Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia

London, Tate Modern, from 21 February to 26 May 2008.

“Oh, what a bunch of naughty boys !”, “They really had some cheek !”, might be some of the silent exclamations visitors to the exhibition of this bawdy trio at the Tate Modern [1] will make when they are confronted with their works – and our gang of three would happily nod from the depth of their graves if they could. Indeed, nothing would be worse than to take on an affected air, usually considered indispensable when looking at these “world renowned masterpieces” and pretend to be a refined connoisseur of these irreverent jabs, subversive pranks and blatant provocations meant to “shock the bourgeoisie”. To keep from falling into the trap Andersen described so well in The Emperor’s New Clothes, one should instead play along, an accomplice to their games, rather than a fool taken in by this art.

1. Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Fountain, 1917, replica 1964
Faience, 36 x 48 x 61 cm
London, Tate
© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ Paris and
DACS, London 2007

What are these likeable rascals trying to tell us ? Precisely that the “world renowned masterpieces” are not that in fact – or not any longer – for them. Why ? Because they do not in any way reflect the only thing that really counts, that is their metaphysical anguish. Their derision is the result of despair. An English expression which is often used reprovingly comes to mind, anything goes. One might argue that this trio of artists who have lost all hope have founded their movement on the idea that if the Platonic philosophy that we have inherited of beauty and truth and the “bourgeois” values they detest since they do not respond to their angst are no longer valid, it is only in breaking away from them that they might find –although they are not really convinced of doing so – an appropriate form to express their “mal de vivre” or sense of despair. And if “anything goes”, why shouldn’t a urinal (ill. 1) be presented as a “work of art” – an expression that they use to better subvert its meaning.

The catalogue does an excellent job of recalling the circumstances of the “creation” of this work, which raises all kinds of questions concerning the notion of “work of art” – each more complex than the next if one wishes to go beyond the facile level of unenlightened snickering. And yet these questions constantly spring up in the visitor’s mind throughout the visit here. To voice an opinion about this famous urinal is to voice one on the “artistic value” (here again a notion that made no sense to the trio) of the “ready-mades” (it was apparently Duchamp who coined the term in English, which stuck in French as well) that appear in the rest of the exhibition.

There is no doubt that it conforms to the canons of Western aesthetics : the curves are harmonious, the shapely lines of the form perfect, the symmetry is that of the Classicism inherited from Antiquity, its white enamel holds an attractive shine for the eye. In fact, we would say today that its design is quite an achievement. But that is not the issue, and as a matter of fact Duchamp claims the right, in his status as an artist, to declare any object he wants a “work of art”, regardless of any aesthetic criteria or other visual attraction. He wishes “to create a work of art that is not a work of art”. The act of signing his name, of proclaiming it is art, is enough to qualify it as such.

Furthermore if the work was indeed formerly an original sculpture, allowing for the production of a cast model for industrial reproduction, Duchamp is the first to acknowledge that he is not its author : to anyone who cares to know he explains that he bought his at the J. L. Mott Ironworks showroom, a company specialized in bathroom fixtures, on 5th Avenue in New York. He merely added a pseudonym, signed the work and dated it in the strictest tradition : “R. Mutt 1917”. Duchamp himself stated : “It doesn’t matter whether or not Richard Mutt made this fountain with his own hands ; he picked it out. He took an ordinary everyday object, he placed it in such a way that its utilitarian meaning disappeared under its new title and new point of view ; he created a new concept for this object” [2].

After that – a vital fact to those who see this as proof of a true artistic endeavour – he presented his signed work, not vertically as required by the object’s function, but horizontally, thus making it lose its utilitarian dimension and ennobling it through its metamorphosis. It would indeed be a mistake to equate “fine arts” with “decorative arts” or “applied arts”. Jennifer Mundy, who edited the catalogue, sees here “a defining moment in the history of modern art”, adding that the ensuing debate was to “change the parameters of art in the twentieth century”.

