Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

15 Scandalous Facts About Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 debuted, it sparked one of the greatest uproars the art world has ever known. But after facing scads of rejection, mockery, and even a presidential put-down, this provocative piece rose to the ranks of masterpiece.

1. Duchamp's Cubist contemporaries rejected the Cubist piece. 

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 reimagines the human form through a mechanized and monochromatic lens in keeping with Cubism, and in the century since its completion, it has repeatedly been displayed in Cubist art exhibits. However, Duchamp's use of 20 different static positions created a sense of motion and visual violence that Cubists claimed made this piece more Futurist than a true example of their avant-garde art movement. 

2. Duchamp's brothers tried to censor the piece. 

The French artist had hoped to debut the painting in the Salon des Indépendants's spring exhibition of Cubist works. However, the tantalizing title Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was roundly rejected by the hanging committee, which included Duchamp's brothers Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon. The pair visited the painter in his Neuilly-sur-Seine studio, where they entreated him to either withdraw the work, or change/paint over its title. The Salon committee agreed with Duchamp's brothers, insisting, "A nude never descends the stairs—a nude reclines." 

3. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 sparked a family rift. 

Despite his brothers’s reservations, Marcel Duchamp flat out refused to change his piece. He later recounted, "I said nothing to my brothers. But I went immediately to the show and took my painting home in a taxi. It was really a turning point in my life, I can assure you. I saw that I would not be very much interested in groups after that." 

Nonetheless, the Salon d’Or (a group of Cubist artists which included Duchamp’s brothers) accepted the unchanged Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 for its fall exhibition. But the Duchamp brothers' bond was forever fractured. 

4. Its original title can be spotted on the canvas. 

In the lower left hand corner, you'll find "NU DESCENDANT UN ESCALIER," painted in all caps. The name Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 came later.

5. Timelapse photography was an inspiration. 

Photographers were studying the motion of man and beast using this photographic technique, and art historians draw a direct connection between Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 and the photo series Woman Walking Downstairs, which can be found in Eadweard Muybridge's 1887 book Animal Locomotion. 

6. The painting earned scathing reviews at its American premiere.

In 1913, a massive exhibit of avant-garde pieces, the International Exhibition of Modern Art (known today as The Armory Show), was held at the National Guard 69th Regiment Armory in New York. The show included Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 in its stateside debut, and critics and crowds accustomed to more realistic and naturalistic forms were quick to mock it as a symbol of all that was ridiculous about modern European art.

The New York Times wryly re-named it "Explosion in a Shingle Factory." A cartoonist famously parodied it with "The Rude Descending the Staircase (Rush Hour at the Subway)." American Art News even made a contest out of “the conundrum of the season,” promising a $10 prize to whoever could find the nude in Duchamp's unusual work. 

7. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 defied the tradition of nude studies. 

Duchamp's brothers weren't the only ones riled by the artist's take on the nude tradition. Looking back on the Armory Show's impact on its 100th anniversary, curator Marilyn Kushner explained, "If you saw a female nude, in art, in sculpture or painting, it was very classical. And it was the idea of this perfect, classical beauty." To see a nude woman fractured and in motion in such a way was beyond jarring to the 1913 crowds who flocked to gawk at the exhibition. 

8. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 stole the spotlight from Cézanne's and Gauguin's works. 

Artist Walt Kuhn had predicted the Armory Show would make waves by challenging Americans's perception of art with the groundbreakers of the European scene. But no one predicted that out of 1400 pieces on display, Duchamp's would be the most talked about. The scandal over Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 helped attract 87,000 visitors to the show. 

9. Teddy Roosevelt was not a fan. 

For the March 29, 1913 issue of Outlook, the former president wrote a piece about the Armory Show called “A Layman’s View of an Art Exhibition.” In it, he described Cubists as the "lunatic fringe" of the latest art movements, and mocked Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. while misidentifying it: 

"Take the picture which for some reason is called 'A naked man going down stairs.' There is in my bathroom a really good Navajo rug which, on any proper interpretation of the Cubist theory, is a far more satisfactory and decorative picture. Now if, for some inscrutable reason, it suited somebody to call this rug a picture of, say, 'A well-dressed man going up a ladder,' the name would fit the facts just about as well as in the case of the Cubist picture of the 'Naked man going down stairs.' From the standpoint of terminology, each name would have whatever merit inheres in a rather cheap straining after effect; and from the standpoint of decorative value, of sincerity, and of artistic merit, the Navajo rug is infinitely ahead of the picture." 

