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  • Writer's pictureUshrayinee

Time and the Legacy of Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp was an artist who is famous for breaking the boundaries of what one can categorize as art. His specialty is skirting between the lines of art and non-art. It pushes viewers to question what this dance that wavers upon substance, and a lack of substance, means to them.

An Image of Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp was born in northern France and grew up immersing himself in art. While he studied art in school, he would spend his time drawing cartoons. They were filled with wordplay and clever puns that spanned more than one language. 

While Duchamp’s work is often partially classified as Cubist, he himself did not associate much with Cubists, finding their works too visually focused. In fact, Duchamp frowned upon what he called “retinal” arts, like the works of Matisse, that were intended to please only the eye, to visually titillate the viewer. Instead, Duchamp wanted to focus on pieces that would stimulate the mind.

Marcel Duchamp’s Painting That Sparked Major Controversy

Duchamp’s first work that provoked major controversy was Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. This piece shows an abstracted form of a female figure going down the stairs. The motions in between each step are captured in a fragmented manner onto the canvas. At this time, Duchamp was heavily considering the implications of the fourth dimension in paintings; he wanted to capture time and the movement created in the in-between moments of it. 

Abstract Painting Nude Descending the Staircase No. 2 By Marcel Duchamp

His jagged shapes capture and convey the essence of movement, and this is seen in his earlier piece, Sad Young Man on a Train as well. Another abstract painting that focuses on the movement of the central figure, caused by the rhythmic jostling of the train. This movement is vastly different than the Analytical Cubism of Picasso and Braque which serves to show a single moment in time, a figure held firmly in place by the canvas. 

Abstract Painting Sad Young Man on a Train Abstract Painting by Marcel Duchamp

The negative reactions to Nude Descending Staircase, No. 2 came both because of the non-realistic, mechanic form of the figure and the name of the piece itself.

The Effect of World War 1 and Dadaism on Duchamp

After World War 1 started, Marcel Duchamp was exempt due to a heart murmur. Dadaism was an art movement born from the shock of the horrors of the war, and Duchamp found himself associated with the artists in it. 

The Readymade Bicycle Wheel By Marcel Duchamp

Dada rejected what was the norm, the logical and rational, and instead embraced the nonsensical. There are several theories as to how the word Dada itself was coined, one being that it is actually a nonsense word, another being that it came from the Romanian artists’ frequent usage of the word da, da, meaning yes, yes.

Dada was seen throughout multiple mediums conveying messages that were anti-art and anti-bourgeois in nature, questioning what art really was at its core. It was a starting point for performance art and laid the groundwork for what we know as Surrealism. From this movement perhaps, was born some of Duchamp’s most famous art, his “Readymades.”

The Readymades by Marcel Duchamp

Readymades were objects that Marcel Duchamp found and sometimes altered slightly, then presented as art. His first one was a bicycle wheel, that he would sometimes spin, to watch much as though watching flames crackling in the fireplace. Again, here was Duchamp’s fascination with the subject of time itself, the bicycle wheel — a perpetual motion machine of his choosing. 

About his Readymades, Duchamp said, “My idea was to choose an object that wouldn't attract me, either by its beauty or by its ugliness. To find a point of indifference in my looking at it, you see.” 

The Fountain By Marcel Duchamp

His most famous and controversial Readymade, however, was the Fountain, which was a urinal signed with his pen name R. Mutt. It was shocking to the art world in 1917 and critics responded in all sorts of ways. Ultimately though, in 2004, the Fountain was selected as “the most influential artwork of the 20th century” by 500 renowned artists and historians.

Marcel Duchamp’s Kinetic Art and Man Ray’s Accident

Duchamp also made a series of kinetic art pieces, again revisiting his motif of time and movement through time. There were pieces that used motors to spin rectangular pieces of glass. His friend and fellow artist, Man Ray set out to photograph the piece, but upon turning the machine on for the second time the drive belt broke and caught a piece of glass which glanced off Man Ray’s head and shattered into bits. These kinetic sculptures were eventually coined as “mobiles” by Duchamp, a term that is still alive and well for them today.

Duchamp’s Passion For Chess

Duchamp eventually tentatively retired from art and went full-time into his passion for chess. He started off by playing the game, but when he realized he wasn’t top-level by any stretch he became a chess journalist. About chess, Duchamp once said, “I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art—and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position." He also later elaborated further that, “I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists."

Duchamp left his legacy in chess through an unsolvable endgame problem that he left with the inscription “white to play and win.” There is thought to be no solution to this problem.

An Artistic Iconoclast Marcel Duchamp

A portrait of Marcel Duchamp

In the end, Marcel Duchamp was a timeless artist and an iconoclast. His art shocked and fascinated people when he first revealed it to an audience and continues to elicit those same reactions from viewers now. Duchamp’s multi-media ideas only go to show exactly how multi-talented he was in so many aspects. His revolutionary ideas left a solid mark on the art world. His fascination with time rings true through almost all of his pieces and it remains a legacy for today’s artists as well. 

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