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French-American artist, poet, and chess player, whose radical ideas have been a continuous source of inspiration for avant-garde movements, from Dada and Surrealism to conceptual art. In a poll in 2004, Duchamp's porcelain urinal, a ready-made work first shown in an expedition in 1917, was voted by British art experts the most influential artwork of the 20th century. "I threw the urinal in their faces and now they come and admire it for its beauty," Duchamp once commented. The last 40 years of his life Duchamp devoted mostly to chess, film and collaborations on exhibitions.
"All in all, 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." (from Salt Seller, ed. by Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, 1973)
Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp was born in Blainville-Crevon, a Normandy village, the son of Eugène Duchamp, a notary, and Marie-Caroline-Lucie Duchamp (née Nicolle). Marcel was the fourth of seven children. Four of them gained fame as artists: Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876-1918) became a sculptor and Jacques Villon (1875-1963) and Suzanne Duchamp (1889-1963) became painters. Duchamp himself started to paint in his teens, though his artistic aspirations disappointmented his father. Otherwise the family shared interest in music, art, and literature. His mother's watercolors Duchamp described as totally uninteresting. Her father, Emile-Frédéric Nicolle first made a fortune as a shipping agent and then devoted himself to art, becoming in his time one of Rouen's most renowed artists.
After education at the Lycée Corneille and the École Bossuet, Duchamp joined his brothers in Paris, where studied at the Académié Julian, a private art school. By Duchamp's own account, he spent more time at cafés than in the studio. In 1905 he failed on the entrance exam to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but soon after he took a course in printing in Rouen, and then worked as a cartoonist for Le Courier Français and Le Lire.
The Passage from Virgin to Bride (1912) Duchamp painted in Munich. During this period he started to make notes for The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even. The work, which he started in New York in 1915, was mostly completed by 1918. Nude descending a Staircase (1912), in which the movement of a single figure was seen in successive stages, was exhibited in New York at the Armory show in 1913. It had been rejected by the Salon des Indépendents in Paris, but exhibited in Barcelona in May 1912. The work created an international sensation.
Duchamp's first ready-made sculpture, shown in 1914, was an ordinary bottle-rack, which the artist had bought at a town-hall bazaar. Before it he had created a forerunner to Alexander Calder's mobiles by fastening a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool. Duchamp called it a "distraction". With these works Duchamp provoked a debate about the definition of art and originality, which such Pop artist as Andy Warhol and Jasper John in the own way continued. Duchamp's aim, as he once explained, was to "carry the mind of the spectator towards other regions, more verbal." The pure ready-made did not have any artistic qualities; the artist raised it to the category of a work of art by the act of choice. Duchamp's ideas had a great influence on the Dadaists. Bicycle Wheel, which he had made in 1913, was partly born from his fascination with mechanical movement. He also experimented with film and sound. For his Anemic Cinema (1926) Duchamp made a series of motorized discs. Duchamp's optical projects were not a success. In 1935 he managed to sell only one of his Rotoreliefs, a relief obtained by rotation.
In 1913-14 Duchamp worked as a librarian at the Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève. Finding the atmosphere in Paris intolerable, Duchamp went to New York, where his friend Francis Picabia joined him in 1915. They were welcomed as the most celebrated representatives of avant-garde. Picabia was born into a wealthy family; he was a restless person, who lived wild, took opium, and spread the ideas of avant-garde through his publications. An art dealer offered in 1916 Duchamp $10,000 a year for his "entire production". Duchamp refused the offer. He worked in New York for some time as a librarian at the French Institute. During his stay he became friends with Man Ray, the poet William Carlos Williams and the composer Edgard Varèse. With Ray Duchamp published an almanac entitled New York Dada. Walter and Louise Arensberg, art patrons, began to collect Duchamp's art. Duchamp did not take any part in Picabia's magazine 291, which published Apollinaire's 'idéogrammes' and other art and poetry of the time, but in 1917 he published pamphlets in the magazines The Blind Man and Rongwrong.
In 1917 Ducamp sent an urinal, his famous Fountain, to the first annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, in which Duchamp himself was a founding member. However, the work was excluded and Duchamp resigned from the society. Later Duchamp recalled the incident as a turning point in his career: "So, that cooled me off so much that, as a reaction against such behavior coming from artists whom I had believed to be free. I got job. I became a librarian... " (Dialogues With Marcel Duchamp by Pierre Cabanne, 1987) The signature of Fountain, R.Mutt, referred to New York manufacturer of sanitary equipment, as if he were the creator of the work. "Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance," Duchamp or Beatrice Wood explained in an anonymous article in The Blind Man, a magazine created by Duchamp and his friends. "He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object." After Fountain, the definition of art was nearly lost.
