Changing Art Forever: Marcel Duchamp

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("Church at Blainville," "Sundays," "Portrait of the Artist's Father," "Nude Descending a Staircase")

Four readers requested a post on Marcel Duchamp, one of the most controversial and most discussed artists in recent history. A Google search yields almost 1.5 million results for the French and American artist, whose 121st birthday was yesterday. Much of the controversy and discussion revolves around Duchamp's "readymades," particularly "Fountain" (1917), but, as evidenced by the four works of art above, there is so much more to Marcel Duchamp than just a urinal.

1. Like Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp was well-schooled in more traditional artwork before he became known for his boundary-pushing works. As a boy, he received awards at school for his artwork and, upon graduation, he studied art at Académie Julian for a year. Jacques Villon, his older brother and a well-regarded painter, acted as his art mentor. Another brother, Raymond-Duchamp-Villon, was a sculptor while sister Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti was a painter. Grandfather Emile Nicolle was a painter and engraver.

2. Duchamp had varied interests and was particularly fascinated with math, mechanization, and technology. After visiting an exhibition of aviation technology, he remarked to Constantin Brancusi, "Painting is washed up. Who will ever do anything better than that propeller? Tell me, can you do that?" His upside-down bicycle wheel mounted onto a stool, now usually presented as art, wasn't originally intended to be art. Duchamp simply enjoyed watching it spin, just as he enjoyed "looking at the flames dancing in the fireplace." He also created several other pieces, like his "Precision Optics" pieces, which he explicitly said were not art.

3. For at least 25 years, Duchamp was thought to have given up art for a career in chess. He developed an obsessive fascination with the game to such an extent that it supposedly led his wife to glue his pieces to the board. They divorced four months later. He designed the poster for the Third French Chess Championship in 1925 and then finished the event at 50 percent, earning the title of chess master. When he felt he had reached his peak, after playing in the French Championships and the Olympiads, he became a chess journalist. Of chess, he said, "It has all the beauty of art "“ and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.

4. The art world was surprised to discover in 1966 that Duchamp had been secretly working on one final project for the last 20 years. The work, "Etant donnés: 1° La Chute d'eau, 2° Le Gaz d'éclairage" or "Given: 1. The Waterfall; 2. The Illuminating Gas," is a surprisingly beautiful tableau viewed through a peep hole. However, it wasn't revealed to the public until Duchamp's death in 1968, per his instructions. The tableau depicts a naked woman lying in front of a waterfall landscape.

5. A joker to the end, Duchamp had his tombstone enscribed, "D'ailleurs, c'est toujours les autres qui meurent" or "Besides, it's always other people who die.

Larger versions of "Church at Blainville," "Sundays," "Portrait of the Artist's Father," and "Nude Descending a Staircase" are available.

Fans should check out the Duchamp collections at the MoMA and Tate; the Marcel Duchamp World Community and Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp; Tout-Fait, an online Duchamp journal; a Walker Art Center interview of Duchamp; and Duchamp's Anémic Cinéma.

Current Exhibitions:
Marcel Duchamp: A work that is not a work "of art" (Sao Paolo, Brazil: through September 21, 2008)
2008 Biennale of Sydney, feat. Marcel Duchamp (Sydney: through September 7, 2008)

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions.

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July 29, 2008 - 8:18am
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