10. The uproar thrilled Duchamp. 

Far from deterred by the negative press, Duchamp was delighted by the American response to his work. It inspired him to move to New York soon after the show. Fifty years after the painting’s American debut, Duchamp looked back on the Armory Show, wistfully saying, "There's a public to receive [Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2] today that did not exist then. Cubism was sort of forced upon the public to reject it ... Instead, today, any new movement is almost accepted before it started. See, there's no more element of shock anymore.”

11. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 didn't make Duchamp famous. 

While Americans didn't know what to make of the mind-bending image paired with a provocative title, they weren't paying much attention to the man who made it. Or, as Duchamp put in an interview later in life, "The painting was known, but I wasn’t." 

His anonymity was hammered home years later when Duchamp visited the Cleveland Museum of Art to see Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 on display. The proud painter was stunned to find its caption card claimed he had died three years before. 

12. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 sold for a shockingly low price.  

Records show the piece was acquired for $324, of which Duchamp received $240. Today this price would translate to about $7800, with the artist’s cut coming in at $5777. But it was still a steal for San Francisco dealer Frederic C. Torrey, whose thirst to own the talk of the art world drove him to buy the Armory Show's most controversial work. 

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was prominently displayed in Torrey's Berkeley, California home for six years, at which point he wrote to art critic Walter Pach asking, “Counting the present high price of gasoline do you think that any one would pay a thousand dollars for the Nu Descendant?" He found a willing buyer in American art collector and Duchamp friend Walter Conrad Arensberg (but made sure to have a full-sized photographic copy made for himself first).

13. The polarizing piece earned prestige through public display. 

In 1950, Louise and Walter Arensberg bequeathed their art collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Among the pieces were several works by Duchamp, including Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, The, Fania (Profile), and With Hidden Noise. Since then, the painting has gained esteem for its genre-blending and a place in history for the passionate reactions it has provoked. 

14. It inspired many other nudes-on-staircase works. 

Homages to Duchamp's pioneering piece include Gerard Richter's Ema (Nude on a Staircase), Joan Miró's Naked Woman Climbing a Staircase, Chuck Jones's Nude Duck Descending A Staircase, and even a Calvin and Hobbes strip where the last panel has the rebellious young hero lamenting, "Nobody understands art." 

15. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was the first of many times Duchamp's work caused a controversy. 

The Armory Show hubbub fueled Duchamp's rebellion against established art standards. Within a few years, he embraced Dadaism and began presenting his "readymades," found objects like a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack, and a urinal. The last of these he exhibited as "Fountain," causing another outrage in 1917. Again, history was kinder to Duchamp than his peers had been. In 2004, that readymade was dubbed the "most influential modern art work of all time" by a poll of 500 art experts.

© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Hires Puppy to Sniff Out Art-Munching Bugs
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some dogs are qualified to work at hospitals, fire departments, and airports, but one place you don’t normally see a pooch is in the halls of a fine art museum. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is changing that: As The Boston Globe reports, a young Weimaraner named Riley is the institution’s newest volunteer.

Even without a background in art restoration, Riley will be essential in maintaining the quality of the museum's masterpieces. His job is to sniff out the wood- and canvas-munching pests lurking in the museum’s collection. During the next few months, Riley will be trained to identify the scents of bugs that pose the biggest threat to the museum’s paintings and other artifacts. (Moths, termites, and beetles are some of the worst offenders.)

Some infestations can be spotted with the naked eye, but when that's impossible, the museum staff will rely on Riley to draw attention to the problem after inspecting an object. From there, staff members can examine the piece more closely and pinpoint the source before it spreads.

Riley is just one additional resource for the MFA’s existing pest control program. As far as the museum knows, it's rare for institutions facing similar problems to hire canine help. If the experiment is successful, bug-sniffing dogs may become a common sight in art museums around the world.

[h/t The Boston Globe]

Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.


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