Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 17th, 2012

Thoughts on a Descending Nude, Part 1

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In 1912, Marcel Duchamp, who would one day be acclaimed as the most influential artist of the twentieth century, was twenty-four and living in the shadow of his two older brothers, one a highly regarded painter and printmaker, the other a celebrated sculptor. Marcel, by contrast, was a somewhat indifferent artist who was seriously hoping to pursue a career as a humorous illustrator. (A few years earlier, several of his drawings had been prominently displayed at a local skating rink.) As a painter, his work was characterized by cautious imitations of Cézanne and the Cubists, and although he had been allowed into Parisian art circles, this seems to have been at least partially out of respect for his brothers.

All the same, it was an exciting time to be an artist in Paris, where a politically engaged circle of Cubists met frequently in the shared garden of a row of artists’ studios in Puteaux, arguing over matters of theory and inveighing against their rival Futurists. Duchamp was often there, although he seems to have been less interested in theoretical debates than in playing boules on the lawn. Yet he had also begun to paint more seriously, and like any ambitious young artist, he would have welcomed the chance to display a piece at the upcoming Salon des Indépendants. The year before, a group exhibition of Cubists had caused a nice little scandal, and the Puteaux circle saw the upcoming show as their chance to make a case for a reasonable Cubism.

Unfortunately, as I’ll describe more fully in an opinion piece in tomorrow’s Los Angeles Times, Duchamp’s entry, Nude Descending a Staircase, was anything but reasonable. In the end, it was rejected by the Cubist hanging committee, and on March 18, 1912, Duchamp was asked to withdraw it from the exhibition. This embarrassing incident, in which his brothers had played no small part, evidently contributed to one of the most mysterious episodes in his early career: his decision, a few months later, to visit Munich, a city where he had no close friends. Duchamp never explained the reasons for this trip, but it seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by the fact that there were no Cubists in Germany.

During his two months in Munich, Duchamp worked alone, away from the influence of other artists. He produced several important canvases, but also began moving in a direction that would take him past painting entirely. In particular, he made a series of notes toward a more ambitious work, one that would appeal to the mind, not the eye, and that would ultimately culminate in his first true masterpiece, The Large Glass. And he was still working on this project in Paris the following year when he discovered, much to his surprise, that Nude Descending a Staircase, the painting that had been so ignominiously rejected the year before, had unexpectedly made him one of the most famous artists in America.

To be continued…

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