L.H.O.O.Q., Duchamp's version of the Mona Lisa with a pencilled-in moustache and goatee, was made in 1919. In French the letters of the reproduction sound like "she has a hot arse" (elle a chaud au cul). Duchamp's nihilistic comment on the whole history of the Western art and art museums became an icon of the Dada movement. In a way, Duchamp's attitude toward art recalls Buster Keaton's very economical means of expression, or Alfred Jarry's (1873-1907) pseudoscientific logic of the absurd which he called pataphysique. "If I do propose to strain a little bit the laws of physics and chemistry and so forth," Duchamp said in an interview in 1963, "it is because I would like to you to think them unstable to a degree. Even gravity is a form of coincidence or politeness since it is only by condescension that a weight is heavier when it descends than when it rises."
The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, known also as The Large Glass, is among Duchamp's major and largest works – it is almost ten feet high. The bride is actually a machine, without obvious connections to feminity or the bridal or wedding accessories. Later versions of the transparent construction made of wire, glass, lead foil, dust and other materials, are in Stockholm's Moderna Museet and in Tate Gallery, London. The original version from 1915, shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926, was broken by accident. Duchamp reassigned the pieces but retained the symmetrical cracks. The work was installed in the Library of Katherine S. Dreier, one of the founders of the Société Anonyme. In his Green Box (La Boîte Verte), a literary adjunct on the glass, Duchamp called it "A Hilarious Painting". Duchamp explained that the upper part of the work represents the bride, while the lower part represents a group of bachelors.
Duchamp also invented himself an female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy (Eros That's Life), who appeared in his friends works. Man Ray photographed Rrose Sélavy on several occasions. Under her name Duchamp published in 1939 a book of puns and word games.
Duchamp's official last painting was Tu m' from 1918. In the same year Duchamp decided to move to Argentina. He spent the winter of 1918-1919 playing chess in Buenos Aires. From the 1920s Duchamp divided his time between France and the U.S. When asked about his activities, he said: "I breathe." His financial situation Duchamp did not improve by selling his works until quite late in life. For years he lived in a modest, $40-a-month apartment in Greenwich Village. When he was unable to pay his dentist, he produced a phoney cheque, Tzanck Cheque (1919), issued from The Teeth's Loan & Trust Company, Consolidated, of 2 Wall Street, New York.
In 1927 Duchamp married Lyndie Sarazine-Levassor, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. They divorced in 1928. Later Duchamp called the marriage "an art work, a Happening, a Performance..." Man Ray filmed the ceremony. Duchamp's long relationship with the American widow and bookbinder Mary Reynolds started in the 1920s and continued until the Nazi occupation of Paris.
In 1932 Duchamp completed with Vitaly Halberstadt a book on end-games in chess, L'Opposition et les cases conjuguées sont réconcilées (Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled). In his childhood Duchamp had played the game at home with his brothers. Later he made a painting entitled Joueurs d'échecs (Portrait of Chess Players). More serious about movements on the chessboard than movements in the art world, Duchamp strived for the title of "master" by the French Chess Federation, which he eventually received in 1925. He also participated in a number of tournaments in France and the U.S. During the last years of his life, Duchamp played chess with the American composer John Cage on a board wired for music.
In 1941 Duchamp presented his "portable museum," Box in a Valise, on which had worked for five years. The valise included reproductions of his most important works, among them a miniature model of the urinal. Between 1943 and 1949 he wrote critical notes on modern artists, from Alexander Archipenko to his brother Jacques Villon, for the catalog of the Sociéte Anonyme. With the Surrealist writer André Breton Duchamp arranged two window installation in New York in 1945. He also designed the cover of Breton's collection of poems, Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares (1946).
After living for a long time as a bachelor, Duchamp married in 1954 Alexina (Teeny) Sattler (1906-1995), formerly married to Pierre Matisse. Next year he became an American citizen. In secret, known only to his wife, he had started to develop an assemblage after World War II, Etant Donnés, his visual testament. The exterior consists of an old wooden door, closed, with two peepholes. Through them can be seen a naked girl without pubic hair. In the background is a landscape. Duchamp died in Neuilly-sur-Seine on October 2, 1968. He was buried in Rouen.
For further reading: The World of Marcel Duchamp by Calvin Tomkins (1966); Marcel Duchamp, ed. by Anne D'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine (1973); Marcel Duchamp: Eros, c'est la vie, a Biography by Alice Goldfarb Marquis (1981); Dialogues With Marcel Duchamp by Pierre Cabanne (1987); The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp, ed. by Thierry de Duve (1991); Marcel Duchamp: Work and Life, ed. by Pontus Hulten (1993); Dada: Art and Anti-Art by Hans Richter (1997); Infinite Regress: Marcel Duchamp 1910-1941 by David Joselit (1998); Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp...Resonance by Susan Davidson et al. (1999); Marcel Duchamp by Dawn Ades, Neil Cox, David Hopkins (1999); Marcel Duchamp by Francis M. Naumann (1999); Marcel Duchamp in Perspective by Joseph Masheck (2002); Displaying the Marvelous: Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, and Surrealist Exhibition by Lewis Kachur (2003)