Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Conceptual Art, Kinetic Art
Born: 28 July 1887, Normandy, France
Died: 2 October 1968, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France
Duchamp was a painter, sculptor, writer, and chess player whose work is most often associated with Cubism, Dada, and conceptual art. Along with Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse; Duchamp is regarded as one of the three artists who defined the revolutionary development of the plastic arts in the first decades of the 20th century. Duchamp’s developments in painting and sculpture had an enormous impact on 20th-century art. By challenging the notion of what is art with his readymades, Duchamp is one of few artists that changed the course of art history. He sent shock waves across the art world that are still rippling today.
Duchamp challenged and changed art history in a way few artists did, by challenging the notion of what is art with his first readymades that sent shockwaves through the art world that are still felt today. Duchamp’s preoccupation with the mechanisms of human sexuality and desire and his fondness of wordplay aligns his work with Surrealism, although Duchamp refused to be affiliated with any specific art movement. His insistence art should be driven by ideas above all else earnt Duchamp recognition as the father of Conceptual Art. His refusal to follow art conventions and a deep fear of repetition led to Duchamp producing relatively few works in his short career, and ultimately, he retired from the art world to spend his later years playing chess
Duchamp coined the term ‘readymade’ to designate mass-produced everyday objects taken out of context and promoted to the status of a piece of art by the choice of the artist. A category of art that was a performative act as much as it was about style. ‘Readymade’ had far-reaching implications as to what can be considered an object of art.
Rejecting the purely visual and what he referred to as ‘retinal pleasure,’ Duchamp favoured an intellectual and concept-driven approach to art, artmaking, and art viewing. However, he remained committed to the study of perspective and optics that underpinned his experiments with kinetics and kinetic devices reflecting the representations of motion and machines common to both the Futurist and Surrealist artists of the time
Duchamp’s work is characterized by his tongue-in-cheek wit and subversive humour rife with innuendo. He formed puns out of everyday phrases and expressions that he conveyed visually. It is the linguistic dimension of his work that paved the way for Conceptual art.
Raised in Normandy in a family of artists, Duchamp’s father was mayor of Blainville and his mother raised the seven children and painted landscapes portraying the French countryside. Family time consisted of playing chess, painting, reading, and playing music. One of Duchamp’s earliest works, “Landscape at Blainville (1902) which he painted at aged 15, reflected his love of Claude Monet/ He was close to his two older brothers, and after they left home to become artists, Duchamp joined them in Paris to study painting at the Académie Julian. His brother, Jacques, supported him during his studies, and Duchamp’s earned an income as a cartoonist.
Early 1900s Paris was the ideal place for Duchamp to get acquainted with modern trends in art and painting. He studied Fauvism, Cubism, and Impressionism as well as the innovative approaches to structure and colour. He favoured the Cubist concept of reordering reality instead of simply representing it. Paintings such as “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912) illustrated Duchamp’s ideas of machinery and its connection to the movement of the human body through space. Duchamp also subscribed to the avant-garde ideals of the artist as an anti-academic and felt an affinity to artists such as Odilon Redon. From the early stages of his career, Duchamp was drawn to the Symbolistic allure of mystery such as women as the elusive femme fatale, sexual identity, and desire which eventually led him towards Dad and Surrealism.
By 1911 Duchamp met Francis Picabia and the following year attended a theatre adaption of Raymond Roussel’s “Impressions d’Afrique” with Picabia and Guillaume Apollinaire. The experience made a deep impression on Duchamp and led to his interest in cross-genre pollination which influenced the artist to develop an eclectic approach to art creation.
Duchamp emigrated to New York in 1915 and created several readymades. By signing them, Duchamp laid claim to found objects such as a snow shovel, a bicycle wheel, or even a urinal. Objects tied loosely but symbolically to themes such as desire, childhood memories, and erotica all designed to show the absurdity of the practice of canonizing avant-garde art. During 1948 to 1923 Duchamp devoted his time to planning and creating one of his two major works “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even or The Large Glass.” An installation of machinery wedged between glass panels was his first rejection of the painterly obsession with pleasing the eye.
As the Surrealist movement became popular in France, Duchamp travelled between Paris and New York participating in printed textual projects, sculptural installations, and collaborative works in all mediums with the Surrealists. Duchamp always kept a distance from groups – and the politics they came with. As such he was never truly part of the Surrealist or Dada groups,
In 1920, Duchamp in an alternative female persona, Rose Selavy, in order to explore fully the ideas of sexual identity. He continued making his readymades and exhibited the famous “Bottle Rack” series in 1936. However, he secluded himself from the wider art world and kept to a tight-knit group of artists, including Man Ray, who photographed Duchamp throughout his life. For more than twenty years Duchamp worked in complete secrecy on his second masterwork, “Etant Donnes” a sexualized and elaborate diorama, Duchamp shunned the public eye, preferring to play chess with select guests until his death in 1968
Following his withdrawal from the art world, Duchamp remained an influential, if passive, presence in New York avant-garde circles until he was rediscovered by the Neo-Dadaists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in the 1950s. Duchamp welcomed an association with Dada, many years after the group’s demise, without conforming to the politics and issues of group dynamics.
Duchamp insisted that art is an expression of the mind rather than the eye or the hand which attracted Minimalists and Conceptual artists alike. It ushered in a new era where the seminal concept of the mass-produced readymade was seized upon not only by Andy Warhol and other Pop artists who claim Duchamp as their founding father but also by Fluxus, Arte Povera, and Performance artists due to its performative aspects.
Duchamp’s criticism of art institutions made him a cult figure for generations of artists refusing to go down the path of the conventional, commercial art career. The theoretical thrust of Duchamp’s eclectic and limited output accounts for his continuing impact on successive 20th and 21st-century avant-garde movements and individual artists alike.
The Duchamp Effect by Martha Buskirk and Mignon Nixon
Duchamp: A Biography by Calvin Tomkins