Probably one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp is famous for his vast quantity of works which remain some of the most sought after by collectors and museums alike. His style was intrinsically traditionalist in his beginnings and he rejected modernism very early in his career – he was known to have stated that he wanted to bring the visual aspect back to painting so that the end result pleases the eye. However he moved into Cubism and Dadaism in later years and changed his outlook to a more rigid and intense form of painting.
Influence of modernism
In his early work, Duchamp was clearly influenced by a post-impressionist style although he also experimented with Fauvism and Cubism at this stage of his career. One of the most important influences on his style was Odilon Redon, a symbolist painter who focused primarily on individualism and not rigid academic style.
Duchamp’s experience at the Acadmie Julien between 1904 and 5 showed him to be more interested in life’s pleasures than in formal artistic technique. Amongst his most famous works from this period are a series of sketches which depict a certain sense of humour and which focus intrinsically on creating visual or verbal comparisons, puns in a more simplistic language. This dry humour was to influence his most important works later in his career. One can say that humour was also an important influence on his career.
Duchamp was also close to his elder brother Jacque and his first exhibition was put up at the Salon d’Automne in 1908. It elicited a negative reaction from several critics who described his nudes as ugly and not visually pleasing. Duchamp met the brash and boastful artist Francis Picabia who became a friend for life and also introduced Duchamp to the world in a lavish and fast paced lifestyle.
One of the most important artistic developments by Duchamp was the founding of the Puteaux Group in 1911 together with other artists such as Jean Metzinger, Alexander Archipenko and Juan Gris. They stayed away from contemporary cubism but formed a style which was to be known as Orphic Cubism. Initially Duchamp was not very comfortable with using cubist styles but eventually he incorporated the technique into his paintings post 1912. One of his most famous paintings, ‘Sad Young Man on a Train’ incorporates these cubist styles but there are also other elements including the transition between change and movement which make this painting particularly haunting and interesting. Duchamp was also intrigued by the possibility of introducing a fourth dimension in his paintings but this never really came to fruition.
It would be intriguing to hear from the artist himself on this subject. He uses a new word to describe this painting which is distorition, something which had never been heard before and which describes the way the figure of the man is almost grotesquely spread out.
“First, there's the idea of the movement of the train, and then that of the sad young man who is in a corridor and who is moving about; thus there are two parallel movements corresponding to each other. Then, there is the distorition of the young man—I had called this elementary parallelism. It was a formal decomposition; that is, linear elements following each other like parallels and distoriting the object. The object is completely stretched out, as if elastic. The lines follow each other in parallels, while changing subtly to form the movement, or the form of the young man in question. I also used this procedure in the Nude Descending a Staircase”. (Cabanne 1971, p 29)
Other works from this period and which demonstrate the influence of orphic cubism include the exotic ‘Coffee Mill’. This dates from 1911 as incorporates several of the styles mentioned in the young man painting. The aphorism and cubist fascination is further explored and perfected in another important painting of Duchamp’s artistic maturity which is titled ‘Large Glass’. Here we have a description of a grinder mechanism which is to be found both in a coffee grinder as well as a glass grinder.
Another important work by Duchamp is the aptly titled ‘Portrait of Chess Players’ where one finds an intense overlapping of frames as well as different perspectives to two persons playing chess. The two figures are no other that Duchamp and his brother and through the painting we can observe what is going on in the minds of players. This incredibly avant garde approach to visual art is one of the finest points of Marcel Ducamp’s art.
Duchamp’s art lives on in the works of Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon but the influence of Dadaism on his art is also very much in evidence. The horrors of the First World war undoubtedly affected him greatly and this result was even further distortion and unreality in his works. The series of Nudes Descending from a Staircase shows the daring technique employed by Duchamp to recreate the psychological feel to art which was perhaps lacking in some Cubist artists. Although influenced by some styles, he certainly was highly original in his conception of the fourth dimension.
Tomkins, Calvin: Duchamp: A Biography, Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1996. ISBN 0-8050-5789-7
Tomkins, Calvin: Duchamp: The World of Marcel Duchamp 1887-, Time, Inc., 1966. ISBN 158334148X
Ian Chilvers & John Glaves-Smith: A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art. Oxford University Press, pp. 202–205
Seigel, Jerrold: The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp, University of California Press, 1995. ISBN 0-520-20038-1
Hulten, Pontus (editor): Marcel Duchamp: Work and Life, The MIT Press, 1993. ISBN 0-262-08225-X