A new interpretation of the paintings of Marcel Duchamp, one of the most iconic figures in 20th century art.
Much has been said about Marcel Duchamp's break with painting, putting forward, as a red herring, the original psychological trauma caused by his Cubist friends' and brothers' rejection of his Nu descendant un escalier for the 1911 Salon des Indépendants. In the light of various iconoclastic, Dadaist gestures and his invention of the ready-made, the creator of Fountain (the "Fountain/urinal") is generally perceived as the artist who killed painting. And yet the debate remains open: was not Duchamp's intention to reformulate it, rather? The Centre Pompidou exhibition now proposes a new interpretation of the paintings of one of the most iconic figures in 20th century art.
La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even) – his "Grand Verre" (Large Glass), an impenetrable and complex work, occupies an ambiguous status in this debate. In it we can read the simultaneous negation and sublimation of painting through an impossible picture.
After Duchamp's death in 1968, the discovery of his last work, Étant donnés 1° la chute d’eau 2° le gaz d’éclairage ("Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas") – which he worked on in secret for 20 years (1946-1966) and whose title, taken from one of the earliest notes in La Boîte verte (or Green Box), clearly asserts a link with the "Grand Verre" and its theme – decidedly clouds the image of an iconoclastic Duchamp. Late works such as the series of erotic moulds and his engravings after the Masters (Prière de toucher ("Please Touch"), 1947; Feuille de vigne femelle ("Female Fig Leaf"), 1950; Objet dard ("Dart Object – pun on Objet d'art"), 1951; Coin de chasteté ("Chastity Wedge"), 1954 and Morceaux choisis ("Chosen Pieces"), 1968) belong to the slow evolution of Étant donnés. This obsessional coherence is evident in the paintings of Duchamp from the very beginning. His artistic path was guided by the desire to reinvent painting: a path based on in-depth research and doubts, total, virtually Romantic commitments and disgusted rejections.
As from his first caricature drawings and nudes of 1910, Duchamp raised the question of "looking", and the relationship between text and image. The erotic atmosphere pervading these works and the theme of voyeurism running through them place his work in a direct line with Manet. At the end of his life, he said: "Everything can be based on an erotic climate, without too much trouble. It replaces what other schools called Symbolism or Romanticism. It could be another "ism", so to speak. Eroticism was a theme, or rather, an "ism", which was the basis of everything I was doing at the time of the "Grand Verre". It kept me from being obliged to return to already existing theories, aesthetic or otherwise." (Marcel Duchamp, conversation with Pierre Cabanne, 1967). The prehistory of the Duchampian theme of La Mariée lay in Aunt Sally-type games of "Noce de Nini pattes-en-l’air" in fairground shows, and licentious films on the hackneyed theme of undressing the bride.
Duchamp's work is that of a thinker and critic: the caricature drawings he produced in the wake of his elder brother Jacques Villon early on established the relationship between the image and the written comment contained in the caption and title: a vector for the irony in his work and the metacritical place of writing. He himself dated his artistic commitment from his visit to the Salon d'Automne of 1905, which staged a retrospective of Manet – "the great man"– and where the scandal of the "Cage aux fauves" (wild beast cage) erupted with the colourful works of Matisse and Derain. While his first nudes evinced an almost loose, Fauvist-style use of colour and draughtsmanship, he rapidly stylised the drawing of his figures and placed them in an abstract and enigmatic context, so as to break with any kind of formalism or naturalism. In 1910 and 1911, with a nod at painters like Félix Vallotton and Pierre Girieud, he produced a cycle of allegorical paintings – Le Paradis, Le Buisson and Baptême – which were decidedly influenced by Matisse's great Arcadian paintings, free of all literary argument or anecdote: Le Luxe of 1907, Les Baigneuses à la tortue of 1910 and La Danse and La Musique of 1910, which struck Duchamp with their impressive "figures in flat tints of red and blue". And so, when he later attributed his reaction against "retinal" painting to the discovery of the allegorical works of Böcklin in the summer of 1912, he forgot that it was an approach he had begun to adopt a long time before.
A singular artist, Duchamp, running counter to his contemporaries and his Fauvist beginnings, then began to look at Symbolism. Seeking to imbue his painting with another, anti-naturalistic dimension, he explored the literature and painting of this fin de siècle movement. When asked about the influence of Cézanne, Duchamp situated his "personal starting point" in the work of Redon, whose Noirs, Mallarmé-like poetic echoes and haloed figures he much admired. Introduced by his circle to extraretinal phenomena associated with radiation, like the "electric halo", and the question of fluids and X-rays, Duchamp surrounded his figures with an aura: a sign in his view "of his subconscious preoccupations with a metarealism": a painting of what was invisible. A little later, in the Grand Verre, he placed his Bride side by side with the "Milky Way", a gigantic cloud, marking her passage from one stage to another. This singular return to Symbolism was based on his literary discoveries, particularly the poetry of Jules Laforgue, whose ironic melancholy and sonnets mingled triviality with wordplay.
