June 2019

by Miriam Cosic

‘The Essential Duchamp’ at the Art Gallery of NSW
A comprehensive exhibition of the 20th century’s most influential artist

George Karger, Duchamp descending a staircase (1946), gelatin silver print, 34.3 x 27.3 cm. © Philadelphia Museum of Art

Marcel Duchamp was a pivotal figure in 20th-century culture. And not just in visual arts. His shadow still looms over performance art, post-punk, literary deconstruction and cultural criticism, as well as a range of art movements that have come and gone, from dada to fluxus to pop art. You just have to think of John Cage’s 4'33" of silence, or Andy Warhol’s soup cans, or the stills of Ai Weiwei smashing pots to get it. “Marcel Duchamp has already done everything there is to do – except video,” the South Korean conceptual artist Nam June Paik once said. “Only through video art can we get ahead of Marcel Duchamp.”

Duchamp was born in the Blainville-Crevon commune in 1887. His maternal grandfather was a painter, and his own immediate family was musical, bookish, art-loving and chess-playing. By his early twenties he was already experimenting with Cubism, and his interest in machinery and movement evoked the Italian Futurists, though he wasn’t part of their proto-fascist scene.

And yet Duchamp was late to celebrity, which only came once he’d moved from France to America. Paris, the centre of the avant-garde, didn’t get him. His own brothers, fellow artists, didn’t get him. Only when he had a succès de scandale in New York in 1913 did he become famous on that continent, though they didn’t really get him either. The American artist Robert Motherwell said in 1974: “I would say that one of the most astonishing things in my lifetime as an artist is his prominence. Thirty years ago, if somebody had said to me, ‘He may become the major influence on the art scene,’ I’d have said, ‘You’re out of your mind,’ and most of my judgments were quite accurate then.”

The Essential Duchamp at the Art Gallery of New South Wales is a chance to understand the depth and breadth of Duchamp’s thinking and his enduring importance. It contains 125 works from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which holds the largest collection of the artist’s works in the world. According to Matthew Affron, curator of modern art at the museum and editor of the excellent, compact exhibition catalogue, such a comprehensive show of Duchamp’s work hasn’t been put together since the 1970s.

The exhibition certainly seems to hold every important piece of Duchamp’s work that isn’t nailed down in Philadelphia. There are famed and celebrated paintings, such as Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, and a slew of “readymades”, including the infamous Fountain, a urinal signed as “R. Mutt”, and the eponymous upturned bicycle wheel. There are also less famous works, such as his impressive teenage paintings: the lovely impressionist Church at Blainville he made when he was 15, and a better known fauvist painting of his father.

There are photographs of Duchamp’s drag alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, magazine covers he designed, posters and notebooks, reassembled vitrines full of papers. Chess, his second career – he was a competitive champion – has a presence. There are photos by his friend Man Ray and other memorabilia.

One might have liked to see Duchamp’s uncanny painting on glass called The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923), otherwise known as The Large Glass. But quite apart from being fragile – it has already been broken once and was repaired by Duchamp himself – it is concreted to the floor in the Philadelphia museum. There is a fascinating video at the exhibition, however, of Duchamp talking about the making and remaking of it.

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) made his name. It was rejected by the Salon des Indépendants’ 1912 exhibition in Paris, the annual avant-garde alternative to the stuffy academy. His own brothers, on the hanging committee, were dispatched to Normandy to let him know. “I said nothing to my brothers,” Duchamp told his American biographer, Calvin Tomkins. “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.” That’s not all he lost interest in: in 1913, he trained to be a librarian and started work at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève.

But, a year later, the painting was included in the Amory show in New York and was an immediate sensation. Again, conservatives didn’t know what they were looking at. American Art News offered a $10 reward to the first reader who could “find the lady”. Newspaper cartoonists went to town: one drew an “Explosion in a Shingle Factory”, another, “The Rude Descending the Staircase (Rush Hour at the Subway)”. The following year, having been declared medically unfit for the army at the start of World War One, he decamped to America.

The piece’s intellectual depth is what we see today. Duchamp was fascinated by the time-lapse photography of Étienne-Jules Marey in France, and Eadweard Muybridge and Thomas Eakins in the United States. The Nude Descending, clearly indebted to cubism, goes a step further: the shaded outlines and intersecting planes – painted with mechanical precision and evoking seven moments in the figure’s descent, loosely linked at waist height by a series of kinetic dashes – conjure movement. The painting is still mesmerising in our age of video and VR.

Five years later, when Duchamp turned a urinal on its side, then signed and exhibited it, the art world exploded again. He made a series of readymades and remade many for convenience: originality and authorship were clearly not an issue. Even now, pondering Fountain and Bottle Rack and Bicycle Wheel in Sydney forces one to consider questions about the nature and purpose of art that we’re still answering. What does make a physical object art?

That was the end of “retinal art” for Duchamp – art that appealed to the eye and not the intellect – and the end of calm contemplation of beauty in art for the rest of us into the foreseeable future.

Duchamp dabbled in teaching, curating and promoting art. Competitive chess eventually became his main game, though in the late 1960s he astonished the art world once more with the unveiling of another scandalous work: his Étant donnés, an eerie take on Courbet’s L’Origine du monde, visible only through a peephole. Like The Bride Stripped Bare, this couldn’t make the trip from Philadelphia.

Duchamp moved between Paris and New York for most of his life, though he became an American citizen in 1955. Americans like to call him a French–American artist. For the French, of course, he is French. In fact, he was utterly cosmopolitan. His friends and collaborators included Guillaume Apollinaire, Francis Picabia, Man Ray and John Cage, and the Sydney exhibition fills out the contours of his fascinating personal as well as artistic connections.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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