Born July 28, 1887 in Blainville-Crevon, France, Marcel Duchamp grew up in a cultured family and thus was raised in a stimulating environment filled with chess, artwork, books and music. He had six siblings, four of whom would eventually also make their careers as artists. When he was 8 years old, he began studying at the Lycee Pierre-Corneille in Rouen, where he would remain for eight more years. There, he won two mathematics prizes, a drawing prize, and in his final year, a first place art prize which marked his decision to become an artist. Over his life, he would split a lot of his time between Europe and the United States (he got U.S. citizenship at the age of 68). He had extremely wide-ranging interests–making paintings, composing music, writing, creating “readymades” and kinetic art, and playing chess–all of which were bound by the visionary intellectuality and avant-garde nature which permeated all of his endeavors. His latter hobby of chess eventually took the forefront, and in the 1920s, he rejected his career as an artist for one as a chess player. He never completely stopped doing art, though, and he died October 2, 1968 in Neuilly-sure-Seine France at the age of 81. Always the humorist, his tombstone says “D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent” (Besides, it’s always the others who die).
Although I have placed Duchamp under the Futurism category, he (at least in the early phase of his career) toed the line between Cubism and Futurism. The Cubists approached their subjects with a detached and analytical eye: instead of trying to express their inner feelings (Expressionists/Fauvists) or depict outward impressions (Impressionists), they sought to depict their objects by translating their 3-D elements onto a 2-D canvas. They did this by showing their subject from multiple perspectives by depicting all of its surfaces (ex: a cube would have 6 surfaces) and by otherwise breaking up, then reassembling the object into a more abstract form. This “fragmented” look characteristic of their paintings, was emphasized by their use of simplified forms, such as cubes, spheres, cylinders and cones, and shapes. Many of Duchamp’s works would be made in Cubist style, but he often added a Futurist twist (see next section).
The Futurism movement, which originated in Italy in 1908 (only one year after the Cubism movement), glorified modernity. Much of their inspiration came from the industrialization and technological growth which marked that period, along with the themes of violence, youth and speed. With regards to the latter, they especially focused on depicting the intricacies of rhythm and motion.
Style, Subject Matter, Technique & Their Influences:
Duchamp is most known for the radical works of his later career, but even his earlier Cubist-inspired works showed the beginnings of the groundbreaking approach to viewing and thinking of art which made him so famous. Some of his first few Cubist-style works, such as Sonata (1911), depicted the subjects with multiple planes. He accomplished this by using broad and sharply formed swathes of color, although he did not use the more fragmented, linear planes characteristic of some of his later, more typical Cubist paintings (ex: Portrait of Chess Players (1911)). All of these works had a limited color palette, which put the focus not so much on the reality of the subject (for example, through the use of gradients to show perspective and form) as on the “true nature” of the subject. Because although these depictions were not realistic, the contradiction of their 3-D nature with the 2-D canvas emphasized the flatness of painting itself as a medium. As such, by eliminating any “artistic illusions,” they revealed the limitations of the canvas, which in turn emphasized the true 3-D nature of the subjects.
However, up until now, Cubist paintings only portrayed static objects, where everything fit together like pieces of stained glass. This is where Duchamp began to foray into Futurism: he sought to depict motion. How? Instead of depicting the subject in one moment of time from several perspectives, he depicted it from one perspective through several moments of time. The paintings Sad young man in a train (1911) and Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912) demonstrate this radical approach to painting, where the idea of motion is rendered through the use of repetitive imagery–similar to the frames of a film.
In addition to his portrayal of motion, Duchamp’s subject matter also veered more into the radical, youth-centered themes of Futurism. After reading Kandinsky’s book On the Spiritual in Art, he rejected the Expressionist artist’s idea of purely abstracted art as the ideal form of painting, seeking instead to depict sensuality (“Eroticism is close to life, closer than philosophy or anything like that, it’s an animal thing that has many facets and is pleasing to use,” Duchamp would later say). This theme of sexuality is prominent in many of his works, such as Portrait (Dulcinea) (1911) and The Passage from Virgin to Bride (1912). The former painting depicts a woman he had noticed on the streets and then proceeded to mentally undress. Indeed, each version of the woman bears less and less clothes.
Duchamp eventually moved to more conceptual works, such as his “readymades” and kinetic pieces, but regardless of the style and medium, he always turned traditional notions of art on its head.
Compared Artist (21st Century):
Ali Kay is an artist based in Chattanooga, TN who founded her own decorative painting company called Positive Space. She specializes in murals and has won numerous awards from the American Society of Interior Designers. I can’t find her birthday, but based on what I’ve read, she is around 31 years old.
Her paintings reminded me of Duchamp’s through their use of a limited color palette and through their feeling of motion. In the first painting, the broad waves of color (ex: the white/gray portion of the first painting) use nuanced hues to depict movement, but aren’t so dissimilar so as to look like a static, scattered collage. Similarly, the air in the second painting looks like it is moving through its use of curvy pieces. Like Duchamp, she merges some technical elements of Cubism with some conceptual elements of Futurism.
Journey of the Crane (no date available), no medium available, 30 x 40 in
Nightlife (no date available), no medium available, 23 x 41 in
I remember seeing an artist’s piece a few years ago, which was something along the lines of a regular cup and a fork, in a modern art exhibit and taking it as kind of an affront to art. The more I looked through the exhibit, the more it seemed like making a modern art piece was as simple as putting a piece of fruit on a shelf and labeling “Fruit”. I felt like it was too thoughtless, and too easy. But although that opinion hasn’t completely changed, I definitely respect Duchamp’s artistic works since he was the one that started it all (like with his “Fountain” piece)! It is inspiring how he tried to make art that wasn’t necessarily aesthetically pleasing, but was intellectually stimulating. And whether it was the Cubist/Futurist paintings of his earlier years or the pieces of his later years, he always made people think.
“What is art?” is an important question that is often not addressed, and he brought it to the forefront of the art scene throughout his career. His use of a traditional concept’s marking characteristics to subvert that concept’s very own tradition (ex: the use of Cubism’s fragmented, repetitive characteristics to depict motion, which was contrary to the movement’s usual static portrayals) no doubt required an independent and intelligent mind. It’s no surprise, then, that is often cited as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century
Young Marcel Duchamp (1917)
Marcel Duchamp (left) playing electronic chess with John Cage (1968)
Portrait (Dulcinea) (1911), oil on canvas, 146.4 x 114 cm
Sonata (1911), oil on canvas, 145 x 113 cm
Portrait of Chess Players (1911), oil on canvas, 108 x 101 cm
Sad young man in a train (1911), oil on cardboard, 100 x 73 cm
The Passage from Virgin to Bride (1912), oil on canvas, 59.4 x 54 cm
Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912), oil on canvas, 147.5 x 89 cm
King and Queen surrounded by swift nudes (1912), oil on canvas, 114.6 x 128.9 cm
Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp. Last modified 2008. http://www.understandingduchamp.com/.
Marcel Duchamp World Community. Last modified 2014. http://www.marcelduchamp.net/.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968).” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Last modified 2013. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/duch/hd_duch.htm.
Museum of Modern Art. “Marcel Duchamp (American, born France. 1887–1968).” The Collection. Last modified 2014. http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A1634&page_number=9&template_id=1&sort_order=1.
Philadelphia Museum of Art. Last modified 2014. http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/51445.html?mulR=5917.
Positive Space. Last modified 2009. http://www.positivespaceart.com.
Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.” Wikipedia. Last modified March 21, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bride_Stripped_Bare_by_Her_Bachelors,_Even.
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