Marcel Duchamp (28 July 1887 – 2 October 1968) was a French artist whose work is most often associated with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. Considered by some to be one of the most important artists of the 20th century, Duchamp's output influenced the development of post-World War I Western art. He advised modern art collectors, such as Peggy Guggenheim and other prominent figures, thereby helping to shape the tastes of Western art during this period
Duchamp challenged conventional thought about artistic processes and art marketing, not so much by writing, but through subversive actions such as dubbing a urinal art and naming it Fountain. He produced relatively few artworks, while moving quickly through the avant-garde circles of his time.
The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. - Marcel Duchamp.
Marcel Duchamp was born in Blainville-Crevon Seine-Maritime in the Haute-Normandie region of France, and grew up in a family that enjoyed cultural activities. The art of painter and engraver Emile Nicolle, his maternal grandfather, filled the house, and the family liked to play chess, read books, paint, and make music together.
Of Eugene and Lucie Duchamp's seven children, one died as an infant and four became successful artists. Marcel Duchamp was the brother of:
- Jacques Villon (1875–1963), painter, printmaker
- Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876–1918), sculptor
- Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti (1889–1963), painter.
As a child, with his two older brothers already away from home at school in Rouen, Duchamp was close to his sister Suzanne, who was a willing accomplice in games and activities conjured by his fertile imagination. At 10 years old, Duchamp followed in his brothers' footsteps when he left home and began schooling at the Lycée Pierre-Corneille, in Rouen. For the next 7 years, he was locked into an educational regime which focused on intellectual development. Though he was not an outstanding student, his best subject was mathematics and he won two mathematics prizes at the school. He also won a prize for drawing in 1903, and at his commencement in 1904 he won a coveted first prize, validating his recent decision to become an artist.
He learned academic drawing from a teacher who unsuccessfully attempted to protect his students from Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and other avant-garde influences. However, Duchamp's true artistic mentor at the time was his brother Jacques Villon, whose fluid and incisive style he sought to imitate. At 14, his first serious art attempts were drawings and watercolors depicting his sister Suzanne in various poses and activities. That summer he also painted landscapes in an Impressionist style using oils.
Duchamp was throughout his adult life a passionate smoker of Habana cigars.
Duchamp's early art works align with Post-Impressionist styles. He experimented with classical techniques and subjects, as well as with Cubism and Fauvism. When he was later asked about what had influenced him at the time, Duchamp cited the work of Symbolist painter Odilon Redon, whose approach to art was not outwardly anti-academic, but quietly individual.
He studied art at the Académie Julian from 1904 to 1905, but preferred playing billiards to attending classes. During this time Duchamp drew and sold cartoons which reflected his ribald humor. Many of the drawings use visual and/or verbal puns. Such play with words and symbols engaged his imagination for the rest of his life.
In 1905, he began his compulsory military service, working for a printer in Rouen. There he learned typography and printing processes – skills he would use in his later work.
Due to his eldest brother Jacques' membership in the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture Duchamp's work was exhibited in the 1908 Salon d'Automne. The following year his work was featured in the Salon des Indépendants. Of Duchamp's pieces in the show, critic Guillaume Apollinaire--who was to become a friend—criticized what he called "Duchamp's very ugly nudes." Duchamp also became lifelong friends with exuberant artist Francis Picabia after meeting him at the 1911 Salon d' Automne, and Picabia proceeded to introduce him to a lifestyle of fast cars and 'high' living.
In 1911, at Jacques' home in Puteaux, the brothers hosted a regular discussion group with other artists and writers including Picabia, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Roger de la Fresnaye, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Juan Gris, and Alexander Archipenko. The group came to be known as the Puteaux Group, and the artists' work was dubbed Orphic cubism. Uninterested in the Cubists' seriousness or in their focus on visual matters, Duchamp did not join in discussions of Cubist theory, and gained a reputation of being shy. However, that same year he painted in a Cubist style, and added an impression of motion by using repetitive imagery.
During this period Duchamp's fascination with transition, change, movement and distance became manifest, and like many artists of the time, he was intrigued with the concept of depicting a "Fourth dimension" in art.
Works from this period included his first "machine" painting, Coffee Mill (Moulin à café) (1911), which he gave to his brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon. The Coffee Mill shows similarity to the "grinder" mechanism of the Large Glass he was to paint years later.
In his 1911,Portrait of Chess Players (Portrait de joueurs d'echecs) there is the Cubist overlapping frames and multiple perspectives of his two brothers playing chess, but to that Duchamp added elements conveying the unseen mental activity of the players. (Notably, "échec" is French for "failure".)
At about this time, Duchamp read Max Stirner's philosophical tract, The Ego and Its Own, the study of which he considered another turning point in his artistic and intellectual development. He called it "...a remarkable book ... which advances no formal theories, but just keeps saying that the ego is always there in everything."
While in Germany in 1912, he painted the last of his Cubist-like paintings and he started "Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors" image, and began making plans for The Large Glass – scribbling short notes to himself, sometimes with hurried sketches. It would be over 10 years before this piece was completed. Little else is known about the two-month stay in Germany except that the friend he visited was intent on showing him the sights and the nightlife.