He had already displayed two ready-mades that had been overlooked : Bicycle Wheel (1913, replica 1964) and Bottle Dryer, 1914, replica 1964). As a matter of fact, these two works cannot be studied on the same level : the Bicycle Wheel is not, strictly speaking, a ready-made work since it is an assembly of a wheel, the custom designed fork, and the “pedestal” stool. Duchamp called it in fact “ready-made aided” and, matter-of-factly, tossed out a remark which, beneath its provocative references, does indeed go a long way when one thinks about it : “Since the paint tubes the artist uses are manufactured and ready made, we should conclude that all of the canvases in the world are ready-made aided and assembled works” [3].
The bottle drying rack which he bought at the Parisian department store Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville is presented “unaided” : Duchamp’s only intervention – but once again vital in the eyes of his admirers – consisted in hanging it from the ceiling, thus modifying its function and elevating it to art. One finds here of course the source of the notion of “installation”, and its promise of a glowing future as confirmed when one walks through the many galleries in the Tate Modern [4].

2. Man Ray (1890-1976)
Gift, 1921, replica 1972
Iron and nails, 17.8 x 9.4 x 12.6 cm
London, Tate
© Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and
DACS, London 2008

The final objection that a skeptical viewer might raise : the works shown at the Tate Modern are not the originals. In fact, the originals were broken or lost over time. The ones we see, here as at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, are replicas that the Milan art dealer Arturo Schwarz had manufactured under Duchamp’s supervision in 1963-1964, as he explains in one of the catalogue’s chapters. Duchamp saw no incongruity in this, since he considered that the basis of an art work is only the idea behind it. Linguists would call this the difference between “the signified” and “the signifier”. For Duchamp of course the only thing that counts is “the signified” : whether “the signifier” in the Fountain is a nondescript mass-produced New York urinal or a costly limited number reproduction is of no consequence since both refer back to the same concept.
Among the many replicas produced in 1964, the exhibition also offers the snow shovel from 1915, that Duchamp claims to have transformed into a “work of art” by signing it after writing on it In Advance of the Broken Arm, as well as Fresh Widow (a pun on “French window” ; original 1920). In the same way, Cadeau (Gift) by Man Ray (a pseudonym for Emmanuel Rudnitsky), the iron with nails sticking out created in 1921, is in fact a replica dating from 1972 (ill. 2). The Venus Restored from 1936, a “distortion” of the Venus from Milos now at the Louvre (Vénus de Milo) which is less iconoclastic than Duchamp’s Mona Lisa, presents a play on words in its title that Man Ray had not foreseen : we are in fact looking at a “restored” model from 1971. Man Ray would have appreciated the irony...

3. Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, even (The Large Glass)
Reconstruction by Richard Hamilton,
1965-1966, inferior panel
remade in 1985
Oil, lead, dust and varnish on glass - 277.5 x 175.9 cm
Londres, Tate
© Richard Hamilton and Succession
Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP,
Paris and DACS, London 2008

4. Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912
Oil on canvas - 146 x 89 cm
Philadelphia, Museum of Art
© ADAGP, Paris and
DACS, London 2008

Man Ray leads us to a discussion of the particular fascination that all three had with glass : the title of one of the exhibition rooms. Besides examples of glass negatives by Man Ray, there is a reconstruction of Duchamp’s very complex ensemble after the original of 1915-1923 (ill. 3), executed in 1965-1966 by the great figure of British pop art, Richard Hamilton. This large-sized work which has become familiar due to its many photographic reproductions naturally takes on a whole other dimension – in every sense of the word – when one walks around it and looks at it from all angles. It is naturally accompanied by the Green Box of 1934, which contains several studies, drafts and sketches for it [5].
One should also stop to look at The Bride, a study for The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, even, of 1912 and at Nude Descending a Staircase also from 1912 (ill. 4), a remarkable decomposition of movement, to be kept in mind perhaps when looking at I see again in my Memory my Dear Udnie (1913-1914) by Picabia (1879-1953) whereas The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows by Man Ray (1916 ; ill. 5) seems to reveal the limits in trying to compare their three types of painting.