It was only at the very end of 1911 that Marcel Duchamp joined the group of Cubists who met at Puteaux on Sundays at the homes of his brothers, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon. At the Salon des Indépendants of 1911, when Metzinger, Gleizes, Léger and Le Fauconnier all came together in room 41 ("the Cubist Room"), Duchamp participated with a post- or neo-Symbolist allegorical painting called Le Buisson (The Bush). Fired by Metzinger's appetite for theories, by the questions of kinetics and geometry – particularly the fourth dimension –, and by the breakdown of movement in Étienne-Jules Marey's chronophotographs, Duchamp produced a series of subtle "diagrammatical" pictures that foreshadowed the series of optical and film works of the Twenties, and reflected Italian Futurist works. Without abandoning his humour and poetic "non-retinal" intentions, he painted a state of mind in Jeune homme triste dans un train ("Sad Young Man in a Train"), the visual medium of a non-Euclidean approach to space and movement; and he wrote the title of his painting Nu descendant un escalier ("Nude descending a Staircase") on the canvas, inferring an ironic shift that met with severe disapproval from the group. This painting made Duchamp's name in America, and featured with other Cubist works of his in the "Golden Section" group's salon bringing together Picabia, Gris, Kupka, his brothers, Léger, Gleizes and Metzinger in October 1912.
Nu descendant un escalier developed the concept of the "mechanical body" so peculiar to Duchamp's painting. The fantasy of the machine was central to the literary and artistic imagination of the beginning of the century. When he visited the Air Show at the end of 1912 with Fernand Léger and Brancusi, Duchamp went into ecstasies over the sculptural perfection of an aeroplane propeller, while his car journey at breakneck speed from Paris to the Jura with Picabia and Apollinaire in October 1912 inspired in him the theme of the "swift nudes" and mecanomorphic hybridisation. The game of chess, of which he was himself a keen player, led – like the explorations in modelling of his brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon in his Cubo-Futurist sculpture Le Cheval – to the crystallisation of a highly personal iconography, mingling the abstract and psychic anticipation of movement with a mechanistic, sexual projection onto the chess pieces: the "swift nude" pawns, the King and the Queen. "If we are talking of beauty, there is a little more of that in chess than in mathematics – the beauty of chess is more plastic (in the sense of the physical form) than in mathematics. In mathematics, "the square is a possibility of squareness". In chess, when you talk of a neat solution to a problem, this comes from abstract thought, which is resolved in the physical form of a king doing this or a queen doing that. As though an abstract thing became alive. The Queen and King become animals that behave according to an abstract thought, but you see the Queen do this – you feel a Queen do that – you touch her…while mathematical beauty always remains abstract. Architectural beauty is not a mathematical beauty." (Marcel Duchamp, Conversation with Sweeney, 1945).
Duchamp achieved another major stage in his artistic development during the summer of 1912, when he was staying in Munich. He visited a number of major European museums in Basel, Vienna, Dresden and Berlin, marshalling his early thoughts for his "Grand Verre": La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même. "My stay in Munich was the scene of my total liberation, while I was laying down the general plan for a large-scale work that was to occupy me for a long time, in respect of all kinds of new technical problems I needed to resolve," he recounts. The Bavarian capital, the Mecca of the esoteric and the technical alike, the birthplace of abstraction with Kandinsky and home to paintings by Cranach, provided him with an environment of new sources on which he based his most accomplished paintings: Le Passage de la Vierge à la Mariée ("The Passage from Virgin to Bride"), and La Mariée. The Queen is replaced by the Bride; the polysemy of the idea of the "passage" – geometrical, chemical, psychological, physiological, sexual and metaphysical – was deliberately set in place, and the meticulous technique of oil on canvas had similarities with the glazes of Cranach's Venuses, foreshadowing the transparency of Le Grand Verre.
Marcel Duchamp's artistic epic came to an end when he decided not to play the role of the artist in society any longer, and worked as assistant librarian at the Sainte-Geneviève library from the spring of 1913 until he left for America in June 1915. Devoted to his large-scale project, he built on his knowledge of geometry, mathematics, perspective, anamorphics and optics, compulsively reading large numbers of ancient books. He wrote copious notes, constructing an intellectual and ironic dialogue with these dead authors (with neologisms, altered quotations, wordplay and sketches), which formed the palimpsest of his Grand Verre. He set the various elements of the work in place using specific technical experiments (wire on canvas, lead wire on glass, unconventional pigments like minium and dust). After the Bride, whom he wanted to feature in the upper register through a photographic transfer, he designed the lower panel – the domain of the Bachelors, with the Chocolate Grinder, and the first studies on glass, including the Nine Malik Moulds. He adopted, a dry precise objective style, like a geometrician, and re-established a symmetrical, frontal perspective. He then paradoxically introduced the subjective part of chance and hazard into the object through the Stoppages-Etalons ("Standard Stoppages") – a strictly personal unit of measurement – and the first Ready-mades, defined by Duchamp as a meeting between the object, an inscription and a given moment, sounding like the words of Mallarmé: "To evoke an object little by little, in order to show a state of mind by means of a series of decodings."
"Le Grand Verre" was the last work that Duchamp was to present to the public: "When I arrived in New York in 1915, I began this painting, taking the different elements and grouping them together in their precise positions. The picture is 2.5 metres high, and consists of two large plates of glass. I began work on it in 1915, but it was only completed in 1923, when I abandoned it in the state it is today. Throughout the time I was painting it, I wrote a huge number of notes, designed to complement the visual experience, like a guide."
A picture that endeavours to capture what eludes the retina… the final picture.