Who was Marcel Duchamp?

“You cannot define electricity. The same can be said of art. It is a kind of inner current in a human being, or something which needs no definition.” – Marcel Duchamp

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Marcel Duchamp was considered to be the most important art-theorist and avant-garde provocateur of the 20th Century. Born in France on the 28th July 1887 and died on the 2nd October 1968 this French artist provoked and shocked everyone. During the 1919 Duchamp associated himself with the Dada group in Paris. The group was a cultural revolt by artists rather than an art movement and it spread throughout Europe in outrage and grief of World War I.

Duchamp directed attention away from art as a material object of status and wealth and presented it as something of an idea. He shifted the emphasis from making to thinking. While in the Dada movement, Duchamp presented ready-mades to society and in the name of art, called them his artwork. This made people shift their strong concepts on what is art, and what isn’t through the help of Duchamp’s ready-mades. His intentions succeeded – anything can be called art.

How was his practice as an artist affected by the events of World War 1?

In 1912 Marcel Duchamp produced a work of art that sent his career in to a whole new direction. The cubist work “Nude Descending a Staircase” he produced negative reactions flared up against him by the Parisian avant-garde and was rejected by Salon des Indépendants but in New York, people looked at from a whole different perspective – he became a sensational artist in the making.

Arriving in New York, Duchamp matched up with Spaniard Francis Picabia and New York photography Man Ray. Together these people established an anti-art movement in 1914 that made no sense and wasn’t supposed to make any sense known as Dadaism. It was a reaction to the grief and suffering of World War 1.

Duchamp rejected many works of art that were art pleasing to the eye and instead wanted people to stop looking and start thinking. His ready-mades (influenced by the non-sense making Dadaism) were an excellent example of this. He changed the course of art from the traditional or accepted style to a mode where his artistic art creation was filled with irony and satire which is a trademark of Duchamp’s legendary career – this can be seen through his art titles.

As describe in the words of Hans Richter who describes the mood of Dadaism

“We destroyed, we insulted, we despised – and we laughed.”

Duchamp’s ready-mades reflected his intentions of challenging art institutions on the question of who determines what art is and called for artists to decide. Unfortunately today, galleries still play a huge role on determining what art is and what isn’t of value.

Why was his Fountain so infamous?

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Duchamp’s Fountain was so infamous due to the outbreak of traditional artist’s raging against how it cannot be art. The original intention was to challenge art institutions on the question of who determines what art is and called for artists to decide. Duchamp’s actions only involved him grabbing an ordinary urinal, adding a signature and claiming it as his own. Looking at this symbolicly we can understand that Duchamp believed anything could be called art and anyone can claim anything as theirs. Through using a urinal with his signature on it, Duchamp was able to challenge what is art, and what wasn’t. He went against what was seen as “right” and made his own rules that are now the system of art we see today.

What I think about the work and status of the object is that it’s a stupid idea. It’s just a urinal. I don’t see why people have to make such a big deal out of it, but as I type this from outrage of trying to understand why it’s so infamous I realize this is the exact reaction Duchamp wanted from his audience. Therefore, I truly believe his motives were very crafty and well planned. Even till this day it has people just as baffled about it more than the Mona Lisa to some extent.

Nude Descending the Staircase (1912)

The oil on canvas portrait painting by Marcel Duchamp (1912) depicts a figure

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descending a staircase in an abstract manner of ochres and browns.  The cylindrical body parts suggest the rhythm and movement of the figure. From the left the colours are darker than those to the right, suggesting time has elapsed and the past ‘frame’ has gained more transparency. In the bottom left of the portrait a staircase is made out.

The highlighted arcs and dotted lines suggest the movement of the pelvis bone along with the thin arcs curving around the legs of the figure. The thick outlines of the bodies also serve as a purpose in motion lines that emphasize the dynamics of the movement.

The mood of the bright palette of colours ranging from a warm yellow to a very dark – almost black tone give the painting a very metallic shine which can give it that futuristic appeal along with its sequence of transitions. The colours appear to be translucently applied in an abstract manner. In the bottom left corner Duchamp has placed the title of the work “NU DESCENDANT UN ESCALIER” in block letters which could be related to the work. The figure itself may or not be a figure. It gives us no insight or clue on its gender, age, character or individuality.

How has Duchamp influenced the course of modern art?

Marcel Duchamp has influenced the course of modern art by emphasising on the conceptual ideas instead of the art making practise of the artwork. He made it possible for an artist to claim anything as their own piece of art and got people thinking as to why that is so.

In 1993 while Duchamp’s Fountain was being displayed in in France a French performance artist named Pinoncelli urinated in it. His intention was to shock the audience. By urinating in it, Pinoncelli reversed Duchamp’s intention of the Fountain being a conceptual practise and displayed it for what it was, a toilet.

In 2000 Chinese performance artists Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi Ianjun also urinated in the Fountain. As quoted by Cai himself from the London newspaper The Observer:

“The urinal is there: it’s an invitation. As Duchamp said himself, it’s the artist’s choice. He chooses what is art. We just added to it.”

The two Chinese performance artists call themselves “heroes… way ahead of our time.” Details on charges against them have not been released.

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