By Lon Levin
Duchamp was a French artist whose work is most often associated with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. 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.
A playful man, 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.
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.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 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’s first work to provoke significant controversy was Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (Nu descendant un escalier n° 2) (1912). The painting depicts the mechanistic motion of a nude, with superimposed facets, similar to motion pictures. It shows elements of both the fragmentation and synthesis of the Cubists, and the movement and dynamism of the Futurists.
He first submitted the piece to appear at the Cubist Salon des Indépendants, but jurist Albert Gleizes asked Duchamp’s brothers to have him voluntarily withdraw the painting, or to paint over the title that he had painted on the work and rename it something else. Duchamp’s brothers did approach him with Gleizes’ request, but Duchamp quietly refused. Of the incident Duchamp later recalled, “I said nothing to my brothers. But I went immediately to the show and took my painting home in a taxi. It was really a turning point in my life, I can assure you. I saw that I would not be very much interested in groups after that.”
He later submitted the painting to the 1913 “Armory Show” in New York City. The exhibition was officially named the International Exhibition of Modern Art, displayed works of American artists, and was also the first major exhibition of modern trends coming out of Paris. American show-goers, accustomed to realistic art, were scandalized, and the Nude was at the center of much of the controversy.
“Readymades” were found objects which Duchamp chose and presented as art. In 1913, Duchamp installed a Bicycle Wheel in his studio. However, the idea of Readymades did not fully develop until 1915. The idea was to question the very notion of Art, and the adoration of art, which Duchamp found “unneccessary”
My idea was to chose an object that wouldn’t attract me, either by its beauty or by its ugliness. To find a point of indifference in my looking at it, you see.
Duchamp’s final major art work surprised the art world that believed he had given up art for chess 25 years earlier. Entitled Etant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage (“Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas”), it is a tableau, visible only through a peep hole in a wooden door. A nude woman can be seen lying on her back with her face hidden, legs spread, and one hand holding a gas lamp in the air against a landscape backdrop. Duchamp had worked secretly on the piece from 1946 to 1966 in his Greenwich Village studio while even his closest friends thought he had abandoned art.
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.”
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 “most influential artwork of the 20th century” by a panel of prominent artists and art historians.
For the full bio go to Wikipedia, Marcel Duchamp