5. Man Ray (1890-1976)
The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself
with Her Shadows
, 1916
Oil on canvas - 132.1 x 186.4 cm
New York, The Museum of Modern Art
© ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2008

What can we say about the schoolboy pranks which Duchamp reveled in ? His licence plate, 4936 TT 75, apparently was taken from a Volkswagen, thus inspiring him to entitle it in a rather weak pun Faux vagin (Fake Vagina ; 1963) [6]. The work’s meaning (in a deliberately off-color joke) lies in its title only. On the contrary, the three versions on display (1919, 1930, 1942) of the mustached Mona Lisa do not need a title, L.H.O.O.Q., to draw laughs from French speakers (it also being in the grand tradition of the Parisian satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné – born at the same time as the trio’s iconoclastic turn, perhaps not a total coincidence) [7]. The provenance for the 1930 version must also be a source of intrigue for visitors of all nationalities that have turned out for the show : “Centre Pompidou. Deposited by the Siège national du Parti Communiste Français 2005”. The website for L’Humanité, the French Communist Party newspaper confirms the information and informs us about the painting’s itinerary, donated to the party by Aragon in 1979, by publishing an extremely interesting interview with the director of the Centre Pompidou that takes on new meaning in view of the works exhibited at the Tate Modern.

Nevertheless, as we have emphasized more than once in previous reviews, the accumulation of objects and images (over 350 here) is tiring both on the legs and – more serious still – on the mind. One can take a break halfway through by going back to watch René Clair’s Entr’acte, where our three friends appear : Londoners are spoiled as it is also being shown at the exhibition currently on at the British Library [8]. The famous chess game between Duchamp and Man Ray on the roof of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées when Picabia comes to spray them reflects their interest in the “game” – especially Duchamp, who was on the French national team. This interest pops up in their artistic creation, notably in the chess pieces and boards on display – unusual examples for them of geometrical rigor in their lines. In one of the earlier galleries, Duchamp’s inquisitiveness in this discipline, especially moving geometry (cinetic or cinematic), is thoroughly treated here, with his optical games, the Anemic Cinema (1926) and the Rotoreliefs (1935). For optical effects drawn from a static image, Man Ray remains of course unchallenged. Rather than the ever so famous positive and negative versions of Black and White (1926), one might prefer the multiple Rayographs of 1922-1925, or even better Photographie intégrale et cent pour cent automatique (Integral and One Hundred Per Cent Automatic Photography) of 1937. His experiments based on superimposing images (Untitled – Double Image of Nude, 1930) or solarization (Solarized Nude, 1931) is also thoroughly documented here.

6. Francis Picabia (1890-1976)
Women with Bulldog, 1941-1942
Huile sur cardboard - 106 x 76 cm
Paris, Musée national d’Art moderne
© ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2008

Nudes and sex, found everywhere in the exhibition, are especially well represented in the last rooms, with one of them called Eroticism. These are mostly late works that show us that the trio had lost none of their libido with old age. From the standpoint of the unique and surprising, their ertswhile trademark, on the whole the works are definitely disappointing. What did Picabia’s reputation as a painter stand to gain by turning out “breadwinners” which are borderline porn such as (1941-1942, ill. 6), The Bathers (around 1942), Five Women (1941-1943) or worse, Woman with Idol (1940-1942) ? What happened (whether one likes them or not) to the inventiveness of his Mecanomorphic Drawings of 1919 and his Woman with Matches of 1924-1925 ? The entries in the accompanying brochure explain that Man Ray suffered his whole life from never being acknowledged as a painter – but his Virgin of 1919 does not help, alas, to repair this slight : better to close on a high note with his ingenious painting-within-a-painting of 1938, Easel Painting.

