by Vatsala SethiSep 21, 2022
“A nude does not descend stairs, a nude reclines”. Marcel Duchamp, then a young artist who had followed his brothers to Paris, was outraged to hear that the reason for his first rejection was that a nude does not ‘descend’. That it should come from the Society of Independent Artists, who proclaimed their liberalism in the catchphrase, ‘no jury’, heaped insult onto the injury.
The clique, which included important Cubists like Albert Gleizes and Robert Delaunay, denounced the painting, calling it deliberately provocative, "nauseous and tedious”. They reckoned he was a Futurist, they were certain he was being deliberately provocative. It almost seemed like the painting was mocking them. The rejection tore Duchamp apart from his artist brothers, both of whom were Independents and saw him off to Germany. Here, he was in the midst of the cultural revolution, with artists like Wassily Kandinsky in Munich moving towards totally abstract art. During this time, he painted Bride.
Effigies of Henry Matisse were burned on the streets in 1913, by outraged Americans who had encountered his work at the Armory Show in New York. Intended to bring the finest examples of European modern art to “a then disbelieving public,” the work that caused the greatest furore was Duchamp’s Dada. Visitors huddled around, trying to work out what it was, there were cartoons about it in the newspapers. A lesser man may have faltered but Duchamp liked it. He liked it so much, he moved to New York City.
If his intentions with the Independents weren’t clear, they would be in 1917 – Gleizes and his friends had fled to New York during the war and decided it was time for another exhibition by the Independents, claiming those who paid the fee could show their work. Duchamp, who was living there too, heard the news. “When the Independents did this, the first thing I did was submit a urinal.” Signed with a pseudonym, R Mutt, the piece’s rejection sent the artists headlong into Duchamp’s carefully laid trap. The hypocrisy of the Cubists had been laid bare and The Fountain would become the icon of modern art.
The Fountain stripped art of its cornerstones: aesthetics and the physical act of creation. From Duchamp’s penchant for signing his name on mundane objects came the ready-mades. Many of these were broken or stolen but Duchamp would willingly allow gallery owners to replicate the lost works, signing them as a mark of approval. The real excitement for him, however, lay in ideas. "The execution was a boring, boring affair,” he would say.The Large Glass, which began as epiphanies scrawled on diner napkins, was left unfinished. In the film, this work is subject to a 10-minute commentary, which ends with the artist calling the work "boring and dumb”.
The early 20th century notion that art was a transcendental medium, which represented only the highest ideals, began to collapse, through Duchamp’s bold satire. Nothing was absolute, why take anything too seriously? "Art has absolutely no existence as veracity, truth. People speak of it with great, religious reverence, but I don't see why it is to be so much revered," he said. "I am afraid I am an agnostic when it comes to art.”
Directed by the sculptor-turned filmmaker Matthew Taylor, Marcel Duchamp: The Art of the Possible can feel somewhat inundated with gushing, occasionally affected commentary. There's talk of non-Euclidean geometry, "deforming science" and "reinventing the universe,” of “chance and the permutation of thought”. Duchamp's recordings, however, shine through, providing wonderful insights into the artist, his philosophical mind and his wit, and his questioning of everything, especially himself.In the late 1950s and 60s, Duchamp had attained, much to his surprise, demi-god status, an aura that would persist even decades after his death. Younger artists, given full rein by Duchamp's philosophy that anything is art, branched out even more. Allan Kaprow began to organise the Happening, in which audiences and performers 'experienced art'. Even the body art, performance art and installations we take so for granted today trace their conceptual origins to Duchamp. It was a wave that began with artists like Kaprow, John Cage, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Marina Abramovic (who makes an appearance in the film).
The definition of art had changed for good. As scholar Francis N. Naumann puts it: “Art is about thinking. Art students…don't know how well they can draw an apple but they can think”.
The point was to re-imagine, test the boundaries of what is known and look beyond the limitations of the three-dimensional world, to find movement and intangibility in an otherwise static medium. And being named the father of modern art, as is emphasised in the film, stands in contradiction to this, perhaps. The ‘readymade’ and the ‘replica’ turned life itself into a canvas but if anything can be declared art, everything loses meaning. If every act is revolutionary, no act is revolutionary. These are tough questions, for Duchamp’s influence still runs deep and cerebral ‘thought pieces’ abound amongst younger artists. Even so, they are worth asking. Duchamp would have wanted it that way.