Devising the Ready-mades
Marcel Duchamp, 1912. All critics and commentators on modern art agree that this is a decisive year. Between 5 and 24 February, the young artist (he was not yet 25) made several visits to the Futurist exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris. At the end of the same month, Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia took a trip in an aeroplane that was discussed at length by the three Duchamp brothers.1
On 20 March, the Salon des Independents opened in which Nude Descending a Staircase
ought to have been shown (illus. 290); as everyone knows, the work was withdrawn at the request of the governing body, whose members used Marcel’s older brothers as the ‘messengers’. Immediately afterwards, the painting travelled to Barcelona, where it appeared in public for the first time (from 20 April to 10 May) in the Exhibition of Cubist Art
organized by the Dalmau Gallery. From 11 May to 5 June, the Theatre Antoine in Paris put on a stage version of Impressions d’Afrique
by Raymond Roussel, and one of its performances was attended by Marcel in the company of Gabrielle and Francis Picabia and Guillaume Apollinaire. Marcel left Paris for Munich on 18 June and stayed there until the beginning of October. On the tenth day of the same month, the Salon de la Section d’Or was opened, organized by the Puteaux group, and Marcel contributed four works (among them was the controversial Nude
. . .) which had been rejected by the Indépendents. But this was not all: invited by Picabia, he went by car with him and Apollinaire to Etival (Jura), where Gabrielle’s parents lived. On his return to Paris, together with Ferdinand Léger and Constantin Brancusi, Duchamp visited the fourth Salon de la Locomotion Aérienne, which was held at the Grand Palais between 26 October and 10 November. On 3 November, Marcel enrolled for a
course in Library Studies at the Ecole de Chartres, which proved very useful in view of the fact that he found employment at the Bibliothèque de Sainte-Geneviève . . .2
These are a few objective events, but what is their real significance in the life of Marcel Duchamp, and what were their repercussions in the history of modern art? With Nude Descending a Staircase, he had completed his assimilation of the techniques and resources of Cubism, and it must have been very difficult for him when he encountered the incomprehension of his brothers’ friends and perhaps of his brothers as well. Or was there, in fact, a certain burlesque intention on the part of the work’s creator which did not pass unnoticed in the narrow circle of ‘official’ Cubists? The truth is that all of Duchamp’s late works are impregnated with a radical ambiguity concerning the ‘seriousness’ of his intentions. It is probable that in the era of the Nude, all of Marcel’s friends and acquaintances saw him more as a humorist than as a painter in the strict sense of the word. ‘Bear in mind,’ he said to Pierre Cabanne,
that I certainly did not live surrounded by artists, but I did live surrounded by humorists . . . This was something completely different. I had no contact with painters at that time. Even Juan Gris, whom I got to know a little later, produced [humorous] sketches.3
But the important point is that, rejected by the most advanced artists of the day, Duchamp, unable to turn back, regarded himself as being ‘outside painting’.
Raymond Roussel came to his rescue. Impressions d’Afrique
describes the participation of an outlandish group of shipwrecked Europeans in the coronation ceremony of an imaginary Black emperor; each of the characters exhibits some machine or contraption of his own invention that wins the admiration of all those present. The relationship between these ‘marvels’ is cold and apparently interminable. There is no lyricism in their expression, no concession to local colour. Roussel’s text is, at one and the same time, both anti-romantic and anti-naturalistic, and shows how a work can be created which is logical and rigorous to the point of madness and yet remain distant from the conventions of any known genre. It comes as no surprise that this fascinated Duchamp, who decided to adopt Roussel as his master and guide. Much later, he said, referring to Roussel, ‘. . . as a painter it is more important to me that I should be influenced by a writer than by another painter’.4
The young Marcel who spent the summer in Munich, then, was not all that naïve. While there, he produced paintings and drawings which were to serve as preliminary sketches for the Large Glass
. These works still reveal his affiliation with Cubism, but a sudden change in his themes points to new preoccupations, removed from the world of still-life and the more or less neutral landscapes which characterized the ‘orthodox’ Cubists. I refer here to the theme of sexuality: a title such as Mécanisme de la pudeur/Pudeur mécanique
(illus. 1) – the first study, according to what Duchamp himself wrote on the drawing, for The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even
– already suggests a sexual universe which is different from that of the simple ‘nudes’, or that of the chess kings and queens which he had painted in previous months. The same might be said of the two versions of Vierge
(illus. 2), of Le Passage de la vierge à la mariée
and of the more elaborate Mariée
(illus. 3, 4). The drawing Aéroplane
(illus. 5) from the same period confirms the juxtaposition of visceral and mechanical elements that Duchamp himself recognized in the works which he produced that summer.5
In Munich, there was, moreover, an artistic tradition which was very different from the French one and which lacked the institutional gap between ‘fine’ and ‘applied arts’ peculiar to Latin countries. Free of academic pressure, having been alone in a country whose language he could hardly speak, stimulated in his rejection of art as being something sacrosanct and alien to the real world, the young Marcel returned to Paris determined to abandon all of the notions he had about ‘making a career’ as an artist.
