Marcel Duchamp, French (1887-1968)

Marcel Duchamp (28 July 1887 – 2 October 1968) was a French artist whose work is most often associated with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. Duchamp's output influenced the development of post-World War I Western art. He advised modern art collectors, such as Peggy Guggenheim and other prominent figures, thereby helping to shape the tastes of Western art during this period.

A playful man, Duchamp challenged conventional thought about artistic processes and art marketing, not so much by writing, but through subversive actions such as dubbing a urinal art and naming it Fountain. He produced relatively few artworks, while moving quickly through the avant-garde circles of his time.

The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.

Marcel Duchamp was born in Blainville-Crevon Seine-Maritime in the Haute-Normandie region of France, and grew up in a family that enjoyed cultural activities. The art of painter and engraver Emile Nicolle, his maternal grandfather, filled the house, and the family liked to play chess, read books, paint, and make music together.

Of Eugene and Lucie Duchamp's seven children, one died as an infant and four became successful artists. Marcel Duchamp was the brother of:

  • Jacques Villon (1875–1963), painter, printmaker
  • Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876–1918), sculptor
  • Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti (1889–1963), painter.

As a child, with his two older brothers already away from home at school in Rouen, Duchamp was close to his sister Suzanne, who was a willing accomplice in games and activities conjured by his fertile imagination. At 10 years old, Duchamp followed in his brothers' footsteps when he left home and began schooling at the Lycée Corneille in Rouen. For the next 7 years, he was locked into an educational regime which focused on intellectual development. Though he was not an outstanding student, his best subject was mathematics and he won two mathematics prizes at the school. He also won a prize for drawing in 1903, and at his commencement in 1904 he won a coveted first prize, validating his recent decision to become an artist.

He learned academic drawing from a teacher who unsuccessfully attempted to protect his students from Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and other avant-garde influences. However, Duchamp's true artistic mentor at the time was his brother Jacques Villon, whose fluid and incisive style he sought to imitate. At 14, his first serious art attempts were drawings and watercolors depicting his sister Suzanne in various poses and activities. That summer he also painted landscapes in an Impressionist style using oils

Duchamp's early art works align with Post-Impressionist styles. He experimented with classical techniques and subjects, as well as with Cubism and Fauvism. When he was later asked about what had influenced him at the time, Duchamp cited the work of Symbolist painter Odilon Redon, whose approach to art was not outwardly anti-academic, but quietly individual.

He studied art at the Académie Julian from 1904 to 1905, but preferred playing billiards to attending classes. During this time Duchamp drew and sold cartoons which reflected his ribald humor. Many of the drawings use visual and/or verbal puns. Such play with words and symbols engaged his imagination for the rest of his life.

In 1905 he began his compulsory military service, working for a printer in Rouen. There he learned typography and printing processes – skills he would use in his later work.

Due to his eldest brother Jacques' membership in the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture Duchamp's work was exhibited in the 1908 Salon d'Automne. The following year his work was featured in the Salon des Indépendants. Of Duchamp's pieces in the show, critic Guillaume Apollinaire--who was to become a friend—criticized what he called "Duchamp's very ugly nudes." Duchamp also became lifelong friends with exuberant artist Francis Picabia after meeting him at the 1911 Salon d' Automne, and Picabia proceeded to introduce him to a lifestyle of fast cars and 'high' living.

In 1911, at Jacques' home in Puteaux, the brothers hosted a regular discussion group with other artists and writers including Picabia, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Roger de la Fresnaye, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Juan Gris, and Alexander Archipenko. The group came to be known as the Puteaux Group, and the artists' work was dubbed Orphic cubism. Uninterested in the Cubists' seriousness or in their focus on visual matters, Duchamp did not join in discussions of Cubist theory, and gained a reputation of being shy. However, that same year he painted in a Cubist style, and added an impression of motion by using repetitive imagery.

During this period Duchamp's fascination with transition, change, movement and distance became manifest, and like many artists of the time, he was intrigued with the concept of depicting a "Fourth dimension" in art.

Works from this period included his first "machine" painting, Coffee Mill (Moulin à café) (1911), which he gave to his brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon. The Coffee Mill shows similarity to the "grinder" mechanism of the Large Glass he was to paint years later.

In his 1911Portrait of Chess Players (Portrait de joueurs d'echecs) there is the Cubist overlapping frames and multiple perspectives of his two brothers playing chess, but to that Duchamp added elements conveying the unseen mental activity of the players. (Notably, "échec" is French for "failure".)

.New York Dada had a less serious tone than that of European Dadaism, and was not a particularly organized venture. Duchamp's friend Picabia connected with the Dada group in Zürich, bringing to New York the Dadaist ideas of absurdity and "anti-art." A group met almost nightly at the Arensberg home, or caroused in Greenwich Village. Together with Man Ray, Duchamp contributed his ideas and humor to the New York activities, many of which ran concurrent with the development of his Readymades and The Large Glass. They also worked on the concept of "found art."

The most prominent example of Duchamp's association with Dada was his submission of Fountain, a urinal, to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit in 1917. Artworks in the Independent Artists shows were not selected by jury, and all pieces submitted were displayed. However, the show committee insisted that Fountain was not art, and rejected it from the show. This caused an uproar amongst the Dadaists, and led Duchamp to resign from the board of the Independent Artists.

Along with Henri-Pierre Roché and Beatrice Wood, Duchamp published a Dada magazine in New York, entitled The Blind Man, which included art, literature, humor and commentary.

When he returned to Paris after World War I, Duchamp did not participate in the Dada group.

Marcel Duchamp died on October 2, 1968 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, and is buried in the Rouen Cemetery, in Rouen, France. His grave bears the epitaph, "D'ailleurs, c'est toujours les autres qui meurent;" or "Besides, it's always other people who die."

The Prix Marcel Duchamp (Marcel Duchamp Prize), established in 2000, is an annual award given to a young artist by the Centre Georges Pompidou. In 2004, as a testimony to the legacy of Duchamp's work to the art world, his Fountain was voted "most influential artwork of the 20th century" by a panel of prominent artists and art historians.



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