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Five essential works in The Essential Duchamp

Nick Dent

Drawn from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s extensive collection of works by Duchamp, The Essential Duchamp offers audiences an unparallelled insight into Duchamp’s life and work.

Marcel Duchamp was born in 1887 in the village of Blainville-Crevon, near Rouen on northern French coast. Growing up in a house filled with maritime pictures created by his grandfather, Marcel and three of his siblings were inspired to become artists. Marcel experimented with popular painting styles of the day before moving to New York in 1915 and becoming a leading figure of the avant-garde in America.

By 1918, at the age of 31, he’d already laid the groundwork for many of the directions art was to take in the latter half of the 20th century. “One of the most fascinating things about Duchamp is that some of the gestures that are still so unconventional and radical today were made at the very beginning of the 20th century,” notes Nicholas Chambers, curator of modern and contemporary international art at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Chambers talked us through five key artworks in The Essential Duchamp – works that say a tremendous amount about Duchamp’s life, vision and influence.

‘The Chess Game’, 1910

“Duchamp was deeply interested in chess. For a time he claimed to be quitting art to become a professional chess player, and, in fact, became an accomplished player, recognised by the French Chess Federation as a Master. So, chess is a recurring motif in his work. This 1910 painting depicts Duchamp’s brothers playing chess in Paris. It shows the influence of Cézanne, who was a major influence for many artists at the time. But chess is more than just a subject to paint, it’s a strategic form of play that has parallels in Duchamp’s approach to art – the way that he playfully and strategically disrupted the conventions and institutions of the art world.”

© Association Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP. Copyright Agency, 2018.

‘Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2)’, 1912

“Soon after ‘The Chess Players’, Duchamp really started experimenting with Cubism, but rather than follow the tenets of Cubism to the letter he takes an experimental approach, bringing together elements of Cubism, Futurism, cinema and photography. It’s also a very unusual treatment of the subject of the nude at that time; he discards the idea that it should be about beauty. Rather, the nude is something he wants to study in a scientific manner. It caused a really great scandal when it was exhibited in New York. People ridiculed it because, in part, they just couldn’t see a nude descending a staircase. It sparked a whole range of satirical cartoons in the popular press. Future president Franklin D Roosevelt wrote an opinion piece that compared Duchamp’s painting unfavourably with a rug that he had hanging in his bathroom.”

© Association Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP. Copyright Agency, 2018.

‘Bicycle Wheel’, 1913 (1964 replica)

The first ‘readymade’ was a bicycle wheel attached to a kitchen stool that Duchamp enjoyed watching while it spun around for its meditative effect. A readymade bottle rack followed, as well as a snow shovel, a comb and more. “The practice of making art becomes an exercise of selection,” says Chambers, “of choosing existing objects in the world – often designed things that were made in multiple. Duchamp buys them, removes them from the context of the store and, by putting them into a gallery and adding his signature, to them he transforms them into works of art.”

© Association Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP. Copyright Agency, 2018.

‘Fountain’, 1918 (1950 replica)

“Duchamp moved to New York in 1915, but the art world there was quite conventional at the time compared to Paris. He established the Society of Independent Artists as a jury-free organisation to which any artist could freely submit works for exhibition. And Duchamp decided to test the resolve of the society by submitting to the exhibition one of his readymade sculptures, a store-bought urinal, which he titled ‘Fountain’ and signed ‘R Mutt’ – it was rejected. The work tested the limits of taste as well as the spirit of artistic freedom that supposedly underpinned the society. Duchamp was a disrupter, someone who upturned convention.”

© Association Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP. Copyright Agency, 2018.

‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)’, 1915-23

“There are two works by Duchamp that will never leave the Philadelphia Museum of Art – and they are ‘Étant Donnés’, which is a mysterious work that he produced in secret over the last two decades of his life, and ‘The Large Glass’. Both are permanently installed there but will be represented in The Essential Duchamp by digital presentations. ‘The Large Glass’ is recognised as one of the key works of the 20th century. Duchamp is a great seducer both through his public persona and via the construction of artworks full of clues to meanings that we cannot fully comprehend. They’re always tantalisingly out of reach. The central motif of ‘The Large Glass’ relates to unconsummated desire between a masculine domain in the lower half of the glass and the feminine domain above. There’s an interesting analogy in our own desire to know Duchamp, his enigmatic persona and his productions.”

The Essential Duchamp is at the Art Gallery of NSW from April 27 to August 11.

Need more art in your life? Check out the best galleries in Sydney and the biggest exhibitions this month.

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