Marcel Duchamp

born 1887 in Blainville-Crevon, France; died 1968 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France

Biography

1902 First paintings as a self-taught artist

1904 Studies at the private school Académie Julian in Paris

1905 Completes an apprenticeship as a graphic designer at the Imprimerie de la Vicomté, Rouen; one year of military service, followed by work as a cartoonist in Paris; member of the Puteaux Group

From 1909 on First exhibitions; friendship established with Francis Picabia

1912 Abandons painting

1913 First readymade

1915–1918 Lives in New York

1916 Founds Society of Independent Artists

1917 Early Dadaist publication The Blind Man

1918–1919 Travels to Buenos Aires, where he plays chess intensively

1919 Returns to Paris

1926–1933 Is primarily occupied with playing chess and publishes a book on the subject

From 1928 on Writes and organizes exhibitions

1942 Emigrates to New York and mounts the exhibition First Papers of Surrealism; co-founds the surrealist magazine VVV

1952 Joins the Collège de ’Pataphysique

1955 Obtains US citizenship.

1962 Becomes a member of the international authors’ group Oulipo

Visual Arts

Visual Arts

Duchamp started out as a painter, but, impressed by the new industrial technology, he turned his back on painting in 1912 and investigated the basic conditions of art. He advocated the view that the choice of any object could be an artistic and aesthetic act; in his readymades he turned mass-produced industrial items into artworks by appropriating and presenting them in the museum context. Duchamp cited the visual indifference (interchangeability) of these objects as a common denominator for his readymades.

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After his beginnings in symbolism and postimpressionism, Duchamp delved into cubism and fauvism, combining the formal vocabulary of the two styles in his picture Nu descendant un escalier (Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912). In the same year, after a visit to the air show at the Grand Palais in Paris, he abandoned painting: it was, in Duchamp’s words, »at an end. Who can do anything better than this propeller?« In 1913 he produced his first readymade, Roue de bicyclette (Bicycle Wheel), a kinetic object, for which he fixed a found bicycle wheel upside down on a wooden stool. For his readymades, Duchamp bought standard commercial products from Paris department stores, such as a bottle rack or an urinal, which he titled Fountain and signed, using a pseudonym, »R. Mutt 1917.« In 1919 he painted over a reproduction of the Mona Lisa in an early humorist/Dadaist style, adding a mustache and goatee. In 1920 he started signing some of his works with the female alias Rrose Sélavy (»Éros, c’est la vie«). After years primarily devoted to playing chess, his art moved closer to surrealism. His last major work, the surreal, enigmatic installation Étant donné : 1° la chute d’eau 2° le gaz d’éclairage … (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas …, 1946–1966), would only became famous after his death.

Author: Doris Leutgeb

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Music

Music

In 1912, the year in which he rejected traditional painting on canvas, Duchamp began working with the principle of chance, applying it to music (and soon after to visual art too). In 1912/13, at the turn of the year, he began devising three music pieces whose sequence of notes was determined by random operations. Here Duchamp specified the parameters in each case and let the results come as a surprise to him. Music thus became a vital means of renewal for him. Duchamp’s musical experiments were conducted in parallel to his readymades, which appeared at the same time, and methodologically are a counterpart to their indifference.

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Trois stoppages étalon (3 Standard Stoppages, 1913/14) is one of Duchamp’s early artistic works based, like his music, on chance operations. For this he had three one-meter-long pieces of thread dropped from a horizontal position at a height of one meter. He logged the positions in which they came to rest, fixed the threads with varnish on three canvases, and made wooden templates based on their forms, which he then used as a paradoxical ruler. The practical execution of an absurd series of experiments carried out in all seriousness corresponded to Duchamp’s skepticism about science and his exploration of the absurdist philosophical and scientific concept of Pataphysique formulated by Alfred Jarry.

Author: Doris Leutgeb

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In the Exhibition

In the Exhibition

Marcel Duchamp

Erratum musical / Musical Erratum, 1912–1913

Sound recording 1994, with Jean-Luc Plovier, Marianne Pousseur, Lucy Grauman, 1:39 min, directed by Petr Kotik

Erratum musical is a short song in three parts titled »Yvonne,« »Magdeleine,« and »Marcel.« Duchamp drew individual notes on cards and put them in a hat, from which he and his sisters then drew, thus submitting the composition to the operations of chance. The definition of a word looked up at random in the dictionary — imprimer (»print«) — provided the lyrics, with the number of notes determined by the number of syllables in the definition. The sequence of notes drawn from the hat was transcribed in traditional musical notation. The pitch in the sisters’ pieces is notated partly in the bass clef, while Marcel’s is primarily treble. No tempo is indicated. There is no clue as to whether the three parts were to be sung as a trio or one after another. Erratum musical was performed for the first time as a private recital in Duchamp’s house in Rouen on New Year’s Day, 1913, and had its public premiere on March 27, 1920, presented by Dadaist artist Marguerite Buffet to coincide with the publication of the Dada Manifesto in Paris.

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Two further compositions are part of Duchamp’s Erratum musical

La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même: Erratum musical (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1912–15)

This piece consists of two parts. To transcribe the sequence of notes, Duchamp used numbers, adding, by way of explanation, that they correspond to the number of keys on a piano (typically eighty-eight) and are clearly specified, beginning on the left with »one.« The piece is thus intended for piano, organ or other mechanical instruments.

The first part comprises eight sections (I–VIII) that can be played in any order and are again divided up into sixteen periods (A–Q). The composition method is explained in the second part: a toy train with several open cars passes under a funnel containing numbered balls, whose numbers correspond to a pitch. In each pass, with the train traveling at different speeds, more or less balls fall from the funnel into the railcars. When the funnel is empty, the notes from the individual cars/periods are written down for the particular section (I–VIII).

Sculpture musicale, 1912–1920/21

The piece is noted as only the fragment of an idea on a small piece of paper that Duchamp published in his work La Boîte verte (The Green Box)—a compilation of reproductions of his key works. It reads: »sounds continuing and emanating from different places and forming an acoustic sculpture that persists.« In the 1960s Duchamp gave this note to John Cage—who also used chance as a working method with an open outcome—and was thus a key precursor and source of ideas for the Fluxus movement. Cage’s groundbreaking Music of Changes (1951), for example, varied from performance to performance.

Author: Doris Leutgeb

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Author:

Doris Leutgeb