art dealer named Ronald Knoedler if he would paint a single painting each
year. Although Duchamp was quite able to perform this task he replied to the
offer by saying that he had accomplished what he set out to do and was not
interested in repeating it. What he was concerned with the survival of his
ideas, not the reproduction of them.
In hindsight, one could never be
able to classify Duchamp effectively into any single art category other than
revolutionary and innovator. Duchamp lived his life on his own terms. He kept
his independence from the arts. Duchamp refused to be dictated as to what
would be incorporated into his art. Like many great artistic innovators, Duchamp
became famous and even a legend from art that the critics of the time called
absurd and pathetic. When Marcel Duchamp died in 1968 it could be said that
the Frenchmans independence was his most enduring work of art.
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vol. 8. USA: Funk and Wagnalls Inc., 1986.
Schwarz, Arturo. Marcel Duchamp
66 Creative Years. Milan: Gallery Schwarz, 1972.
Tomkins, Calvin. The
World of Marcel Duchamp. New York: Time