The French painter Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) asked questions about the importance and nature of art and the artist and challenged conventional ideas of originality. He was a major influence on 20th-century art.
Marcel Duchamp was born on July 28, 1887, the son of a notary of Rouen. One of Marcel's brothers, Gaston, known as Jacques Villon, was a painter; another brother, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, was a sculptor. Duchamp moved to Paris at the age of 17 and began to paint. By 1911 he was responding in his painting to cubism, but his subjects were unusually personal and psychologically complex compared to the typical cubist ones.
Scandal of the Armory Show
In his famous Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) Duchamp used a limited cubist palette and faceting of forms but completely contradicted the cubist esthetic in his choice of an ironic title and stress on actual movement. When this painting was exhibited at the Armory Show in New York City in 1913, it created an uproar and was the focal point for derogatory criticism of the show (one critic described the work as "an explosion in a shingle factory").
In 1912-1913 a radical change took place in both Duchamp's life and art. Together with the writer Guillaume Apollinaire and the painter Francis Picabia, he began working out a highly original and mocking concept of art. Duchamp sought out methods of making art in which the artist's hand would not be stressed (using chance and mechanical methods of drawing and painting). Increasingly language and the nonvisual side of art became important to him. As he later said: "I am interested in ideas—not merely the visual products. I want to put painting once again to the service of the mind."
Inventor of Ready-Mades
In 1913 Duchamp created his first "ready-made," the Bicycle Wheel. This was the first of a limited number of everyday objects which Duchamp chose (sometimes making minor additions), rather than made by hand. In these he questioned conventional ideas about the artist's role in the creation of art and about original and unique artistic products, and he brought up issues as to the value of art, the market, and the art gallery. In the next few years he turned out a small number of ready-mades; the most famous was his Fountain, which shocked the American public in 1917 when they saw an ordinary urinal displayed in an art exhibition.
About 1915 Duchamp began work on a construction on glass, the Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, commonly called the Large Glass. It was left incomplete in 1923, and the glass was cracked in 1926. Duchamp used many original and complex processes in its physical creation. The strange mechanical forms in it make up an intricate machine whose workings express his autobiographical experiences and views on sexual and emotional relations and contain many occult references, including alchemist symbolism.
In 1915 Duchamp went to America, where he immediately became part of the New York artistic scene. After World War I he divided his time between New York and Europe. He mixed briefly with the Dadaists in Paris but increasingly withdrew from actual artistic production. By 1923 he was preoccupied with chess. Occasionally he would experiment in kinetic art or create a new ready-made.
For many years Duchamp had an underground reputation, with few exhibitions of his works. The leader of the surrealists, André Breton, and others made him into a legendary hero whose life and character were as important as his actual artistic productions. Duchamp lived an apparently contented private life, with a happy second marriage in 1954, and he maintained amicable if slightly ironic contacts with many contemporary artists. Only in the 1960s did he become internationally famous on a public level, when many American artists sought him out in New York and studied his works and ideas, because for them he was a far more important figure, with more contemporary relevance, than Pablo Picasso.
There are a number of brilliant earlier articles on Duchamp, but the first long study is Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp (trans. 1959). It is a moving, somewhat fragmentary, and poetic account of Duchamp, written by a longtime friend. More readable, though less thoughtful, is a succinct chapter on Duchamp in Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: The Heretical Courtship in Modern Art (1965). Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (1969), is a lavishly illustrated study by Duchamp's Milanese dealer and friend. □