Marcel Duchamp: an artful jack of all trades

Marcel Duchamp has already done everything there is to do – except video … only through video art can we get ahead of Marcel Duchamp (Nam June Paik)

Born at Blainville-Crevon (Normandy), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) grew up in an artistic family in which his two elder brothers preceded and guided him in the art world: Jacques as a painter and Raymond as a sculptor. Suzanne, his sister, also followed in the footsteps of Jacques, just as Marcel did. But Marcel took the road less taken, he put a bicycle wheel on a chair and the rest is (art) history. Dada, conceptual art, post-impressionism, cubism, … there is no art movement in the 20th century that has not been impacted by the ideas of Duchamp. Notwithstanding this influence, it took Europe until 1954 to ‘discover’ this artist, almost 40 years after his ‘infamous’ entry into the American art market with his Fountain.

House of Marcel Duchamp’s parents in Blainville-Crevon,Normandy

AN ARTFUL JACK OF ALL TRADES

Even though Duchamp could be considered the ‘Jack of all trades’ of modern art, he started out quite traditionally as a post-impressionist experimenting with classical styles and techniques. During his compulsory military service, he worked for a printer learning all about typography and printing, which would come in handy in his later work.

His artistic siblings met in Jacques’ home with Cubist painters like Picabia, Léger and Gris. The shy Marcel did not participate in group discussions, but his interest in transition and movement – the depiction of the fourth dimension – continued to grow. Although a number of pictures foreshadowed Duchamp’s interest in this dimension – notably, Sad Young Man on a Train and Dulcinea, it was his Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2 that caught the viewers’ attention. This oil painting on canvas caused one of the many artistic controversies that would surround Duchamp. ‘Too futurist for a cubist painting’. The different angles were one thing, but the moving image was a step too far. The provocative title in the painting did not help either.

But Duchamp was more interested in ideas than in the visual results. He wanted to create art that was more than mere retinal. This mindset paved the way for ready-mades and conceptual art.

In search of a replacement for painting, Duchamp turned to Dada, although we could say that Duchamp predated Dada (1916) with such ready-mades as Bicycle Wheel (1913). This anti-art movement rejected reason and logic, embracing nonsense and intuition, sound poetry and performance art. But more importantly, Duchamp altered the role of the artist. He took the existing definition of aesthetical and skill-based art and shifted to mental and conceptual reasoning. This shift is very clear in In Advance of the Broken Arm, a snow shovel with a story. His readymades were not randomly chosen but instead followed a strict set of rules: decontextualisation, titling and the limited effort needed for the act of creation. So, it was not the creation, but rather the act of selection that caused problems. How to select an object – in this case a snow shove –- that has hardly any aesthetic value at all and turn it into a work of art only because the artist intends it to be one. Heidegger calls this ‘Vorhandenheit’ and ‘Zuhandenheit’. In the context of ready-to-hand (Zuhandenheit), the shovel is a mere tool created for a certain use. But when you hang it against the wall, present-at-hand (Vorhandenheit) kicks in. The tool becomes something else, a ready-made artwork. A conceptual switch.

In the free spirit of Dada, Duchamp went even further: not only did he create art, he also created an artist. Rrose Sélavy, his female alter ego started as a performance. Linguistic puns also contributed to the fame of Marcel Duchamp. Rrose Sélavy was a wordplay read as ‘Eros, c’est la vie’. Or the Mona Lisa, tagged it with a moustache and the abbreviation L.H.O.O.Q. (‘Elle a chaud au cul’).

During the period 1915-1923 in which Duchamp created all the above, he also embraced futurism. In the almost 3-metre tall artwork ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even’ Duchamp used glass panels, metal frames, lead wire, oil paint and … dust. The structure and composition looks like a futuristic machine. The work remained untouched for over 6 months in his studio and when Duchamp started working on it again, he varnished some of the dust that had gathered on it. In 1923, Duchamp considered the work of art ‘definitely unfinished’. When the work was damaged, he loved the accidental cracking of the glass panel.

