This essay is part of an extended series by Jeanne Willette. You can find other pieces in this series (to date) in the Avant-Garde section of this website.
By Jeanne Willette
One of the often overlooked facts in the history of the avant-garde is that three of the most important artists of the twentieth century – Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp – seceded from the established art world of Paris. Their deliberate and considered and conscious actions marginalized them as artists, removing them from the center, which at that time was located in the two avant-garde Salons, the newly established Salon d’Automne and the venerable Salon des Indépendants. Because these salons had been so successful in countering the conservative and traditional salons favored by the academic artists, all attention was focused on the paintings that were shown there.
With his own brief book in 1908, Notes on Painting, Matisse began to respond to critics. Meanwhile Braque and Picasso remained silent. Unless the names of Picasso or Braque were mentioned – a rare occurrence – all the accounts of “Cubism” in the press and in the literature of the petites revues were focused on and were about the art of the Salon. The Salon Cubists, led by Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, were the Cubists, the only Cubists, in the minds of the public and in the eyes of the art world. Picasso and Braque were shadowy figures, whose art was secreted in the small gallery of their German art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, a person somewhat under suspicion due to the pre-war tensions between France and Germany. On rare occasion these artists would deign to attend a Salon exhibition but otherwise the pair worked in quiet privacy, protected by their dealer’s lucrative sales to eastern nations: Germany, Hungary, and Russia. Picasso and Braque might have become legends because of their strategy of secession, but it was Gleizes and Metzinger who were the “heroes” of Cubism, facing a hostile audience and a bewildered press, braving the storm of disapproval.
With that said, Kahnweiler’s reclusive artists suggested to another young painter that there might be a better way to be a creator. This artist was a minor Salon Cubist, Marcel Duchamp, who was not yet well known but had a small, promising reputation. He was the much younger brother of Salon leaders, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, and, in the minds of his elders, trailed behind them.
Marcel was in fact detached from his older brothers, connected mainly with his sister Suzanne. With hindsight it seems clear that there must have been a gulf between the brothers, a gap that precluded loyalty and support. It is this space within the family that made the artistic life of Duchamp suddenly very different from that of Picasso. Picasso was always a lone wolf, acting on his own but always at the center of a group of circling admirers, while Duchamp was doubly connected to the world of the Salons, both as an accepted artist and as the brother of leading artists. Something happened to dislodge Duchamp from his position in the avant-garde. The trigger was the explosion that was Italian Futurism, a wave that swamped Paris in February 1912, causing great consternation among the local artists of the time, who felt very threatened by the sudden appearance of a foreign rival. The storm was a brief one but the literary barbs exchanged were quite sharp. In a deliberate attack on the reigning style, Cubism, Umberto Boccioni’s catalogue in the Futurist catalogue for the Bernheim-Jeune Galerie challenged Cubism’s “objects motionless, frozen and all the static aspects for Nature; they worship the traditionalism of Poussin, of Ingres, of Corot.” The art critic and poet Guillaume Apollinaire shot back, contending that: “Futurism, in my opinion, is an Italian imitation of the two schools of French painting that have succeeded each other the past few years: fauvism and cubism.”. In other words, the Futurists thought that the Cubists were old fashioned and the Cubists thought the Futurists were derivative, as Apollinaire wrote: “The young Futurist painters can hold their own with some of our avant-garde artists, but so far they are only feeble pupils of a Picasso or a Derain and as for charm, they have no idea what that is.”[i]
A month later, Marcel Duchamp became a casualty of the brief clash between the Italians and the French. Interested in the chronophotography of Étienne Marey, Duchamp had painted what seems at first glance a Cubist-like work – Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1911) – in sequential steps. Unfortunately for him, Duchamp submitted the painting to the Salon des Indépendants in March 1912, and, in the wake of the contretemps at the Bernheim-Jeune Galerie, the work was “read” as too Futuristic for the hanging committee, while certain powerful Cubists, Metzinger and Gleizes, thought the work “a bit off the beam.” Spanish artist Francis Picabia had read the painting as being “infected” with Futurism. The fact that Duchamp had completed the Nude well before the Futurists came to town only added to the injury. The message, a request to remove the offending object from the premises, was carried to the surprised young artist by his older brothers, who, like stern parents, sided with their friends, rather than defending their younger sibling. The “messengers” Villon and Duchamp-Villon, moreover, did not bring the ‘offending’ painting to Duchamp, and, to add extra insult, put him in the humiliating position of removing the painting himself, in person. Towards the end of his very long life, Marcel Duchamp recalled the event as the moment that ended his conventional career. “There was an incident,” he said:
