DUCHAMP Marcel
French painter and theorist, born in Blainville, near Rouen, in 1887. His father was a notary, and had six children, of whom four are well-known artists: in addition to Marcel Duchamp, the painters Jacques Villon and Suzanne Duchamp, and the sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon. Marcel Duchamp was first a librarian at the Sainte-Geneviève library in Paris, a post which hardly interfered with his liberty at all. 'Comfortably seated, he let his thoughts dwell on anything he liked, and was pleased to give information or advice to anyone who came and asked for it politely.' About 1908 - 1910 he had painted a few canvases in the style of the great Impressionists, 'just to find out for himself how they did it'. In 1911 his own genius asserted itself in his A Propos de Petite Sœur. His breakdown of forms grew more marked until, in 1912, he finished up by producing a number of decisive works, including the famous Nude Descending a Staircase. When this canvas was shown at the Armory Show in New York in 1913, it made Duchamp famous overnight. The conservatives thought the picture an abomination, a nameless horror, while those who were looking for something new called it the 'light at the end of the tunnel'. One critic described the canvas as 'an explosion in a shingle factory'. It was a series of five schematized human forms, overlapping one another, descending a winding staircase, with a marvellous rhythm and precision. Duchamp was offered several commissions at the time, but he replied: 'No, thanks. I prefer my liberty.' He earned his bread and beer by giving French lessons to New York artists (and anyone else who felt so inclined) at two dollars an hour (the current price). He became acquainted with Francis Picabia, and they were for a time inseparable. The friendship was a great source of pleasure to both of them. They were two of the people responsible for the Dada movement and the Dada spirit. Between 1915 and 1923, taking it very easy, he executed his major work, more than three yards high; the first picture to be made on a sheet of transparent glass, with fragments of cut-out and painted tin fixed to the glass with a permanent varnish. 'Canvases', he said, 'have dusty behinds.' This work was The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors . This is a mysticalmechanical epic of Desire. The bride-fiancée hangs from the sky, with her antennae, and communicates with the massed group of her bachelors: nine of them, red, erect in their uniforms or liveries -the priest, the cuirassier the gendarme, the policeman, the bar boy, the department-store delivery man, the undertaker, the valet and the stationmaster. They receive the bride's essence and set in motion a dramatic-mechanical and interstellar ballet on 'human love seen by one from another planet, who can't make head or tail of it,' as André Breton, the Surrealist poet, said, not without humour. Little by little, the hermetic quality, precision and splendour of this singular work brought Duchamp world-wide acclaim, which left him quite unmoved. All he wanted was to play chess. He did not want to paint, anyhow.
His maxim was never to repeat himself. He alone among the great painters succeeded in carrying it out -- by the simple expedient of just ceasing to paint, all of a sudden. His twenty canvases and glass panels, sold to intimate friends of his (now dead), were bequeathed by them, in accordance with his wish, to a single museum, that of Philadelphia, where nearly all his works are concentrated. He is the father of the 'ready-mades': mass-produced objects ready for use which, with a little inspired alteration, can be transformed into works of art. The most famous among those are: the big bottle-drier, the fountain urinal which he signed 'Mutt' and exhibited in New York in 1916, and the reproduction of the Mona Lisa, 'L.H.O.O.Q.' ( 1919), which he decorated with a becoming moustache. He was intimately bound up with Surrealism. He invented the ceiling made of coal-sacks for the International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris in 1938 as well as the Rain Hall and the pink breast in foam rubber, labelled 'Please Touch'. which adorned the cover of the de luxe catalogue of the 1947 exhibition. He made a kind of portable museum (three hundred of them) for his friends. It was a valise containing reproductions of all his principal works, and a little phial with fifty cubic centimetres of Paris air, a souvenir for an exile. One phial broke, and Duchamp had another specially sent to New York, containing genuine Paris air. Preferring a young and growing civilization to those that are too ripe or too cocksure, he has been living in New York for years now. His example of art for oneself, and of disinterestedness, has slowly had its effect. He has become a world legend. His name evokes independence, boldness, and total success in his own domain.
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