November 16, 2014

"Marcel Duchamp. La Peinture, même"

Marcel Duchamp is considered by many to be THE most influential artist of the twentieth century while at the same time he is regarded as the revolutionary who killed painting.  How can one man wear both of these hats?  A new exhibition at the Centre Pompidou attempts to put Duchamp, his career and its consequences, into a new perspective.

On my recent trip to Paris, I had the very good fortune to be able to visit the exhibition "Marcel Duchamp.  La Peinture, même [Painting, even]" on a Tuesday morning when the museum is closed to the public.  Unimpeded by the crowds flocking to see this show, I could take my time and really enjoy the artistic journey from Duchamp's earliest experiments to his ultimate creation "The Large Glass".

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) came from a family of artists.  In fact, two of his brothers and his sister were accomplished artists, and while they worked together and independently throughout their careers, Marcel was by far the most daring and successful of them all.  An avid reader, mathematician, draughtsman, chess player and above all, thinker, Marcel Duchamp sought to challenge traditional ideas of "retinal art", art that appealed to the eye.

Yet despite his apparent disdain for traditional pictures, Duchamp was first and foremost a painter.  Drawing on his early experiences with caricatures, most of the erotic variety, Duchamp began to experiment with the ideas of "looking" - looking through, looking at, voyeurism, deconstructing the image - and the relationship of text and image.  His exposure to works by the Old Masters, Impressionists, Symbolists and Fauves are all reflected in his early paintings which led, rather naturally when one sees the progression, to his Cubist masterpiece exhibited at the Armory Show of 1913 "Nude Descending a Staircase". 
Marcel Duchamp
"A Propos de jeune sœur", 1911

Marcel Duchamp
"Nu descendant un escalier nº 2", 1912

Perhaps because of the less than enthusiastic reception of "Nude Descending a Staircase" at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants (although the reaction was more positive in New York), Duchamp all but abandoned painting and turned his focus to "Ready-mades" an invention that became his most famous contribution to Modern Art.  "Ready-mades" were basically off-the-shelf or minimally altered items, such as a snow shovel or a bottle rack, that were designated "works of art" by Duchamp.  The most famous of these is "Fountain" a white porcelain urinal, set on its back, signed "Mutt" and dated "1917", that was his contribution to that year's Salon des Indépendants.  It was a gesture applauded by he Dadaists but rejected by the Salon and has become one of the most iconic "statues" of the 20th Century.  Unfortunately "Fountain" was not included in this exhibition but there were other examples of Duchamp's "Ready-mades" some made in Paris and some from the time he spent in New York City and Ridgefield, NJ, during World War I.

"Marcel Duchamp.  Painting, Even", was not intended to be a retrospective of this important artist's œuvre and might be a little disappointing if one was expecting to see the full gamut of his quintessential works.  What the show accomplishes in fine fashion, is to give visitors a better understanding of how Marcel Duchamp became Marcel Duchamp - his influences, his theories, his evolution - which all leads up to his final and greatest work "La Mariée mise à nu par ses Célibataires, même [The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even]" also known as "The Large Glass" created between 1915-1923.  While the original "Large Glass" resides at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a replica was borrowed from the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, and is dramatically displayed in the final gallery.

This monumental work was the culmination of Duchamp's research into geometry, mathematics, perspective, optics, astronomy, chess and mechanics.  No longer "art of the eye" or "retinal art", it was "art of the mind" that explored the idea of "passage" in "geometrical, chemical, psychological, physiological, sexual and metaphysical terms".  The imagery consists of the Bride in a sort of Milky Way, seen in the upper section, and the world of the Bachelors in the lower section.  The border between the two sections represents the two worlds, according to Duchamp "the horizon and the undone clothing of the Bride".  Influences on the imagery and the construction came from many sources both highbrow - Leonardo, Cézanne, Cranach the Elder - and more popular - fairground puppet shows and naughty "undressing the bride" films - that all combined in an achievement that has excited art historians and theorists for nearly a century.

Duchamp purposefully left "The Large Glass" unfinished and it was long thought to be his final major creation.  He went on to pursue adjunct projects including film making, building machines, playing chess and jeu de mots.  He perhaps had the last laugh with the 1964 reproductions of his Ready-mades, most of which had been lost or destroyed, giving a whole new meaning to "original" art.

I have sat in on many discussions among Duchamp scholars dissecting the meaning of this image or that choice of word, and most of the time I'm lost.  But this exhibition "La Peinture, même" did give me a new insight and perspective into the master's work and I left with a greater appreciation for "the picture that endeavors to capture what eludes the retina...the final picture"

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