In 1912, a young cubist painter, Marcel Duchamp, enters his painting, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris. This was a favorite place to exhibit radical art, as he never turned down anything presented for display.
Nude Descending a Staircase is a masterful study of tonality and geometry, its angular movements overlapping in multiple versions of the fast-moving androgynous form.
Dogmatic Cubists saw nudes as horizontal and passive, not vertical and mobile. They were baffled by the way Duchamp had painted a circular pattern of dots to indicate rhythmic movement and saw the large title printed on the lower front of the painting as vulgar.
Having negotiated the previous year to run their own hanging committee, they asked Duchamp to change the painting. He refused and withdrew it from the exhibition.
Although Nude Descending at Staircase was subsequently exhibited elsewhere, the scandal of this historical rejection marked him as an artist who would clash with established beliefs, whatever the situation.
This and many other works are currently on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in The essential Duchamp, a comprehensive overview of the artist who, more than any other, changed the direction of art in the 20th century – and beyond.
With the exception of his paintings, they are not the first originals, nor are they unique. They do however come from the largest single collection of Duchamp’s works in the Philadelphia Museum of Art collection, much of which was donated by his longtime patrons Louise and Walter Arensberg.
There is nothing unusual about artists who stretch the barriers of received wisdom and move through different styles. However Duchamp did more: he refused the profession of artist. He later trained as a librarian and worked in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, which fueled his passion for archives.
As Duchamp explained in a 1956 interview with curator James Johnson Sweeney: “There are two types of artists: the artist who deals with society, is integrated into society, and the other artist, the completely freelance artist. , which has no obligations “. Duchamp appreciated his lack of commitment.
In 1913, on a whim and for the pleasure of seeing the spokes in motion, he screwed a large bicycle wheel onto a kitchen stool. Around the same time he also bought a metal rack to dry the bottles.
Two years later, having moved from wartime Paris to New York “to escape the artistic life”, he asked his sister, Suzanne Duchamp, to send these items as, “I bought various items of the same taste and treat them as” ready made”. ”
Suzanne had already cleared her Paris studio of such debris, but since the concept of ready-mades denied the existence of an “original”, this was not a problem. The brother saw these works as “a consequence of the dehumanization of the work of art”.