Marcel Duchamp and the Dada Art Movement

The dawn of the 20th century marked a seismic shift in the world of art. Traditional boundaries crumbled and avant-garde movements took root.

It was during this era that a group of French artists emerged. They challenged artistic norms and redefined the very essence of creative expression.

Among these luminaries was Marcel Duchamp, a trailblazer who played a pivotal role in the Dada and Cubism movements. He left his own unique imprint on the history of modern art.

Five-Way Portrait of Marcel Duchamp. Broadway Photo Shop, New York City, 21 June 1917

Early Life and Influences

Born on July 28, 1887, in Blainville-Crevon, France, Marcel Duchamp came from a family that appreciated art. Duchamp’s five siblings, including his brothers Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon, all ventured into the realm of arts.

His maternal grandmother and grandfather were also both artists and collectors. So for Duchamp, art was in his genes. 

Duchamp immersed himself in classical art training  at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1904. He disliked the structured academic atmosphere that tried to stifle his creative energy.

He preferred to challenge the norms and techniques that he was being taught like the post-impressionist artists he looked up to such as Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne.

The Dada Movement

The Dada movement was characterized by a rejection of traditional norms, both in art and in broader culture.

It emerged in the aftermath of World War I particularly in Europe. These artists who embraced the Dada movement sought to dismantle established conventions and questioned the very foundations of art.

Dadaists embraced chaos often using nonsensical and absurd techniques in their work. Artworks could take the form of collages, performances, manifestos, and readymades—everyday objects designated as art.

The spontaneous and random spirit of Dadaism spoke to Duchamp and he became one of the movement’s biggest contributors and innovators.

Readymades and Concept of Anti-Art

One of Duchamp’s biggest contributions to the Dada movement was his pioneering exploration and popularization of “readymades”. The term “readymade” refers to everyday, mass-produced objects that Duchamp selected and designated as works of art.

The idea is to emphasize the qualities of the object itself and the reasoning behind selecting and presenting it as art with little to no alterations. Or in Duchamp’s words, “everyday objects raised to the dignity of a work of art by the artist’s act of choice.”

Bicycle Wheel (1913)

One of Marcel Duchamp’s earliest readymades was “Bicycle Wheel” (1913). This work consisted of an ordinary bicycle wheel mounted upside-down on a wooden stool. Duchamp introduced an element of motion by allowing the wheel to be spun, creating a visually dynamic and engaging piece.

Bottle Rack (1914)

For his next work, Duchamp fully embraced the spirit of readymades by not altering the object at all. The story goes that he bought the bottle drying rack at a department store called Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville near the Paris city hall.

He wrote an inscription on the side but its meaning has been lost and Duchamp could not recall what he had written. Unfortunately, but also ironically, Duchamp’s sister mistook the work for a piece of trash and threw it out. 

Duchamp’s Bottle Rack. Art Institute of Chicago

Fountain (1917)

Among Marcel Duchamp’s groundbreaking readymades, “Fountain” stands as his most iconic contribution that encapsulates the Dada movement’s irreverent spirit. Duchamp chose a standard urinal and turned it 90 degrees of how it would have been traditionally installed, and then wrote the words “R. Mutt, 1917”.

Duchamp submitted “Fountain” under a pseudonym to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York in 1917. Although he was a board member and one of the judges, he submitted his work anonymously.

The work stirred up a lot of controversy among the judges. There was a long debate on whether “Fountain” was a work of art or not.

As a compromise, the Society allowed the work to be shown at the exhibit but it was hidden behind a partition so no one could see it. In protest, Duchamp resigned from the board.

L.H.O.O.Q. (1919)

In this work, Duchamp took a postcard reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. With a few pencil strokes, he added a small goatee and mustache.

“L.H.O.O.Q.” had a profound impact not only within the art community but also on popular culture. It inspired a trend of playful modifications to images in various contexts.

The act of drawing mustaches on posters, billboards, and other images can be seen as a playful extension of Duchamp’s contribution. 

A close up of the mustache on the Mona Lisa done by Duchamp

The Large Glass (1923)

Duchamp’s “The Large Glass,” completed between 1915 and 1923, was his final contribution to the world of art. This mixed-media work on glass is divided into two halves; the upper representing the Bride and the lower featuring mechanized Bachelors engaged in a perpetual state of desire.

In 1923, Marcel Duchamp formally declared his work as “Unfinished.” After its first public exhibition, the glass panels suffered a significant crack during transportation.

Duchamp repaired the major crack but deliberately left the smaller cracks in the glass untouched. This decision was a conscious artistic choice on Duchamp’s part, embracing the accidental damage as a chance element that added to the overall composition. 

Chess and Later Years

While Duchamp was still working on “The Large Glass” his life took an interesting and unexpected turn. In 1918, he moved to Buenos Aires for nine months.

During his time in Argentina, he became an avid chess player, something he had always enjoyed when he was a child. He became obsessed with the game and even carved his own set out of wood.

He moved back to Paris in 1923 but by this time he had completely given up art. He was solely focused on studying the strategic intricacies of chess. 

During his time in Paris, he participated in chess competitions, including the French Championships and the Chess Olympiads, from 1928 to 1933. Duchamp’s approach to chess was characterized by his preference for hypermodern openings.

He embraced a strategy that focused on controlling the center of the board from a distance rather than occupying it immediately. This rejection of the traditional rules of chess mirrored his avant-garde approach in the realm of art.

Duchamp’s Legacy

Duchamp’s involvement in the Dada movement significantly shaped the philosophy of the avant-garde era. His influence impacted artists like Salvador Dalí and André Breton, who appreciated Duchamp’s exploration of the irrational and the unconscious.

Marcel Duchamp’s legacy endures not only in the works he produced but also in the profound shifts he instigated within the philosophy of art.

His emphasis on the viewer’s role, the conceptualization of art, and the willingness to embrace change as a creative force continue to resonate with contemporary artists today.


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