The same year, Duchamp also attended a performance of a stage adaptation of Raymond Roussel's 1910 novel, Impressions d'Afrique which featured plots that turned in on themselves, word play, surrealistic sets and humanoid machines. He credited the drama with having radically changed his approach to art, and having inspired him to begin the creation of his The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, also known as The Large Glass. Work on The Large Glass continued into 1913, with his invention of inventing a repertoire of forms. He made notes, sketches and painted studies, and even drew some of his ideas on the wall of his apartment.
Towards the end of 1912, he traveled with Picabia, Apollinaire and Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia through the Jura mountains, an adventure that Buffet-Picabia described as one of their "forays of demoralization, which were also forays of witticism and clownery ... the disintegration of the concept of art.". Duchamp's notes from the trip avoid logic and sense, and have a surrealistic, mythical connotation.
Duchamp painted few canvases after 1912, and in those he did, he attempted to remove "painterly" effects, and instead to use a technical drawing approach.
His broad interests led him to an exhibition of aviation technology during this period, after which Duchamp said to his friend Constantin Brâncuşi, "Painting is washed up. Who will ever do anything better than that propeller? Tell me, can you do that?". Brâncuşi later sculpted bird forms, which U.S. Customs officials mistook for aviation parts and for which they attempted to collect import duties.
In 1913, Duchamp withdrew from painting circles and began working as a librarian in the Bibliotèque Sainte-Geneviève to be able to earn a living wage while concentrating on scholarly realms and working on his Large Glass. He studied math and physics – areas in which exciting new discoveries were taking place. The theoretical writings of Henri Poincaré particularly intrigued and inspired Duchamp. Poincaré postulated that the laws believed to govern matter were created solely by the minds that "understood" them and that no theory could be considered "true." "The things themselves are not what science can reach..., but only the relations between things. Outside of these relations there is no knowable reality",Poincaré wrote in 1902. Reflecting the influence of Poincaré's writings, Duchamp tolerated any interpretation of his art by regarding it as the creation of the person who formulated it, not as truth.
Duchamp's own art-science experiments began during his tenure at the library. To make one of his favorite pieces, 3 Standard Stoppages (3 stoppages étalon), he dropped three 1-meter lengths of thread onto prepared canvases, one at a time, from a height of 1 meter. The threads landed in three random undulating positions. He varnished them into place on the blue-black canvas strips and attached them to glass. He then cut three wood slats into the shapes of the curved strings, and put all the pieces into a croquet box. Three small leather signs with the title printed in gold were glued to each of the "stoppage" backgrounds. The piece appears to literally follow Poincaré's School of the Thread, part of a book on classical mechanics.
In his studio he mounted a bicycle wheel upside down onto a stool, spinning it occasionally just to watch it. It is often assumed that the Bicycle Wheel represents Duchamp's first of his "Readymades", this particular installation was never submitted for any art exhibition, and was eventually lost. However, initially, the wheel was simply placed in the studio to create atmosphere: "I enjoyed looking at it just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace."
After World War I was declared in 1914, with his brothers and many friends in military service and himself exempted, Duchamp felt uncomfortable in Paris. Meanwhile, Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 had scandalized Americans at the Armory Show, and helped secure the sale of all four of his paintings in the show. Thus, being able to finance the trip, Duchamp decided to emigrate to the United States in 1915.To his surprise, he found he was a celebrity when he arrived in New York in 1915, where he quickly befriended art patron Katherine Dreier and artist Man Ray. Duchamp's circle included art patrons Louise and Walter Conrad Arensberg, actress and artist Beatrice Wood and Francis Picabia, as well as other avant-garde figures. Though he spoke little English, in the course of supporting himself by giving French lessons and through some library work, he quickly learned the language.
For two years the Arensbergs, who would remain his friends and patrons for 42 years, were the landlords of his studio. In lieu of rent, they agreed that his payment would be The Large Glass. An art gallery offered Duchamp $10,000 per year in exchange for all of his yearly production, but Duchamp declined the offer, preferring to continue his work on The Large Glass.
Marcel Duchamp died on 2 October 1968 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, and is buried in the Rouen Cemetery, in Rouen, France. His grave bears the epitaph, "D'ailleurs, c'est toujours les autres qui meurent;" or "Besides, it's always other people who die."
A quotation erroneously attributed to Duchamp suggests a negative attitude toward later trends in 20th-century art:
This Neo-Dada, which they call New Realism, Pop Art, Assemblage, etc., is an easy way out, and lives on what Dada did. When I discovered the ready-mades I sought to discourage aesthetics. In Neo-Dada they have taken my readymades and found aesthetic beauty in them, I threw the bottle-rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.
However, this was actually written in 1961 by fellow Dadaist Hans Richter, in the second person, i.e. "You threw the bottle-rack...". Although a marginal note in the letter suggests that Duchamp generally approved of the statement, Richter did not make the distinction clear until many years later.
Duchamp's attitude was actually more favorable, as evidenced by another statement made in 1964:
Pop Art is a return to "conceptual" painting, virtually abandoned, except by the Surrealists, since [Gustave] Courbet, in favor of retinal painting.... If you take a Campbell soup can and repeat it 50 times, you are not interested in the retinal image. What interests you is the concept that wants to put 50 Campbell soup cans on a canvas.
The Prix Marcel Duchamp (Marcel Duchamp Prize), established in 2000, is an annual award given to a young artist by the Centre Georges Pompidou. In 2004, as a testimony to the legacy of Duchamp's work to the art world, his Fountain was voted "the most influential artwork of the 20th century" by a panel of prominent artists and art historians.