It could be said that he extracted the most radical results from Futurist ideology: at the aforementioned Salon de la Locomotion Aérienne, he stood in amazement in front of an aeroplane and said to Brancusi: ‘Painting is finished. Who could produce anything better than that propeller? Tell me, could you make something like that [illus. 6]?’6
It seems logical, with such an attitude, that he would have accepted a bureaucratic job, such as that of librarian, which allowed him to survive by offering him the opportunity to nourish his keen intellectual curiosity. Having officially withdrawn from art, he now devoted all of his time to the study of perspective, to reading about a wide variety of subjects (including mathematical treatises) and to complex digressions about which it is difficult to be precise. We know all of this from his notes, many of which, as is widely recognized, were destined to form the basis of the complex iconography of the Large Glass
, or were to serve as the booklet/catalogue which accompanied it. It is clear that Duchamp gave a great deal of thought to this extraordinary work before he made a start. The famous Neuilly drawing which shows the general lay-out of the principal elements (illus. 62) dates from 1913 and not 1914, as is stated in the reproduction of the Green Box
Some of the annotations included by Duchamp himself are dated between 1912 and 1915, the year when he began work on glass in the true sense of the word. The Large Glass
, then, gestated in his mind for a period of three years and slowly took shape between 1915 and 1923. We shall see that the works final form did not materialize until 1936, when Duchamp directed its restoration following its accidental breakage in 1926.
It is clear that The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even
was the result of 22 years of speculation and intermittent periods of work. During this time (and particularly between 1915 and 1923), its creator devoted himself to this project almost exclusively and made it the very centre and reference point for all of his other activities. Duchamp himself left
absolutely no room for doubt: ‘. . . [the Large Glass
] is the only thing that interested me . . .’8
If we take these statements seriously, as I believe we should, the artist’s other works must be seen in another light. The technical points which they raise appear in a visual and literary context (as in the notes to the Large Glass) which they seemed not to possess earlier. Apparently chance or ‘anti-artistic’ objects and gestures reveal a more precise significance. This has to be understood in two ways, since Duchamp’s minor productions and ready-mades clarify some of the most intricate problems of the Large Glass. His activity can be described as a ‘solar system’ with a brilliant star (the great work on glass) and a series of planets (the other contemporary works) revolving around it, as if they derived the light from it which would make its interpretation easier. Strange and powerful gravitational forces govern the circular movements and interrelation of this universe of gestures and ‘works’ that is so typical of Duchamp.
It seems logical to me, nevertheless, that, imitating astronomers, we should first examine the planets (ready-mades) before facing the peculiarities of the ‘solar star’ (the Large Glass). But I insist: the narrative demands of describing one thing after another should not lead us to imagine that what is analysed first explains chronologically what is studied subsequently. The purpose of this review is to describe the main ingredients of a system or, if you prefer, of a mechanism whose pieces, although they are independent, reveal their true worth only when they are seen functioning in the context of the global machine.
THE MEANING OF THE READY-MADES
The Duchamp invention which made the most original contribution to the development of contemporary art was the ready-made. Much has been written in an attempt to explain the raison d’etre of such works, but their essential meaning can be expressed in two words: a ready-made is something ‘already made’, or previously produced. The artist does not create, in the traditional sense of the word, but chooses from among the objects of the industrial world or (to a lesser degree) the world of nature. Duchamp spoke about these works on numerous occasions, pointing to aspects which seem to us to be in keeping with the philosophy of Ortega y Gasset, such as the dehumanization of the work of art9
or the idea of the ‘non-artistic’, in the sense of things to which ‘none of the terms acceptable in the world of art’ can be applied.10
Practically all analysts
have seized upon Duchamp’s affirmation of the absence of taste, the aesthetic neutrality which must have governed the choice of ready-mades:
. . . it is necessary to obtain things with such indifference that they do not provoke any aesthetic emotional reaction. The choice of the ready-mades is based on visual indifference, at the same time as a total absence of good or bad taste.11
But the matter is more complicated than simple statements might lead us to believe, since, in assessing the ready-mades, the following factors at least have to be taken into account:
1. It is neither possible nor desirable to reduce everything to a common set of rules. To distinguish between the ‘corrected’ ready-mades and those which have not been altered helps less than it might seem to, since a certain modification or displacement of the original material is inherent in invention; the positioning of a new title, in any case, always changes the conceptual universe to which ‘what has been discovered’ is bound to return (see Table 1).
Table 1: Classification of the ready-mades according to their ‘degree of rectification’ and the ‘complexity of the assemblage’.
2. The majority of the ready-mades do have a theme, a kind of plot which can be advanced in a more or less literary manner, and I venture to say that this was quite important for Duchamp.12
This does not mean,
however, that such a ‘meaning’ has been preserved as unalterable, since...