“in 1912, which ‘gave me a turn,’ so to speak; when I brought the Nude Descending a Staircase to the Indépendants, and they asked me to withdraw it before the opening..People like Gleizes, who were, nevertheless, extremely intelligent, found that this Nude wasn’t in the line that they had predicted. Cubism had lasted two or three days, and they already had an absolutely clear, dogmatic line on it, foreseeing everything that might happen. I found that naïvely foolish. So, that cooled me off so much that, as a reaction against such behavior coming from artists whom I believed to be free, I got a job.”[ii]
Not only had Duchamp learned where the loyalties of his own brothers lay, he had also experienced the petty-mindedness of a Salon that was founded on the predicate of not refusing anyone. The entire edifice of being “avant-garde” was revealed as simply another component of the establishment, a place where everyone had to conform to expectations. The Salon Cubists announced patronizingly, “a nude never descends the stairs—a nude reclines.” Although the Nude was shown first in April in Barcelona and then in the Cubist exhibition Section d’Or at the Galerie de la Boétie in October 1912 – and later at the Armory Show in New York in 1913 – the betrayal of his brothers was so great and the shock of their treason so overwhelming that Duchamp vowed to never paint again. He kept his promise, but not before a short period of intense output. It was as if, during this period, Duchamp was saying goodbye to painting by exhausting all its possibilities. His eventual exit from painting was no small withdrawal. Anyone who has examined his small oeuvre of paintings is aware that Duchamp was one of the better painters of the Salon Cubists. Imaginative and inventive, he had a patte or signature touch that was light and smooth and assured, and interestingly, he followed the monochrome Analytic Cubist palette of Braque and Picasso with a blend of gold and bronze and creamy tones, “a slightly different formula,” as Duchamp put it. As his last paintings, produced between 1912 and 1913, attest – Two Nudes, One Strong and One Swift, The King and Queen Crossed by Nudes at High Speed, The King and Queen Crossed by Swift Nudes, The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes, Virgin No. 1, Virgin No 2, The Passage from the Virgin to Bride – the sacrifice was a profound one, leaving Duchamp with the question of what to do next. Moreover, the question that faced the young artist was how to make art without making art. Having renounced the world and the flesh of painting, a now purified Duchamp, shorn of what he would later call “olfactory” art or the art of good taste, would become an ascetic.
It was undoubtedly true that few would have noticed that Duchamp had left the building. However, what was to follow was his journey of renunciation and renewal as the future “father of postmodernism.”
“Disappearance” is a word rarely used in discussing the avant-garde art of the pre-War years, but it is a word that best describes a phenomenon that characterized art practice in Paris before the Great War. Artists – Matisse, Picasso, Braque – disappeared from the public art scene. Art -Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism – disappeared from Paris, and then Marcel Duchamp disappeared himself, eventually leading, as strange as it sounds, to the disappearance of art itself, as after Duchamp left the art world he began to dissolving art into an idea, a concept. Contrary to the plentitude often assumed in conventional history, when the avant-garde is viewed in terms of actual artistic practice, one glimpses an absence at the heart of these crucial decades. Seen as business or as a means of survival for improvised artists, the mechanisms of the art market pulled art from its national roots and sent works on journeys far from home. These sales and redistributions would have profound consequences in the future, because art would disappear never to reappear, bringing the study of avant-garde art itself into question. While the unforeseen fate of absent art will be discussed later, the case of Marcel Duchamp is among the strangest disappearances of the twentieth century. When he reappeared, it was as a frail old man with a few tales to tell, living just long enough to see his life’s effort to reduce art to an idea celebrated but not understood. His journey towards not making art began when he was a young man, hurt and humiliated, but determined to find another destination. He mourned the memories of the unwarranted rejection of Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1911) and did what anyone would do under the circumstances, he left town on a summer vacation.
