Marcel Duchamp (28 July 1887 – 2 October 1968) was a French artist whose work is most often associated with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. Duchamp's output had considerable influence on the development of post-World War I Western art, and whose advice to modern art collectors helped shape the tastes of the Western art world.
A playful man, Duchamp prodded thought about artistic processes and art marketing, not so much with words, but with actions such as dubbing a urinal "art" and naming it Fountain. He produced relatively few artworks as he quickly moved through the avant-garde rhythms of his time.
The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.
Of Eugene and Lucie Duchamp's seven children, one died as an infant and four became successful artists. Marcel Duchamp was the brother of:
As a child, with his two older brothers already away from home at school in Rouen, Duchamp was closer to his sister Suzanne who was a willing accomplice in the games and activities conjured from his fertile imagination. At 10 years old, Duchamp followed in his brothers' footsteps when he left home and began schooling at Lycée Corneille in Rouen. For the next 7 years he was locked into an educational regime which focused on intellectual development. Though he was not an outstanding student, his best subject was mathematics, and he won two mathematics prizes at the school. He also won a prize for drawing in 1903, and at his commencement in 1904 he won a coveted first prize validating his recent decision to become an artist.
He took drawing classes and learned academic drawing from a teacher, who unsuccessfully attempted to protect his students from Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and other avant-garde influences. However, Duchamp's artist mentor was his brother Jacques Villon, whose fluid and incisive style he sought to imitate. At 14, his first serious art attempts were drawings and watercolors depicting Suzanne Duchamp in various poses and activities. That summer he also painted landscapes in an Impressionist style using oils.
He studied art at Académie Julian (1904 to 1905), but preferred playing billiards to attending classes. During this time Duchamp drew and sold cartoons which reflected his ribald humor. Many of the drawings use visual and/or verbal puns. Such play with words and symbols engaged his imagination for the rest of his life.
Due to his brother Jacques Villon's membership in the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture Duchamp's work hung in the 1908 Salon d'Automne. The following year his work displayed in the Salon des Indépendants. Of Duchamp's pieces in show, critic Guillaume Apollinaire wrote, "... Duchamp's very ugly nudes...", though the two were to become friends. He also became life-long friends with exuberant artist Francis Picabia after meeting him at the 1911 Salon d' Automne, and Picabia proceeded to introduce him the life of fast cars and 'high' living.
In 1911 at his eldest brother Jacques Villon's home in Puteaux the Duchamp brothers hosted regular discussion group with other artists and writers including Francis Picabia, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Roger de la Fresnaye, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Juan Gris, and Alexander Archipenko. The group came to be known as the Puteaux Group, and the artists' work dubbed Orphic cubism. Uninterested in the Cubists' seriousness and their focus on visual matters, he did not join Cubist theory conversations, and gained a reputation of being shy. However, that same year he painted in a Cubist style and added his impression of movement by repeating imagery.
During this period Duchamp's fascination with transition, change, movement and distance began to manifest, and like many artists of the time he was intrigued with the concept of the 4th dimension and depicting it.
Works from this period included his first "machine" painting, Coffee Mill (Moulin à café) (1911), which he gave to his brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon. The Coffee Mill shows similarity to the "grinder" mechanism of the Large Glass he was to paint years later.
In his 1911 Portrait of Chess Players (Portrait de joueurs d'echecs) there is the Cubist overlapping frames and multiple perspectives of his two brothers playing chess, but to that Duchamp added elements conveying the unseen mental activity of the players. (Notably, "échec" is French for "failure".)
He first submitted the piece to appear at the Cubist Salon des Indépendants, but jurist Albert Gleizes asked Duchamp's brothers to have him voluntarily withdraw the painting, or paint over the title that he had painted on the work and rename it something else. His brothers did approach him with Gleizes' request, and Duchamp quietly refused. Of the incident Duchamp later recalled, "I said nothing to my brothers. But I went immediately to the show and took my painting home in a taxi. It was really a turning point in my life, I can assure you. I saw that I would not be very much interested in groups after that."
Later he submitted the painting to the 1913 Armory Show in New York City -- officially the International Exhibition of Modern Art -- which displayed works of American artists and was the first major exhibition of the modern trends coming out of Paris. American show-goers, accustomed to realistic art, were scandalized, and the Nude was at the center of much of the controversy.
