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Joseph Rykwert: Reminiscences of Duchamp

Joseph Rykwert recalls Marcel Duchamp, whose work and influence is celebrated in a major new season at the Barbican

My first impression of Marcel Duchamp was of lean, slightly aquiline good looks – and great charm. Also vanity – not about his fame (which could be taken for granted) but about his looks, which he was willing to show to the humblest admirers – such as myself – posing as he played with his mounted bicycle wheel. A shame that the negatives of the occasion were purloined by a predatory publisher.

It was the looks and pervasive charm… which attracted the protagonists of the New York school to him

A visit to the exhibition, which has just opened in the Barbican Gallery, shows off the good looks. It includes many photos of him, including Man Ray’s of Marcel in drag advertising a scent (eau de voilette – shady water) labelled Belle Haleine (another pun – fine breath). In drag he became Rrose Sélavy (yes, a pun again: Eros c’est la vie). It was the looks and pervasive charm, the sociability as well as the cutting brilliance and punning wit, which attracted the protagonists of the New York school to him: the dancer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage; as well as the painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, whose contributions make up half the exhibition, which is in constant movement since John Cage’s lucid and exquisite pieces are played on pianola-operated grands while every now and then dancers perform some of Cunningham’s ‘pieces’.

The New York group were deraciné individuals though, while Duchamp came out of a solid – I am tempted to say cozy – background, one of six children of the Duchamps of Rheims, prosperous business people, who were taught the rudiments of drawing by an indulgent, amateur painter grandfather; four of them became artists. The oldest brother, Gaston, called himself Jacques Villon and was a painter-engraver of great repute; a younger brother was the sculptor Raymond Duchamp Villon (who died young in 1918, having been gassed at the front), while a sister, Suzanne, was married to yet another painter, Jean Crotti, whom she met through Marcel. The siblings remained close throughout their lives and intermittently exhibited together.

He opined that not all artists were chess players but all chess players were artists

Marcel started painting young, moving from an initial Fauve manner to find himself quickly in tentative Cubism. The first Cubist picture here is of chess players. And chess would all his life long be Duchamp’s other passion – he played in many international tournaments. He even opined that not all artists were chess players but all chess players were artists; and in the 1950s John Cage became his chess pupil. Of course, there was an overspill between his two activities – all Duchamp’s work toyed with following the rules of a game and the dictates of hazard.

Cubism led him to a fascination with movement: first with the mechanical turning of a coffee mill or a chocolate grinder, but later even more with the recording of animated motion, and this led to his unique amalgam of Cubism and Futurism in what was to become one of his most famous canvases, the Nude Descending a Staircase of 1913. Refused by the Paris Salon, it was first shown in New York in 1913. The next rejection was even more famous: the white porcelain urinal, called Fountain and signed ‘R.Mutt’, was submitted to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. It was not the first of his ‘found objects’ – commonplace things (a snow shovel, a bottle rack) from hardware stores, which he transmuted into ‘works of art’ by his say-so. Like the others, Fountain was immediately aestheticised by being photographed. Although the submitted urinal is now lost, replicas abound (including a smart one in stainless steel) and a number of performance artists (at least one of whom was arrested for it) have tried to return it to its former state by peeing into it. Deconstruction?

‘Nude’ is the heart of the first part of the Barbican show

Fountain is discreetly shown at the Barbican, but Nude is the heart of the first part of the Barbican show, and is neighboured by a related painting, a strange amalgam of the mechanical and the visceral: The Bride. Some elements from that painting reappear in the most brilliant and innovative work from that first period; known colloquially as The Large Glass. Its full and enigmatic title is The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Duchamp fabricated the seductively elegant painting in silver and tin foil, oil paint, lead graphite, dust and varnish, all between two sheets of glass; he declared it definitively unfinished in 1921; though another feature was added when the glass broke in transport in 1923, and he would then decide that the cracks in the glass were the operation of chance on the work. Two replicas of it exist (without the cracks). One is in Stockholm (the one on show at the Barbican) and another is in the Tate, made under Richard Hamilton’s direction.

Duchamp married Teeny Matisse (once the daughter-in-law of the painter) in 1950, and they lived until his death in Paris (where there was a group of old friends and family) as well as in New York and Cadaqués near Barcelona, where he was a neighbour of Salvador Dalí. It was in Cadaqués that he picked up the heavy barn door which was pierced with two peep-holes to look at his last work, the unique Étant Donnés (roughly translated the title is Given: 1 gas-light 2. falling water) on which he worked from 1946 until his death in 1968; it is now installed with much of his other work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He was very defensive when quizzed about it: (‘there is nothing to see, it’s all covered with dust…’) and it is too complex and fragile to be moved, even though he left a handbook for its assembly. The only remedy is to go to Philadelphia and peep through the holes.

It is a century since Nude Descending a Staircasewas first rejected in Paris. Since then Duchamp – with a growing crowd of artists – has transformed our idea of what it is that they do. How does that affect architecture? I think that must be left to another article. 

Exhibition: The Bride and the Bachelors - Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns, runs from 14 February until 9 June at the Barbican Art Gallery, London. It is part of the Barbican’s Dancing Around Duchamp season

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