The Pompidou put together a fantastic show of Duchamp’s early paintings and related ephemera. The show set out to open up some new thinking on Duchamp’s impact on painting and seeing. It also invited investigation of surrounding works and references, such as the development of cinema in the early 1900s. A key theme of Duchamp’s work is the process of seeing and the erotic acts of making and viewing implicit in an age of increased mechanisation.
Marcel Duchamp. La peinture, même
24 September 2014 – 5 January 2015
Marcel Duchamp rapidly absorbed painterly styles and approaches, seemingly with the specific intention of assimilating what could be achieved and then moving on. While many artists in their formative years seek to find a visual language or form, Duchamp strategised his approach towards a mechanisation of the art process, giving birth to the idea of the ready-made and conceptual art. The Pompidou show effectively points up the eclectic and probing nature of the young Marcel Duchamp, playfully blending Alfred Jarry, transvestism and early advertising to great effect.
This process of colliding disparate ‘assets’ and ‘content’ together is rather mundane, or even standard in art production now, but Duchamp reminds us that ‘choice’ becomes the key factor in the making process. In doing so, art production moves from an aesthetic of observation of subject towards an assemblage of ideas; movements, erotic connections and self referential acts. Of course this is why Duchamp remains the artist of the mechanical and industrial age.
‘La peinture, même’ frames the new industrial age around this period of the artist’s work. Paintings by Picabia build on the preoccupation in the avant garde of the time with machines, speed and movement. The Picabia works show how relatively reductive or redundant painting would become to the machine age.
Raymond Roussel’s two novels ‘Impressions d’Afrique‘ (1910) and ‘Locus Solus‘ (1914) have always been key texts and openers towards understanding the sources of Duchamp’s thinking. Roussel’s fantastical and systematic approach to writing (using homonymic puns) – while unrecognised at the time of writing – created a rich conceptual reservoir of characters and counter-realities. From Roussel, no doubt Duchamp would have extracted the assisted ready-made as an unfinished tableuax vivant – later seen in the ‘Large Glass’ and ‘Étant Donné’ as major works that are presented as captured frames from a complex narrative. In David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ we see the same approach at feature length, a stretched version of the counter-reality; unfailingly demanding more vision and more seeing, along with an obfuscated narrative.
While Duchamp’s work can be historcised against the machine age of the early part of the 20th century, it has not been contextualised the other way towards its influence on film culture towards the end of the same century.
Étant Donnés, exhibited as a model in the show at the Pompidou, remains one of the less well known of Duchamp’s works, having only ever been assembled in its intended home at the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art in 1969. The manual that Duchamp prepared for the work prior to his death, is laid out as a plan akin to film set designs, complete with technical suggestions on construction. Duchamp worked on this for twenty years up until 1966.
A glimpse at the model of Étant Donnés (see above) bears striking resemblance to a David Lynch ‘Twin Peaks’ set – more particularly the peep holes within Duchamp’s work lock the viewer down to a specific shot within the gallery itself. So whereas in retrospect we have become aware of the complex nature of Duchamp’s work in terms of construction, assemblage and resonance – Étant Donnés as an artwork mostly lies teasingly behind the field of view. An appreciation of Étant Donnés is thus characterised by the intentional enigma of its design. The work (like other Duchamp pieces) is then viewed as an event, a place to visit (the museum), a set of instructions and the observer’s appreciation of the work retold. In this way Duchamp’s last work can be seen as a prelude to later immersive strategies for works of art.
Am I inside a work of art or part of the work? With Étant Donnés you have the option while in the gallery to gaze at the doors and move on, or approach the peep holes and look. As you do this you submit to the gaze, your own prurient desire to view a private place and fulfill the artist’s design for the work. Étant Donnés is a work of art about peeping, wilfully erotic yet pointing towards an uncomfortable set of images. David Lynch plays with the same erotic and disturbing visions along a timeline in Twin Peaks. Within the Black Lodge is the Red Room first encountered in the character Agent Cooper’s dream. The dwarf (in red suit) states “When you see me again, it won’t be me” (in a scrambled voice then sub-titled for the viewer). Lynch’s work also plays with death and the erotic and the reductive nature of the sets tilts towards not only the works of Duchamp but Dali and the architectural paintings of Giorgio De Chirico.