Bicycle Wheel was one of his first kinetic experiments. Later in his career his rotoreliefs added an optional dimension to the kinetic movement. With his kinetic art he wanted to create a perception of depth and 3D illusion. The rotoreliefs were not a big success, but they did feature in experimental films such as Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet.

Cubist, futurist, dada, conceptualism, kinetic and optical art, performance … so why not add multiples to Duchamp’s roll of honour? Box in a Suitcase consists of 24 editions of a leather case containing 69 miniature reproductions of his artworks. The box functions as a portable museum and brings to mind Malraux’ musée imaginaire and the discussion whether or not museums can be replaced with reproductions or photographs. By using photography to document the works in the Box in a Suitcase, he also covers this part of 20th Century art.

The world started to forget about Marcel Duchamp and his art. He turned to chess and for almost 25 years it seemed as if he had turned his back on the art world. For almost 20 years, Marcel had worked on Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage, a composition of an old wooden door, brick, brass, leaves, twigs, a female form made of parchment, glass, oil paint, … in other words a synthesis of all the materials he used during his career. The result was a work of art bearing resemblance to ‘the bride’. A naked woman lies on a bed of twigs and leaves. She holds a gas lamp in her hands while in the background a landscape rises towards the horizon. Is the person dead, or is she waiting for an erotic encounter. The diorama can only be seen through a small peephole, protecting viewers from the unexpected and surrealistic landscape.

WE ARE ALL CHILDREN OF MARCEL DUCHAMP

In retrospect, Nam June Paik was correct stating that Marcel Duchamp tackled almost all 20th Century -isms. So it is rather obvious that the younger generation have been influenced by Duchamp. An exhaustive overview will take us too far so I will focus on five artists.

Robert Rauschenberg led his art away from the abstract expressionists and colour-field painters. He included everyday objects in his art. He used trash and found objects and integrated them in his work, questioning the distinction between everyday objects and art objects. He created silk-screen print collages using iconic images (e.g. JFK) in his work, paving the way for Andy Warhol. In Riding Bikes the Duchampian influence is quite clear. This sculpture shows two inverted painted bikes outlined by neon lights.

Andy Warhol was probably one of the best ‘students’ of Duchamp, taking his work a notch further. His inspiration was fuelled by TV and commercials, turning Marilyn and Elvis into art icons. He painted his ode to Campbell Soup and created Drella, an alter ego. With his Brillo boxes he created handmade replicas of mass-produced commercial products. At a later stage, he skipped the replication process and simply exhibited 500 actual boxes. By reproducing soup cans he also challenged retinal art: if you repeat the same image 50 times you are not interested in the image, but in the concept of the creation. A true artistic son of Duchamp.

Lesser known – but with a self-conscious nod to his generation’s indebtedness to Duchamp – Japanese artist Nobutaka Aozaki created Children of Duchamp. This installation series re-imagines the Duchampian bicycle wheel using materials from IKEA, Playmobil, Barbie and packaging them as mass-produced products.

Is Peter Blake influenced by Duchamp? The fact that one of the leading figures of British Pop Art created a series of five paintings called The Marcel Duchamp World Tour says it all. In his work, the artist explores various techniques from drawing to painting, and from collage and assemblage to sculpture. For his works he uses paper, found objects, bronze, wood, stone, etc. The series is based on Blake’s idea that wherever Duchamp stopped in the art world, he made a difference. Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy in the painting, the presence of Elvis and the Spice girls: tongue in cheek, iconic images, collage techniques. Again a true epigone.

And I’ll finish with Ai Weiwei. Again the readymade is the centre of attention. His performance of destroying a Han dynasty urn was in the true spirit of Duchamp: direct and controversial. The artist destroys a work of high anthropological value in an act of iconoclasm. But what is the difference between the Cultural Revolution and this individual act? Or painting an antique urn with the logo of Coca Cola? Authentic art destroyed by corporate branding. Controversial, mass-consumption beating art.

These five artists cannot deny their affinity with Duchamp. And to quote the artist: ‘I don’t care about the word art, because it has been so discredited’. The artists above prove that the word ‘art’ might have been discredited, but the act of making art certainly has not.


This paper was written for Oxford University in order to obtain the ‘Certificate of Achievement’ for the course Learning to look at Modern Art.

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