Marcel Duchamp : A Room of One’s Own
The radical works of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) raise enduring questions about art and artistry. Acknowledged today as a towering figure in the evolution of 20th-century art, Duchamp is well represented in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, where a dedicated space in C217 displays a selection of his many creations.
Beginning as a painter in his native France, Duchamp worked in several avant-garde styles of the early 1900s. The Gallery owns a rare Duchamp painting, Red Nude (1910), done in a high-keyed palette typical of the Fauves, led by Henri Matisse. This work’s significance was once again underlined, when the Pompidou Centre in Paris borrowed it for its Marcel Duchamp. La peinture, même exhibition in 2014–15. In the catalogue, curator Cécile Debray draws attention to the female model’s protruding, unusual musculature. Her sculptural body completely fills the canvas.
Duchamp moved away from his focus on painting around 1913. His assemblage Three Standard Stoppages (1913–14) represents a pivotal work that opened the way to new art forms. According to the artist’s note that accompanied the original work, his premise reads: “If a straight horizontal thread one metre long falls from a height of one metre onto a horizontal plane twisting as it pleases, [it] creates a new image of the unit of length.” This action was repeated three times, as if for a science experiment. The use of thread is evoked in the title, stoppage being a French technical term for an invisible mend used in weaving. This work illustrates the concept of chance, while interrogating the scientific notion of fixed measurement. Duchamp later deemed it “an escape from those traditional methods long associated with art,” and “a first gesture liberating me from the past.”
The artist soon began experimenting with three-dimensional objects, later dubbed “readymades.” The Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme (1938) defines a readymade as: “Ordinary object promoted to the dignity of art object simply by the artist’s choice.” Duchamp produced a limited number of such works. He never tried to sell them. Some were given to friends, others remained in his studio. The majority of these originals have disappeared over the years.
Duchamp’s revolutionary, shocking readymade Fountain, a signed and dated urinal, began its life as an art object in 1917, when it was entered in an exhibition held by the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Although the organizers removed the work before it was seen by the public, it was photographed by American photographer Alfred Stieglitz and the image subsequently published.
With this new type of creation, Duchamp in effect declared that the artist is the sole authority to determine what constitutes a work of art. He affirmed that it was the idea behind the art that counted, rather than any retinal pleasure. His new aesthetic in effect repudiated any traditional sense of beauty. The manufactured urinal and made-up signature, “R. Mutt 1917,” rejected any notion of an aura around the artist’s craftsmanship or identity. The signature playfully suggests either a ceramics manufacturer (Mott) and/or a character from the Mutt and Jeff comic series. On rare occasions only, Duchamp authorized an ad hoc replica or substitute for the original, lost readymade, resulting in several versions in some cases.
Over time, the readymades attracted the interest of artists and curators, and a few museums began exhibiting their own reproductions. In 1964, Milan gallery owner Arturo Schwarz partnered with Duchamp to produce a series of high-quality replicas of the most important readymades, signed and numbered 1/8 to 8/8. The NGC’s then Curator of Contemporary Art Brydon Smith acquired a complete set of 1964 replicas in 1971, numbered 3/8. According to historian Douglas Ord, Smith managed to find the funds by drawing upon the office furniture budget. Duchamp expert Thierry de Duve has noted that the NGC’s Fountain was the first Schwarz replica to enter a public museum, confirming Smith’s timely and prescient choice. The Gallery’s set became a travelling exhibition in 1972–73 and again in 1979–80, giving many Canadians their first opportunity to view these readymades.
The Gallery’s Room C217, informally known as the Duchamp room, was designed to display the artist’s readymades and represents a rare instance at the Gallery of space devoted primarily to a single artist. Smith, charged with coordinating overall planning for the new building on Sussex Drive, consulted de Duve on the layout. Their initial installation in 1988 placed Fountain hanging in a doorway, as shown in a 1917–18 photograph of Duchamp’s studio. In subsequent installations, Fountain has been placed on its back, on top of a pedestal, so that the signature can be read. This newly configured form might suggest a religious shrine or grotto.
Another early readymade, In Advance of the Broken Arm, may resonate with snowbound Canadians. During his first winter in New York in 1915, Duchamp admired the form of the snow shovels stacked outside a hardware store. The playful title could suggest that shovelling snow, or failure to shovel, might lead to a fall and fracture. In the 1940s, during a Yale University travelling exhibition, a janitor in Minnesota mistakenly put one example to work. Other readymades, including Traveller’s Folding Item and Bicycle Wheel, generated ideas only taken up by artists decades later, such as soft sculpture and kinetic sculpture.
From 1915 onwards, Duchamp spent most of his life in New York, becoming an American citizen in 1955. He lived frugally, helped initially by a small stipend from his family, and never earned much from his art. At various times, he played chess professionally, gave French lessons, curated exhibitions and dabbled in the art market. He was always much appreciated as a witty and intelligent companion by his friends, other progressive artists and a few loyal patrons.
Visitors to the Gallery may find that Duchamp’s readymades spark unexpected connections and prove difficult to forget once they have wormed their way into one’s consciousness. Visits to Gallery rooms devoted to later periods may reveal just how many artists have built upon Duchamp’s legacy.
Marcel Duchamp's Red Nude is on view in Room C216, and a selection of his readymades is on view in Room C217 at the National Gallery of Canada, alongside works by his contemporaries, including Francis Picabia, René Magritte and Joseph Cornell. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.