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Marcel Duchamp was brilliant, but was he a great painter? He famously ceased painting with the Large Glass — La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, meme (1915-1923): ‘I wanted to get away from the physical act of painting. I was much more interested in recreating the ideas in paintings … I wanted to place painting again in the service of the spirit.’1 After that, Duchamp apparently became modern art’s most celebrated retiree.
Curator Cécile Debray’s opening line in the exhibition catalogue is ‘Marcel Duchamp’s break with painting is one of the foundational myths of twentieth century art…’. She notes, however, that in Europe Duchamp is known as a conceptual artist or a Dada iconoclast, so he is, in a sense, disembodied.2 That is why ‘Marcel Duchamp, la peinture, même’ was extraordinary: never have so many of Duchamp’s paintings been assembled. This is a tiny body of work: barely fifty oils, the majority made in a fury of experimentation during the years 1910-13. But as Debray is quick to point out, the aim here was not to re-evaluate the paintings themselves.3
Is it perverse to make an exhibition out of a negative — examining what did not make an artist famous? Not from the French point of view. This was the first major Duchamp exhibition in Paris since the Pompidou opened in 1977; it reclaimed the years before Duchamp left France in 1916, to live in the United States, as crucial for his oeuvre, arguing that the paintings enlighten both his ‘artistic, intellectual and aesthetic’ formation and the meaning of the Large Glass.4
In truth, this is a thin body of work by a very young artist. In 1912 Duchamp was only twenty-five when he was bitterly disappointed by his Nude descending a staircase no. 2 being knocked back by the Salon des Indépendants. His latest oil to appear in this exhibition was Broyeuse de chocolat, no. 1 (1913), a preparatory work for the Large Glass, as Tu m’ (1918), his final easel painting, was not made available. After that, Duchamp never returned to painting on canvas as his central concern. Why would he? By then the territory had been thoroughly renovated by the greatest painters of the time. Duchamp had a sharp appreciation of the struggles of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, the later Cubist experiments. Indeed, the exhibition shows him working through contemporary styles: the sub-Bonnard Femme nue assise dans un tub (1910), for example, or the Kandinsky-like Paysage (Étude pour Paradis) (1911). The paintings are competent, often pleasant, rarely of the first rank.
All these paintings are swept away by the brilliance of the ready-mades. L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), Duchamp’s ‘assisted’ Mona Lisa, is given her own space at the exhibition’s beginning, and why not? She still packs a wallop, after nearly one hundred years. This tiny work, which inaugurated an iconoclastic stampede, was exquisitely situated opposite Alfred Stieglitz’s 1917 photograph of Fontaine. The perfect sense of this juxtaposition, however, both guaranteed the success of the exhibition and betrayed Duchamp the painter: it announced, this is what made him famous, this is what made him the father of twentieth century invention. After that it is, in a sense, all downhill.
Duchamp’s impasse a century ago reminds me of the early 1970s: so many young artists abandoning painting for conceptual art, political action, anthropology, graphic design, whatever seemed more purposeful. For Duchamp had been thoroughly troubled by his passion for painting, then his questioning of it. Working through these perturbations was a delight. I do not believe I have ever seen an artist’s work so thoroughly set into its cultural context, illuminated by the convergence of contemporary ideas in works by Francis Picabia, Jean Crotti, his older siblings Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, but also a wealth of notes, documents and literary sources. This was immensely engaging. I loved seeing persistent threads traced. The engine-room of the erotic was a prime example: hilarious early popular films showing brides undressing, through to his own 1960s lithographs after Lucas Cranach, Gustave Courbet and Auguste Rodin. (Duchamp drew beautifully.) And I’ve always adored the salacious early cartoon-like drawings.
Duchamp moved decisively away from what he called ‘retinal’ art to embrace multiple intellectual and artistic ideas. Registering this energy, the exhibition made wonderful use of his own words, working notes, sketches, all kinds of supplementary material. Nude descending the staircase no. 2 (1912) commanded the core of the exhibition. It is marvellous, but so was the exposition of Duchamp’s informing interests. Gathered together with paintings by Giacomo Balla, Picabia and Frank Kupka, for example, were works such as Étienne-Jules Marey’s photographs and Georges Méliès’s cinema, even a gorgeous little Cranach Vénus from 1532 that Duchamp found during 1913 in a Munich sojourn, showing the source of his nude flesh tints. The later focus on Duchamp’s employment and research in the Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve between 1913 and 1915 was particularly fascinating, emphasising his intelligence, his autodidact originality, his eccentricity.
Importantly, the exhibition argues that Duchamp’s painting led ‘irresistibly’ to the Large Glass. Yet the paradoxical result of the final focus on the Large Glass, surrounded by documents and studies, pulled apart, laid bare, was that painting was restored to something of its original importance: no longer a canonical art form, but one amongst a number of intersecting forms of inquiry.
This was a thoughtful, even ravishing exhibition, strangely scholarly, almost nerdy. Because of that, I thought it the Duchamp opportunity of a life time. And while in a valedictory press release the Pompidou’s president Alain Seban described the curatorial premise as ‘paradoxale’, more than 350,000 visitors testify to the exhibition’s success. Does Marcel Duchamp emerge a greater artist? I do not think so. Is he now better understood? Indubitably.
Marcel Duchamp, Nu descendant l'escalier no2, 1912. © ADAGP, Paris 2014.
1. See Duchamp quoted in Marcel Duchamp, la peinture, même, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2014, p.27. Author’s translation. The Large Glass was seen in this exhibition in an authorised replica of 1991/1992, as the original cannot travel.
2. See Cécile Debray, ‘Introduction’, Marcel Duchamp, la peinture, même, ibid., p.15 and p.16. On p.15 she notes: ‘It was through searching to reinvent painting that Duchamp constructed his course, made up of intense research and coming out of his doubts…’ [‘C’est en cherchant à réinventer la peinture que Duchamp construit son parcours artistique fait de recherches approfondies et de doutes…’]
3. See Cécile Debray, ibid., p.15.
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