Ironically, the rivalry between Cubism and Futurism that had impacted the Nude’s reception was over by the time Duchamp parted for his destination, Germany. But he had learned that the supposedly open-minded world of the avant-garde could be as petty and as close-minded as that of academic art and that his brothers could not be trusted. Duchamp took a train to Munich for a fresh perspective. Germany was France’s historical enemy and its great rival – the nation’s target for revanche after the humiliating defeat of 1871. But in the summer of 1912, Germany was a very interesting place for an artist to visit. As Thierry du Duve pointed out in his article ”Resonances of Duchamp’s Visit to Munich,” in Paris, the Salon system had been organized along the lines of rejection and exclusion of anyone considered “undesirable.” [i] For hundreds of years, the French government had controlled art in Paris with an iron and censorious hand. In terms of how artists organized themselves in Munich and Berlin, there was no long history of exclusion and elitism, instead, another tradition ruled, the idea of seceding or dropping out or withdrawing from the field of battle and advancing forward to another territory. The idea of artists banding together and walking out had a distinct name, a respected and celebrated name: secession.
Later Duchamp would describe Munich as “the scene of my complete liberation.” It was here that an artist could secede as an honorable act, a gesture that would not be seen as sulking. Detached from the Salon Cubists and from his brothers, Duchamp was free to reinvent himself. Sadly, by the time Duchamp arrived for the summer, the famous Munich Secession had itself become conservative and the edgier artists worked outside its established halls, but the mental image of Munich as being the site of artistic openness and disorder marked by the will to create something new reinforced Duchamp’s decision to find an alternate route to art. There is no indication that Duchamp sought the company of the avant-garde artists of Murnau, Vassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, who were working in the small village on the edge of the city. He claimed he spoke to “no one” and had “a great time.” The novel contemporary situation in Munich, so very different from that in Paris, seemed to be of little interest to Duchamp who was most impressed with the art of the Alte Pinakothek, a short distance from his lodgings at the Lenbachhaus. Here in this extraordinary museum is one of the most sublime paintings of Adam and Eve in the history of painting, Lucas Cranach’s 1510 version, the first of what were his many works on the famous couple. Duchamp was haunted by this painting for most of his life. In 1924, he posed with “Bronia Perlmutter” (aka Francis Picabia) for Man Ray’s camera. The resulting image, from a Dada performance in Paris, was a pastiche of the poses in the Munich Cranach. The photograph became the template for a subsequent etching by Duchamp.
In 1949, he explained, “I love those Cranachs. I love them. Cranach, the old man. The tall nudes..” He was particularly interested in “the nature and substance of his nudes.”