One need only notice visitors’ embarrassed air, and women understandably more so, when walking out of the special viewing room displaying a reconstruction of Given : 1) The Waterfall 2) The Illuminating Gas, Duchamp’s last major work (1946-66), which the Tate Modern announces as being one of the keys of the exhibition, to realize the extent of its disastrous effect. The Philadelphia installation is a familiar one : a fake gate on an old barn with two holes at eye level [9] – the viewer looks in and discovers an extremely enigmatic diorama, of a very disturbing sort, with a mannequin of a nude woman clean-shaven lying down with her legs wide open ; she is holding a lamp in a vegetation landscape, with a waterfall in the background [10]. The twentieth-century art specialists who wrote the catalogue could not find words strong enough to express their ecstatic reaction to a work described by Jasper Johns as “the strangest work of art any museum has ever had in it” [11].
Why then do visitors not follow suit, and instead turn away as quickly as possible when normally they spend several minutes in front of a painting ? Simply because the public can feel that Duchamp is trying to make them feel like voyeurs, against their will. Where art critics see only a touch of genius in Duchamp’s work which pushes the relationship between art and the spectator to its ultimate limits by deconstructing and subverting it, the museum goer sees, correctly so – and this is what Duchamp wants – an attempt to violate his free will which he cannot accept. Spending more than a few seconds with eyes glued to the peep holes in the door is to acknowledge that Duchamp was right. It means he was right in suggesting that anything goes, that his diorama which is apparently made of bits and pieces (when in fact he of course conscientiously put it together over a twenty-year period) proves that there is no difference between an educated visitor to an art gallery and a vulgar client who goes to a peep-show. To turn on one’s heels means refusing to say that the emperor is wearing clothes, means that one is not fooled, means that one is returning the provocation – and by the same token, probably winning Duchamp’s respect, as well as that of his like-minded friends because nothing could be more hilarious than reading the scholarly aesthetic and metaphysical exegeses of their pranks which were deliberately founded on the absurd, born from their sense of “mal-être” or despair, as well as their ostensible appetite for life.
The best way for visitors to the Tate Modern to express their empathy with the works on display and in so doing enjoy the exhibition, is to turn the trio’s derision on its head.

Antoine Capet, lundi 24 mars 2008


[1] The Tate Britain is showing at the same time (from 13 February to 5 May) their predecessors in Britain from 1900-1910 : Modern Painters : The Camden Town Group. See our review.

[2] See the interview with Duchamp on Belgian radio in 1965.

[3] See the excellent study by the Centre Pompidou.

[4] The Daily Telegraph of 29 February 2008 informs us that this is the museum with the highest attendance in the United Kingdom, with 5.2 million visitors in 2007, proving the British public’s attraction to modern art. Here are some other numbers from the top ten (which our readers may interpret as they like) to better compare : Louvre 8,3 ; Centre Pompidou 5,5 ; British Museum 4,8 ; MOMA New York 4,5 ; National Gallery of Art Washington 4,5 ; Vatican 4,3 ; National Gallery of London 4,1 ; Musée d’Orsay 3,1 ; Prado 2,6.

[5] See this page for a useful commentary.

[6] Very interesting discussion on this site.

[7] In English, it needs of course to be deciphered for museum goers : L.H.O.O.Q = Elle a chaud au cul. “Sounded out phonetically in French, the letters read ‘she has a hot arse’ ”, a caption (taken up in the Catalogue) usefully tells non-French-speaking visitors.

[8] Breaking the Rules : The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900–1937, an exhibition with many connections to that at the Tate Modern and which also includes avant-garde publications such as the journal 391 by Picabia. See our review.

[9] Visible on this website.

[10] Visible on this website.

[11] Statement reprinted by Calvin Tomkins in Off the Wall : Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time. New York, 1980, p. 276 and quoted in the catalogue p.168.

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in Exhibitions : Modern Painters : The Camden Town Group

Next article in Exhibitions : Seventeenth-century Italian painting between Caravaggio and Reni