French Painter and Sculptor
Movements:, , ,
Born: July 28, 1887 - Normandy, France
Died: October 2, 1968 - Neuilly-sur-Seine, France
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"You cannot define electricity. The same can be said of art. It is a kind of inner current in a human being, or something which needs no definition."
Few artists can boast having changed the course of art history in the way that Marcel Duchamp did. Having assimilated the lessons of Cubism and Futurism, whose joint influence may be felt in his early paintings, he spearheaded the American Dada movement together with his friends and collaborators Picabia and Man Ray. By challenging the very notion of what is art, his first readymades sent shock waves across the art world that can still be felt today. Duchamp's ongoing preoccupation with the mechanisms of desire and human sexuality as well as his fondness for wordplay aligns his work with that of Surrealists, although he steadfastly refused to be affiliated with any specific artistic movement per se. In his insistence that art should be driven by ideas above all, Duchamp is generally considered to be the father of Conceptual art. His refusal to follow a conventional artistic path, matched only by a horror of repetition which accounts for the relatively small number of works Duchamp produced in the span of his short career, ultimately led to his withdrawal from the art world. In later years, Duchamp famously spent his time playing chess, even as he labored away in secret at his last enigmatic masterpiece, which was only unveiled after his death in 1968.
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The most notorious of the readymades, Fountain was submitted to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists under the pseudonym R. Mutt. The initial R stood for Richard, French slang for "moneybags" whereas Mutt referred to JL Mott Ironworks, the New York-based company, which manufactured the porcelain urinal. After the work had been rejected by the Society on the grounds that it was immoral, critics who championed it disputed this claim, arguing that an object was invested with new significance when selected by an artist for display. Testing the limits of what constitutes a work of art, Fountain staked new grounds. What started off as an elaborate prank designed to poke fun at American avant-garde art, proved to be one of most influential artworks of the 20th century.
Urinal - Philadelphia Museum of Art
Marcel Duchamp was raised in Normandy, in a family of artists. His father was mayor of Blainville and his mother raised their seven children and painted landscapes depicting the French countryside. Family time was spent playing chess, reading, painting, and playing music. One of Marcel's earliest artworks, Landscape at Blainville (1902), painted at age fifteen, reflected his family's love of Claude Monet. Marcel was close to his two older brothers, and in 1904, after both had left home to become artists, he joined them in Paris to study painting at Académie Julian. His brother, Jacques Villon, supported him during his studies, and Marcel earned some income by working as a cartoonist. Duchamp's early drawings evince his ongoing interest in visual and verbal puns.
Paris in the early 1900s was the ideal place for Duchamp to become acquainted with modern trends in painting. Duchamp studied Fauvism, Cubism, and Impressionism, and was captivated by new approaches to color and structure. He related above all to the Cubist notion of reordering reality, rather than simply representing it. His early paintings, such as Nude Descending A Staircase (1912), illustrate Duchamp's interest in machinery and its connection to the body's movement through space, implicit in early Modernism. However, Duchamp was most attracted to avant-garde notions of the artist as an anti-academic, and felt an affinity in this respect with one of his early heroes, the Symbolist painter and graphic artist, Odilon Redon. Early in his career, Duchamp developed a taste for the mysterious allure of Symbolist subject matter, such as the woman as elusive femme fatale. This deep-seated interest in the themes and exploration of sexual identity and desire would lead Duchamp toward Dadaism and Surrealism.
In 1911, the twenty-five-year-old Marcel Duchamp met Francis Picabia, and the following year attended a theater adaptation of Raymond Roussel's Impressions d'Afrique with Picabia and Guillaume Apollinaire. This experience, and Roussel's inventive plots and puns in particular, made a deep impression on Duchamp. He noted that, for the first time, he "felt that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter." This interest in cross-genre pollination would become one of the underlying ideas of Dada, as would his outright rejection of a conventional artistic path.
Duchamp devoted seven years - 1915 to 1923 - to planning and executing one of his two major works, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, or The Large Glass. This installation of machinery wedged between glass panels was Duchamp's first "aesthetic manifesto," marking his rejection of outmoded painterly obsessions with pleasing the eye (in a theory he called the "Retinal Shudder"). His series of readymades also sought to redefine art, or at least to question what art was. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, or The Large Glass thematically investigated eroticism and desire, which was typical of Duchamp's oeuvre. The work served as a gateway to his later found-object sculptures and facsimile publications.
In 1915, Duchamp immigrated to New York, and while finishing his Bride, conceived and manufactured several readymades. By signing them, Duchamp laid claim to found objects, such as a snow shovel, a urinal, or bicycle wheels. These objects, tied symbolically to themes of desire, eroticism and childhood memory, were designed to show the absurdity of canonizing avant-garde art practice. As Surrealism became popular in France, Duchamp traveled between New York and Paris, participating in printed textual projects, sculptural installations, and collaborations in all mediums with Dadaists and Surrealists. As of 1920, Duchamp adopted an alternate female persona, Rrose Selavy, to fully explore ideas of sexual identity. He continued to make readymades and exhibited his famous Bottle Rack series - an edition of eight bottle racks signed by Duchamp - in 1936. Wary of sensationalism following the Bottle Rack display, Duchamp secluded himself and befriended a tight-knit group of artists, including Man Ray, who photographed Duchamp many times throughout his life. For over twenty years, Duchamp labored in complete secrecy at his second masterwork, Etant donnes, an elaborate, sexualized diorama (the work is currently permanently installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art). He shunned the public eye, preferring instead to play chess with select guests until his death in 1968.
After he withdrew from the art world, Duchamp remained a passive, if influential, presence in New York avant-garde circles until he was rediscovered in the 1950s by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Duchamp's insistence that art should be an expression of the mind rather than the eye or the hand spoke to Minimalists and Conceptual artists alike. It ushered in a new era summed up by Joseph Kosuth's claim that "all art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually." The seminal concept of the mass-produced readymade was eagerly seized upon not only by Andy Warhol and other Pop artists who claimed Duchamp as their founding father but also, owing to its performative aspects, by Fluxus, Arte Povera and Performance artists. Duchamp's radical critique of art institutions made him a cult figure for generations of artists who, like him, refused to go down the path of a conventional, commercial artistic career. Though his work was admired for its wide-ranging use of artistic materials and mediums, it is the theoretical thrust of Duchamp's eclectic but relatively limited output that accounts for his growing impact on successive waves of twentieth-century avant-garde movements and individual artists who openly acknowledged his influence.
Influences and Connections
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Artists, Friends, Movements
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Marcel Duchamp
| Defining Modern Art |
Take a look at the big picture of modern art, and Duchamp's role in it.
| Dialogues With Marcel Duchamp |
By Pierre Cabanne
| The Duchamp Effect |
By Martha Buskirk, Mignon Nixon
| Marcel Duchamp: Works, Writings, Inteviews |
By Gloria Moure, Marcel Duchamp
| Duchamp: A Biography |
By Calvin Tomkins
| Marcel Duchamp: The Bride Stripped Bare |
By Alice Goldfarb Marquis
| Art Science Research Laboratory |
Organization with 3 Duchamp-related initiatives including the Marcel Duchamp World Community and the Tout-Fait The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal
| MarcelDuchamp.org |
| Marcel Duchamp's Work |
| Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp |
| Anything Goes |
By Matthew Collings
| Precision Optics/Optical Illusions |
By Michael Betancourt
| Face Value |
By Blane Gopnik