Duchamp also credited the stage adaptation of Raymond Roussel's 1910 novel, Impressions d'Afrique which featured plots that turned in on themselves, word play, surrealistic sets and humanoid machines with radically changing his approach to art, and inspiring him to begin his creation of The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass).
While in Germany in 1912 he painted the last of his Cubist-like paintings and a "bride stripped bare by her bachelors" image, and began making plans for the Large Glass — scribbling short notes to himself, sometimes with hurried sketches, but it would be over 10 years before the piece was completed. Little else is known about the two-month stay in Germany except that the friend he visited was intent to show him the sights and the night life.
Later that year he travelled with Picabia, Apollinaire and Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia through the Jura mountains, an adventure that Buffet-Picabia described as one of their "forays of demoralization, which were also forays of witticism and clownery ... the disintegration of the concept of art." Duchamp's notes from the trip avoid logic and sense with a sort of surrealistic mythical flavor.
Duchamp painted few canvases after 1912, and in those he did, he attempted to remove "painterly" effects, and instead used a technical drawing approach.
His broad interests took him to an exhibition of aviation technology during this period, and about it Duchamp said to his friend Constantin Brancusi, "Painting is washed up. Who will ever do anything better than that propellor? Tell me, can you do that?" Brancusi later sculpted bird forms that U.S. Customs officials mistook for aviation parts and for which they attempted to collect import duties.
During this decade Duchamp began working as a librarian in the Bibliotèque Sainte-Geneviève where he earned a living wage and withdrew from painting circles into scholarly realms. He studied math and physics – areas where exciting new discoveries were taking place. The theoretical writings of Henri Poincaré particularly intrigued and inspired Duchamp. Poincaré postulated that the laws believed to govern matter were created solely by the minds that "understood" them and no theory could be considered "true." "The things themselves are not what science can reach..., but only the relations between things. Outside of these relations there is no knowable reality", Poincaré wrote in 1902.
Duchamp's own art-science experiments began during his tenure at the library. To make one of his favorite pieces, 3 Standard Stoppages (3 stoppages étalon), one at a time from a height of 1 meter, he dropped three 1-meter lengths of thread onto a prepared canvases. They landed in three random undulating positions. He varnished them into place on the blue-black canvas strips and attached them to glass. Then he cut three wood slats into the shapes of the curved strings, and put all the pieces into a croquet box. Three small leather signs with the title printed in gold were glued to each of the "stoppage" backgrounds. The piece appears to literally follow Poincaré's School of the Thread, part of a book on classical mechanics.
Work on The Large Glass continued into 1913 with his invention of inventing a repertoire of forms with notes, sketches and painted studies, and even drawing some of his ideas on the wall of his apartment.
In his studio he mounted a bicycle wheel upside down onto a stool, spinning it occasionally just to watch it. Later he denied that its creation was purposeful, though it has come to be known as the first of his readymades. "I enjoyed looking at it", he said. "Just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in the fireplace."
After World War I was declared in 1914, with his brothers and many friends in military service and himself exempted, Paris felt uncomfortable to Duchamp. He decided to emigrate to the then neutral United States. To his surprise he found he was a celebrity when he arrived in New York in 1915 where he quickly befriended art patron Katherine Dreier and artist Man Ray. Duchamp's circle also included art patrons Louise and Walter Conrad Arensberg, actress and artist Beatrice Wood and his friend Francis Picabia, as well as other avant-garde figures. Though he spoke little English in the course of supporting himself by giving French lessons and some library work, he quickly learned the language.
For two years the Arensbergs who remained his friends and patrons for 42 years were the landlords to his studio with payment to be The Large Glass. He turned down an offer of $10,000 per year for all of his yearly production made by an art gallery preferring to work on The Large Glass.
By this time Walter Pach, one of the coordinators of the 1913 Armory Show, sought Duchamp's advice on modern art, and beginning with Société Anonyme Dreier depended on his counsel in gathering her collection, as did Arensberg. Later Peggy Guggenheim, Museum of Modern Art directors Alfred Barr and James Johnson Sweeney consulted with Duchamp on their modern art collections and shows.
