The shocking art of Marcel Duchamp

Who Was Marcel Duchamp?

Marcel Duchamp was born in 1887. He attended school in Rouen and developed an interest in art from an early age. This was an easy path for him to take, as his whole family was immersed in the arts: painting, engraving, sculpture and printing. Although arts were significant to his upbringing, the love of chess also played a central part: Marcel Duchamp’s engagement with art was essentially cerebral rather than visceral. This perhaps explains why it was Duchamp, more than any other modern artist, who revolutionized thinking about art.

The Early Work of Marcel Duchampmarcel-duchamp-mona-liza

Seeing as Duchamp became famous for creating art works that, at a certain level, could have been produced by anyone at all, it’s important to appreciate that Marcel Duchamp was a masterful artist in the traditional sense. His 1912, Nude Descending a Staircase No.2 is an oil on canvass that demonstrates the artist’s complete mastery of palette and line. It is also a profoundly revolutionary painting.

Art in an Age of Motion

In our current times, it is hard to appreciate how disturbing the early 20th century world Marcel Duchamp lived in was. Everything was in flux: heavy engines and massive factories everywhere, constantly producing shocking sounds; changing perspectives and new ways of thinking with the collapse of Newton’s static model of the universe; and amazing visual developments in film and photography. In the context of this chaos, the key question Duchamp asked himself was how to capture the energy of motion in a static display of paint on canvass. Nude Descending was a brilliant response to this challenge. His solution was to fragment a scene and present the viewer with images of several moments juxtaposed in the same painting. In this respect, Marcel Duchamp can be considered an early Cubist (Cubism was an approach to painting that had also been embraced by his older brothers). But Marcel Duchamp’s modernity disturbed even the Cubists, as he subverted all the traditions of painting in his attempt to grasp the nature of his time.

Marcel Duchamp’s New Forms of Art rouebicyclette

Duchamp abandoned the purely visual in art and strove to find a way to address aesthetics via an interplay between the object and the effect of looking at it. Although it meant giving up the usual path of the artist in his day and ignoring demands for portraits and landscapes, Duchamp continued to explore alternative artistic activity while taking a position as a librarian. At this time, he famously said of a design for an airplane (then the height of modern technical achievement) “Painting is washed up. Who will ever do anything better than that propeller?” It took him ten years, but in 1934, Duchamp demonstrated that he had found a entirely new approach to art and showcased one of his great masterpieces – The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.

Chance in Artfountain by marcel duchamp

Marcel Duchamp’s incorporation of chance into art now seems conventional, but in 1934 it was shocking. Bride, a work of painting and sculpture between two large glass panels, uses everyday materials such as wire and a chocolate grinder. Marcel Duchamp also allowed dust to accumulate in places and incorporated it into the final artwork (evoking a sense of the passing of time).

Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal

Almost certainly Marcel Duchamp’s most controversial artwork was his Fountain, 1917, which was a urinal, signed R. Mutt. Shortsightedly, the Society of Independent Artists rejected the piece for their New York exhibition. This found and ‘ready-made’ object certainly was art and had a significant aesthetic impact as became evident in the heated debates that followed. The value of art had previously been thought to derive from the skill of the artist. But Fountain was not a work that required any technical expertise. It did, however, require a profound and revolutionary appreciation that the responses art triggers in the mind of the viewer are sometimes more powerfully evoked by the presentation of everyday objects than by traditional paintings.
The shocking art of Marcel Duchamp
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The shocking art of Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp led the way in the birth of modern art. Who was he? And why are his works so extraordinary and disturbing?
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Sharone Perlstein
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