|Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, no. 2,1912|
If it achieves no other of its goals, Marcel Duchamp. La Peinture, Même will put to rest any doubt that the placement of a urinal in a museum display is a gesture filled with brilliance, ingenuity and cultural sophistication. While this exhibition doesn’t really convince me that Duchamp was a great painter, or even a painter to pause over as it sets out to do, it does show Duchamp to have one of the great minds of the twentieth century. Duchamp’s art is not particularly beautiful or seductive, even aesthetically pleasing to look at, but it is intellectually brilliant, and his mind emerges from the exhibition as fascinating. In this respect, Marcel Duchamp. La Peinture, Même shows Duchamp to be an artist on the scale of Leonardo da Vinci, both with their infinite inventions made by minds that move effortlessly between science, engineering, art, architecture, design and painting.
Duchamp was a modern man. He was one of the handful of successful artists of any medium who worked in the first decades of the last century to explore what could not yet be seen by the human eye, what was not yet understood. Duchamp was a man fascinated by the representation of what the human eye could not see: of motion, of desire, of the mystery of the changes brought by technological innovation. Like so much of modernism, Duchamp’s work make visible what is otherwise invisible.
|Marcel Duchamp, the Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, 1915-23|
Another success of the exhibition, even though it is not its intention, is the demonstration of Duchamp working in a vibrant, provocative cultural milieu, even if he is the artist to be annexed today. In fact much of the exhibition is devoted to the cultural and artistic influences on Duchamp’s work. The most exquisite stereoscopic daguerrotypes were on display, showing this medium’s interest in the exhibition of women’s bodies, and also underlining Duchamp’s fascination with looking or peering inside an apparatus, to discover what is otherwise hidden away. The daguerrotypes were by anonymous photographers and Felix Jacques Moulin from around 1850. Étant Donnée (1946-66) which is considered the penultimate achievement of Duchamp’s artistic career, even if it was his last major work, is so clearly influenced by these early daguerrotypes, not just by Courbet’s Origins of the World. Of course, the presence of Marey’s work in Duchamp’s mechanized Nude Descending a Staircase or the various Portrait of Chess Players is not new. But again, the display here spotlights the connections, and brings to the fore how on the pulse Duchamp was to the developments in the new medium.
|Marcel Duchamp, Etant Donnée, 1946-66|
In the paintings there is rarely much to look at in his work. At least, there is no temptation to stand before the paintings for any length of time. Duchamp is not a visual artist but rather much more conceptual in motivation. So often artists who are trying to make these grand iconoclastic gestures are so of their historical moment that, today, the iconoclasm has faded. I am thinking here of the beauty of Warhol’s paintings for today’s viewers. However with Duchamp, a work such as Bicycle Wheel (1913) is as radical today as it was all those years ago. Even an object that has become so iconic as the bike wheel on a stool remains still fresh and challenging today. This is impressive, to recognize anti-aesthetic of Duchamp’s work resonates one hundred years after its conception.
|Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913|
What is really beautiful is the Large Glass and often his other uses of glass – like the Paris air, or the lenses and mirrors in Étant Donnée. There’s something very sensuous and delicate about Duchamp’s use of glass. In the early works on paper, the most intimate and delicate of images are the lithographs – it’s as though those fragile bodies in love are transferred to the delicacy of The Bride Stripped Bare. It is in this masterpiece that we see how brilliant Duchamp was; the modern day Leonardo. He was the scientist working out the mechanics of the glass, building the machines, the artist connected to Cranach whose glazes on his Venuses were the inspiration of the transparency of The Large Glass. And through it all, the cinema, motion and the vision of what cannot otherwise be seen, remains present. In addition, the symbolic meanings of the work are mind boggling: spiritual, erotic, geometrically, physical and psychiological. It’s true that not only his life’s work, but the multiple and multivalent strands of modernism come together in The Large Glass.