Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp was French painter, sculptor, one of the founders of Dadaism, whose heritage formed the background for Optical and Conceptual art.

Early years

Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp was born on July 28, 1887, in Blainville-Crevon, not far from Rouen in Normandy. He was one of the seventh children in a family and grew up in the artistic atmosphere, as his maternal grandfather, Emile Nicolle, was a painter. The boy’s father gave his kids freedom in choosing their professions, so in 1904 Marcel left for Paris, where he joined his brothers, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villion, and enrolled the Académie Julian, where he studied until 1905.

Marcel Duchamp exhibited his works for the first time in 1908 at the Salon d’Automne and at the Salon des Indépendants in a year. Although his early paintings were influenced by Post-impressionism, but its impact didn’t lasted for too long. From his childhood Duchamp was good in mathematics and physics, so it comes as no surprise that in 1910 – 1911 he participated together with his brothers in the Puteaux Group, or the Section d’Or. Alexander Archipenko, Francis Picabia, Fernand Leger, Juan Gris, Robert Delaunay and other prominent artists, associated with Cubism. Were its members. The aim of the association was investigation of ideal proportions and golden section, applying of mathematical rules and harmony in art.

Before Dadaism

Cubistic prompted the painter to introduce a specific method of deforming shapes, combined in his canvases with Futuristic interest in representing movement. In 1912 he finished his “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2”, which was on display at the Salon de la Section d’Or the same year and caused a real scandal at Armory Show. An art critic from the New York Times Julian Street wrote that the work reminded him “an explosion in a shingle factory”. Writing about his piece, Duchamp explained that “This picture is not a painting, but an organization of kinetic elements—an expression of time and space through the abstract presentation of movement…But we must bear in mind that, when we consider the movement of form in space over a certain time, we are entering the realm of geometry and mathematics, as when we construct a machine”. His ideas, often radical and overturning traditional principles, foretold emergence of Dadaism.

By 1913 Marcel Duchamp gave up traditional painting and drawing to experiment in the field of forms. They were realized in one of his major creations – “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even”, also known as “The Large Glass”. It’s a complicated and skillfully done composition of glass, oil paint, lead wire, foil, dust and lacquer. “The Large Glass was made of two glass plates, suspended vertically: the bottom part represented the Bachelors’ Apparatus and the top one – the Bride’s Domain. All in all, the whole work reminded the draft to a mechanical construction of rods, cylinders, wires, which art critic Robert Lebel called “a love machine”. In 1923 the picture was damaged during shipment, so some crackles appeared on the glass, which became an essential part of the piece. In 1961, a Swedish art critic and writer Ulf Linde produced its first authorized copy.

In 1914 Duchamp began displaying his “readymades” – found objects (sometimes slightly transformed), presented as art. T

ransferring common things from the habitual context into another, absolutely extraneous one, Marcel turns it into a fact of art. His “readymades” ‑ a snow shovel, a bottle drying rack, a hat rack or a bicycle wheel – were the author’s challenge to everything he considered to be pompous and shallow traditional art.

In New York

Marcel Duchamp moved to New York in 1915. There he became close with Katherine Dreier and Man Ray, with whom he co-founded Société Anonyme in 1920. His circle of contacts included art patrons Louise and Walter Conrad Arensbergpainter Francis Picabia and other vanguard participants of artistic life of the city.

In 1917 he bought a standard urinal in the J.L. Mott showroom in Manhattan. He signed it with his pseudonym “R. Mutt 1917” and exhibited it at the show of Society of Independent Artists. It was called “Fountain” – one of the most provocative art objects of the 20th cent. In 1961 Duchamp’s fellow Dadaist Hans Richter wrote him in a letter: “You threw the bottle-rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty”.


After spending nine months in Buenos-Aires (1918), where he enthusiastically played chess, the artist returned to France, where he joined the group of Parisian Dadaists. Duchamp’s work of that period, named “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919) was a reproduction of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” with added mustache and goatee. Its title has a phonetic pun, as the abbreviation could be quickly read as “Elle a chaud au cul” – “She has a hot ass”, or, for instance, like “look” in English. That way, as Marcel thought, da Vinci’s masterpiece became more up-to-date. Public saw Freudian hints and typical provocation in Dadaist manner. The Duchamp created 38 analogical pieces in overall of various dimensions – the last one, “L.H.O.O.Q. Shaved”, dates back to 1965.

In 1920 he returned to New York, where created his first constructions with motor and introduced Rose Sélavy – his female alter-ego. It first appeared in 1921 in a series of photographs by Man Ray of Duchamp dressed like a woman. Duchamp later used the name in the title of some creation, like sculpture “Why Not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy?” (1921). It was a readymade assemblage of thermometer, 152 white marble cubes, which resembled sugar cubes, a fragment of cuttlebone and a tiny porcelain dish inside a birdcage.

In 1923 Marcel Duchamp left for Paris, where announced that he had decided to give up creating art to dedicate himself to chess. He claimed art got under control of businessmen and, what was even worse, had been accepted by the middle class. Since that time, his creative activity was occasional.

Cinema and kinetic sculpture

In 1926 in collaboration with Man Ray the artist made experimental film “Anemic cinema”, which was built on witty geometric figures and chess combinations (chess were very important for Duchamp, who was the grand master and even represented France in the international chess contests). During the whole film to hypnotizing images alternated each other – spirals and concentric circles that were spinning at different speed, the second one – disks with signs, puns and alliterations that were going round.

For that film Marcel used “rotoreliefs” he had rendered before – these were carboard circles, painted with patterns and hanged on phonographic turntables. Their motion created illusion of three-dimensional objects. As the master used to say, “Since a three-dimensional object casts a two-dimensional shadow, we should be able to imagine the unknown four-dimensional object whose shadow we are. I for my part am fascinated by the search for a one-dimensional object that casts no shadow at all”. The echoes of Marcel Duchamp’s experiments in kinetic art could be traced in Op-Art, which pieces “fool” human eyes with optical illusions, when a static picture from flat or spatial figures seems to gain volume, move and change.

1930s – 1960s. Cooperation with Surrealists

One can find the clearest idea about Marcel Duchamp’s artistic principles in his separate notes, published in 1934 in the book “The Green Box”.

The artist settled in New York and obtained citizenship of the USA in 1955. During 1940s he cooperated with New York surrealists and organized several exhibitions. His ideas for those shows in 1942 and 1947 had foretold the appearance of happenings in 1950s and 1960s and conception of contemporary art, according to which a viewer plays equally active role in creating and art object, as the artist himself.

In 1946 Marcel started his last major piece – “Etant donnés: 1. la chute d’eau 2. le gaz d’éclairage”. The work over it lasted secretly for 20 years. It’s an assemblage sculpture, depicting a nude woman lying with her face hidden and legs spread holding a gas lamp in the air in one hand against a landscape backdrop. The whole image is visible only through a pair of peep holes in a wooden door.
Marcel Duchamp died on October 2, 1968, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.