While the Alte Pinakothek seems an odd focal point for a Cubist artist turned runaway, the Cranach painting was but part of a journey Duchamp had been taking and would continue for the rest of his career. The Munich visit has always been mysterious, lying between his exit from Paris as an artist and his reentry as a librarian, an interregnum that separated his paintings from his ready-mades (word not yet coined). But Duchamp’s fascination with the Adam and Eve painting can be see as part of his life-long obsession with delay and the not yet, the not now, and most importantly, with the liminal and the moments in-between. Duchamp dealt always with the ambiguity of the human body, part machine, part god. The famous Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was neither male nor female, both human and cyborg, mechanically plodding down the stairs. There is no indication of its point of origin, nor is a terminus shown. The Nude is in transit, moving ceaselessly reenacting a passage, which will be completed outside the picture frame. In 1912, the theme of passage can be seen, not just with the Nude but also with the King and Queen series, where the “swift” and fleet nudes, in passage, whiz by. Passage is about more than mere movement, however – passage, passing, is also about transition, transit. Appearing during the “the Munich period,” the Virgin was disembodied and immobilized, hung like a cocoon waiting to open, dangling between virginity and consummation, a passage that may always be thwarted, because, although she may pass towards Bride, her state will never be altered.
Adam and Eve, in the Cranach painting, are also suspended in the midst of a passage that the artist painted over and over, as if obsessed with that liminal moment. Adam and Eve, wreathed in rich and golden tones, are children of Paradise, verdant and untouched, tempted but not quite fallen. The serpent is talking to Eve who toys with the apple, caressing its surface as her hair blows in the soft breeze. Adam also holds an apple, clutching it firmly and decisively, while, with the other hand, he covers himself with a branch of fig leaves. But Eve, standing awkwardly with her legs crossed, maintains her innocence and although the leaves languish nearby, she has as of yet no reason to adorn them. Thus, as Eve’s suspended locks of hair attest, the pair is in passage, en route, falling towards falling, but not yet fallen. Duchamp was always perverse in his vision of desire, for desire is forever delayed and consummation and satisfaction is forbidden to the forever-separated actors. Adam and Eve were once one, children unaware of their differences or of their destinies. Knowledge, the blissful taste of the fruit, made them aware that they were male and female, a realization that not only cursed them with adulthood but also separated them, relegated them to the endless repetitive mechanized labors outside the gates of Paradise. No wonder that it is in Munich that Duchamp began mentally working on his most famous non-painting, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even The Large Glass, completed in 1923.
De Duve speculated about the impact of the craft tradition in Munich upon Duchamp, and, indeed, the artist already had explored the notion of humans as mechanical beings driven, like Adam and Eve, by lust, and it suited his contrary nature, his penchant for withdrawal, to deny the completion of the mechanics of sex. After a three-month summer break, Duchamp returned to Paris and at the New Year visited his parents in Rouen. Here he encountered by chance a chocolate grinder in the window of a posh shop, and, fascinated by the “spectacle,” he “took this machine as a point of departure.”[i] Noting the “mechanical side,” as he recounted to James Jackson Sweeney in 1955, he had apparently decided to “go back to a completely dry drawing, a dry conception of art /… I was striving for accuracy and precision /… I was beginning to appreciate the importance of chance.” Having stumbled upon the grinder, Duchamp painted it in 1913 – a nice clean and clear rendition, stripped down rather like American Precisionism ten years in the future. But his second version painted in 1914, solved that painting problem and removed as much of the “hand-work,” as he put it, substituting thread lines, carefully and precisely applied (drawn) on the surface of the drums. This painting or non-painting, Chocolate Grinder, No. 2, signaled his departure from fine art and his entrance into engineering and impersonal rendering. Duchamp was, at heart, now a craftsperson, re-making mechanized objects, diagraming them on flat surfaces, mapping them out with string or wire. The results are, as in The Large Glass, painted, but the labor itself was not painting. From not painting, Duchamp moved to another “distraction,” to use his word, the chance encounter with a bicycle wheel and soon, in a series of logical steps, the first “readymade” was engineered.
[ii] Pierre Cabanne. Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (Paris: Editions Pierre Belfond, 1967)
[iii] Thierry de Duve. “Resonances of Duchamp’s Visit to Munich.” Marcel Duchamp. Artist of the Century. MIT Press (1996)
[iv] Joseph Masheck. Marcel Duchamp In Perspective (New York: DeCapo Press, 1975/2002)
Did you appreciate this publication? Please consider donating.