New York Dada had a less serious tone than that of Europe, and was not a particularly organized venture. Duchamp's friend Picabia connected with the Dada group in Zürich, bringing to New York the Dada ideas of absurdity and anti-art. Together with Man Ray and many from the group that met almost nightly at the Arensberg home or caroused in Greenwich Village, Duchamp contributed his ideas about art and his humor to the New York activities, much of which ran concurrent with the development of readymades and The Large Glass. (See also found art.)
Duchamp and Dada are most often connected by his submission of Fountain, a urinal, to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit in 1917. The Independent Artists shows were unjuried and all pieces that were submitted were displayed. However, the show committee said that Fountain was not art and rejected it from the show causing an uproar amongst the Dadaists and led Duchamp to resign from the board of the Independent Artists.
Back in Paris after World War I, Duchamp did not participate in the Dada group.
In 1915 Duchamp began doing his "readymades" — found objects he chose and presented as art. He assembled the first readymade, a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool, in 1913 about the same time as his Nude Descending A Staircase was attracting the attention of critics at the International Exhibition of Modern Art, though it wasn't until two years later he called it a readymade.
Bottle Rack (1914), a bottle drying rack signed by Duchamp, is considered to be the first "pure" readymade. Prelude to a Broken Arm (November 1915), a snow shovel, followed soon after. In 1919, Duchamp made a Mona Lisa parody by adorning a cheap reproduction with a moustache and a goatee, as well as adding the rude inscription L.H.O.O.Q., when read out loud in French sounds like "Elle a chaud au cul" (translating to "she has a hot ass" as a manner of implying the woman in the painting is in a state of sexual excitement and availability). This was intended as a Freudian joke, referring to Leonardo da Vinci's alleged homosexuality. According to Rhonda Roland Shearer, the apparent reproduction is in fact a copy partly modelled on Duchamp's own face.
His Fountain, the urinal signed with the pseudonym R. Mutt that shocked the art world in 1917, was selected in 2004 as "the most influential artwork of the 20th century" by 500 renowned artists and historians.
Research published in 1997 by Rhonda Roland Shearer speculates that Duchamp's "found" objects may actually have been created by Duchamp. (See Readymades of Marcel Duchamp.)
Duchamp carefully created The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), working on the piece from 1915 to 1923 except when he was in Buenos Aires and Paris in 1918-1920. He executed the work on two panes of glass with materials such as lead foil, fuse wire, and dust. It combines chance procedures, plotted perspective studies, and laborious craftsmanship. His notes for the piece, published as The Green Box, reflect the creation of unique rules of physics, and myth which describes the work, and describe that his "hilarious picture" is intended to depict the erratic encounter between a bride, and her nine bachelors.
In 1920, with help from Man Ray, Duchamp built what has come to be known as Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics) (Rotative plaque de verre). The piece, which he did not consider art, involved a motor to spin pieces of rectangular glass on which were painted segments of a circle. When the apparatus spins, the circle segments appear to be closed concentric circles. (Animation of Rotary Glass Plates)
Man Ray set up to photograph the initial experiment, but when they turned the machine on for the second time, a belt broke, caught a piece of the glass which after glancing off of Man Ray's head, crashed into bits.
After moving back to Paris in 1923, at André Breton's urging and the financing of Jacques Doucet, he built another optical device based on the first one - Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics) This time the optical element was a globe cut in half with black concentric circles painted on it. When it spins the circles appear to move backwards and forwards in space. Duchamp asked that Doucet not exhibit the apparatus as art.
Rotoreliefs were the next phase of Duchamp's spinning works. To make the optical "play toys" he painted designs on flat cardboard circles and spun them on a phonographic turntable that when spinning the flat disks appeared 3-dimensional. He had a printer run off 500 sets of six of the designs and set up a booth at a 1935 Paris inventors' show to sell them. The venture was a financial disaster, but some optical scientists thought they might be of use in restoring 3-dimensional sight to people with one eye. (Animated display of the Rotoreliefs)
Later, in Alexander Calder's studio in 1931, while looking at the sculptor's kinetic works Duchamp suggested that he call them "mobiles" which Calder did for his upcoming show. To this day this type of sculpture is called "mobiles".
Rrose Sélavy, also spelled Rose Sélavy, was one of Duchamp's pseudonyms. The name, a pun, sounds like the French phrase "Eros, c'est la vie", which translates to English as "Eros, such is life". It has also been read as "arroser la vie" ("to make a toast to life").
Sélavy emerged in 1921 in a series of photographs by Man Ray of Duchamp dressed as a woman. Through the 1920s Man Ray and Duchamp collaborated on more photos of Sélavy. Duchamp later used the name as the byline on written material and signed several creations with it. Duchamp used the name in the title of at least one sculpture, Why Not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy?. The sculpture, a type of readymade called an assemblage, consists of an oral thermometer, a couple dozen small cubes of marble resembling sugar cubes inside a birdcage.
The inspiration of the name Rrose Sélavy has been viewed to be Belle da Costa Greene, J.P. Morgan's librarian of The Morgan Library & Museum (formerly The Pierpont Morgan Library) who, following his death, became the Library's director, working there for a total of forty-three years. Empowered by J.P. Morgan, and then by his son Jack, Greene built the collection buying and selling rare manuscripts, books and art.
Not only did he design the 1925 Poster for the Third French Chess Championship, but he finished the event at fifty percent (3-3, with two draws), and thus earned the title of chess master. During this period his fascination with chess distressed his first wife so much that she glued his pieces to the board, which possibly contributed to their divorce four months later. He went on to play in the French Championships and also in the Olympiads from 1928-1933, favoring hypermodern openings like the Nimzo-Indian. Sometime in the early 1930s, Duchamp realized that he had reached the height of his ability and had no real chance of winning recognition in top-level chess. Over the following years, the intensity of his participation in chess tournaments declined but he discovered correspondence chess and became a chess journalist writing weekly newspaper columns.
In 1932 Duchamp teamed up with fellow chess theorist Halberstadt to publish "L'opposition et cases conjuguées sont réconciliées" (Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled). This treatise describes the Lasker-Reichhelm position, a unique and extremely rare position that can arise in the endgame of a chess game. In conclusion, the authors observe that the most Black can hope for is a draw. Given accurate play by White, Black can only succeed in delaying the progress of events, ultimately losing to White. They demonstrate this fact by plotting the game play on enneagram-like charts that fold in upon themselves. Grasping the central theme of this work, the endgame, is an important key to understanding Duchamp's complex attitude towards his artistic career. While his contemporaries were achieving spectacular success in the art world by selling their visions to high society collectors and trend setters, Duchamp observed "I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art - and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position." Duchamp can be seen, very briefly, playing chess with Man Ray in the short film Entr'acte (1924) by Rene Clair.
His theme of the endgame was picked up by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett who used it as the narrative device for his commercially successful 1957 play of the same name, "Endgame". One of Duchamp's most notable chess games occurred in 1968, at a concert called "Reunion" at Ryerson University in Toronto. His opponent was the avant-garde composer and event organizer John Cage. The music was produced by a series of photoelectric cells underneath each square of the chessboard which were sporadically triggered during normal game play.
On choosing a career in chess Duchamp had this to say: "If Bobby Fischer came to me for advice, I certainly would not discourage him - as if anyone could - but I would try to make it positively clear that he will never have any money from chess, live a monk-like existence and know more rejection than any artist ever has, struggling to be known and accepted."
On 8 June 1927, Duchamp married Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor, and they divorced six months later on 25 January 1928. It was gossiped at the time that it was a marriage of convenience for Duchamp, because she was the daughter of a wealthy automobile manufacturer. Early in January 1928 Duchamp told Lydie that he could no longer bear the responsibility and confinement of marriage, and a little over three weeks later they were divorced.
From the mid-1930s onwards he collaborated with the Surrealists and participated in their exhibitions. However, he did not join the movement despite André Breton's coaxing. From then until 1944, together with Max Ernst, Eugenio Granell and Breton, he edited the Surrealist periodical VVV, and also served as an advisory editor for View magazine which featured him in its March 1945 edition which introduced him to many Americans.
In 1954, he and Alexina "Teeny" Sattler married, and they remained together until his death.
Duchamp became a United States citizen in 1955 but his influence on the art world remained behind the scenes until the late 1950s when he was "discovered" by young artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns who were eager to escape the dominance of Abstract Expressionism.
Interest in Duchamp reignited in the 1960s, and he gained international public recognition. 1963 saw his first retrospective exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum, and in 1966 the Tate Gallery hosted a large exhibit of his work. Other major institutions, including the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, followed with large showings of Duchamp's work. He was invited to lecture on art and participate in formal discussions, as well as sitting for interviews with major publications.
The last surviving member of the Duchamp family of artists, in Rouen in 1967 Duchamp helped organize an exhibition called "Les Duchamp: Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Marcel Duchamp, Suzanne Duchamp." Some of this family exhibition was later shown at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris.
The surrealists wanted to create an exhibition which in itself would be a creative act and called on Duchamp to do so. At the exhibition's entrance he placed Salvador Dalí's Rainy Taxi (an old taxi rigged to produce a steady drizzle of water down the inside of the windows, and a shark-headed creature in the driver's seat and a blond mannequin crawling with live snails in the back) greeted the patrons who were in full evening dress. Surrealist Street filled one side of the lobby with mannequins dressed by various surrealists. He designed the main hall to seem like subterranean cave with 1,200 coal bags suspended from the ceiling over a coal brazier with a single light bulb which provided the only lighting, so patrons were given flashlights with which to view the art. Wolfgang Paalens installation underneath was composed of limp oak leaves and a water-filled pond with actual water lilies and reed, and the aroma of roasting coffee filled the air. Around midnight in the crazy gleam of the pale light cones the visitors witness the dancing shimmer of a sparsely dressed girl who suddenly arises from the reed, jumps on the bed, abruptly lapses into a hysterical shriek - an idea of Dali -, and disappears just as quickly.
Much to the surrealists' satisfaction the exhibition scandalized the viewers.
1942 - For the First Papers of Surrealism show in New York, surrealists again called on Duchamp to design the exhibition. This time he wove a 3-dimensional web of string throughout the rooms of the space, in some cases making it almost impossible to see the works. He made a secret arrangement with an associate's son to bring his friends to the opening of the show, so that when the finely dressed patrons arrived they found a dozen children in athletic clothes kicking and passing balls, and skipping rope. His design for the show's catalog included "found", rather than posed, photographs of the artists.
Duchamp worked secretly on the piece from 1946 to 1966 in his Greenwich Village studio while even his closest friends thought he had abandoned art.
However, it had actually been written in a letter to him in 1961 by fellow Dadaist Hans Richter, but in the second person not the first, i.e. "You threw... etc". In the margin next to it, Duchamp had written, "Ok, ça va très bien" ("that's really fine"). Richter did not make this clear for many years.
Duchamp's attitude is actually far more favourable as his words in 1964 evidence:
Perhaps in tribute, surrealist Salvador Dalí wrote a preface to Pierre Cabanne's Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, a transcription of interviews between Cabanne and Duchamp. In it, Dalí oddly writes "Marcel Duchamp spoke to me, during the course of the Second World War (traveling between Arcachon and Bordeaux) of a new interest in the preparation of shit, of which the small excretions from the navel are the "deluxe" editions. To this I replied that I wished to have genuine shit, from the navel of Raphael. Today Pop artist Verona sells artists' shit in very sophisticated packaging as a luxury item." ,
A testimony to the influence of Duchamp's work and the mark he left on the art world, in December 2004, Duchamp's Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 well-established artists and critics in the British art world.
In April 2008 British artist James Robert Ford exhibited a solo show of his work at FERREIRA PROJECTS, London, entitled Duchamp played Chess; I Made Cranes, in reference to Duchamp's (supposed) abandonment of art for chess.
Essays by Duchamp
Essays about Duchamp
Lydie Fischer Sarazin-Levassor, A Marriage in Check. The Heart of the Bride Stripped by her Bachelor, even, Les presses du réel, Dijon (France), 2007.
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Gerald Reiner's powerful kill glancing off the arms of a Teaneck defender attempting a block. Reiner combined with teammate Dan Lattanzi 10 kills, five blocks, and 13 service points as Lakeland remain
May 09, 1998; The Record (Bergen County, NJ) 05-09-1998 Gerald Reiner's powerful kill glancing off the arms of a Teaneck defender attemptinga...