‘The danger is in pleasing an immediate public: the immediate public that comes around you and takes you in and accepts you and gives you success and everything. Instead of that, you should wait for fifty years or a hundred years for your true public. That is the only public that interests me.’
So said the French born artist Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968), who now 51 years on from his death would be most satisfied by the attention he is receiving from his ‘true public’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The AGNSW’s latest big international exhibition running until 11th August, follows hard on the heels of the highly successful Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage.
The essential Duchamp, bringing together 125 works from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s world-famous collection, the gift of Louise and Walter Arensberg in 1950, marks the 50-year anniversary of the provocative disruptor’s death. In slightly ironic fashion, of which I am sure the legendary artist would have approved, Australia celebrates this a year late, the travelling exhibition concluding its world tour in Sydney after showing at the Tokyo National Museum, Japan, and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, Korea. It also fits in very well as a follow on chronologically from the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg show, in that Duchamp’s work picks up almost exactly from where that collection left off.
1917 was of course the year of the Russian Revolution, but it was also the year that Duchamp’s Fountain (a 1950 replica of the lost original is on show here) was rejected from display in New York to where the artist had moved from France in 1915. Fountain, a men’s urinal placed on its back and signed R. Mutt, along with Bicycle Wheel (1913), Bottlerack (1914), and Hatrack (1914) all of which are represented in The essential Duchamp are examples of what Duchamp called a ‘ready-made’, whereby everyday objects take on the nature of art as designated by the artist. But is Fountain art? To some yes, to some no, but whatever it is, it is certainly polemic in any discussion of what art is and whether it should be delineated by a capital letter or not. In 2004, five hundred British art experts polled it as the single most influential artwork of the last century, though Gombrich in The Story of Art, first published in 1950, gives Duchamp’s whole canon short shrift and does not include one of his works in over 400 illustrative plates. He fares better however at the hands of Australia’s own, expat Robert Hughes, in his seminal 1980 TV programme for the BBC and subsequent book, The Shock of the New.
Marcel Duchamp, as we see in the first part of the exhibition could paint and draw in a realist manner, recording people and places in a traditional sense. Although never being part of any movement, but often regarded as an integral part of Dada, he displays elements of Impressionism, Fauvism, Futurism and Cubism in the stages of his development.
Half a century on from his death, it would appear that, as Duchamp hoped, it is only now that the significance of his work and his influence on the art world is really beginning to be appreciated by others than those truly in the know. Five decades since the last major exhibition of his work was seen in Australia, The essential Duchamp explores, and endeavours to explain, a whole host of ideas – gender and sexuality (in works such as Nude Descending a Staircase (no 2) from 1912, along with Man Ray’s 1920s photograph of him as his alter ego Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy), relationships, art, exhibitions, and the culture of commodity and meaning so prominent today.
And it is this relevance to today’s world that makes this exhibition and the work of Duchamp so essential. Duchamp, with the senses of humour, irony and satire turned the art world on its head and made us question what is ‘Art’. The opportunity to experience the unique nature of Duchamp’s art and technical skill first hand is one that, art lover or not, should be taken as we seek to understand the absurd world in which we live today. We may not be able to find the answers to the world’s problems but at least we can understand that we are not alone in our search for those answers.
Duchamp’s masterpiece, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) of 1915 – 1923 and unfinished, rather like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, cannot be moved from Philadelphia but is in Sydney, portrayed on a life-size screen, which does not provide the important element of transparency so essential to this work, but at least gives us a feel for his accomplishment. After The Large Glass, Duchamp became a ‘professional’ chess player, competing for France in the 1933 Chess Olympiad and also playing with such as Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, and this area of his work and life is also included in this must-see exhibition, as too are works never seen before in Asia-Pacific such as Portrait of Dr Dumouchel 1910 and Chocolate Grinder (No.2) 1914. Take the time to stop and play awhile but be certain to replace the pieces in the correct position for the next players. As the artist himself said, ‘While all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.’
How will Duchamp be regarded in another fifty years? Most likely even more importantly than he is today. Possibly his L.H.O.O.Q., the postcard of the Mona Lisa upon which he infamously drew facial hair will be even more important than the actual painting itself by Leonard da Vinci. Not bad for an artist whose most well-known work was created to be pissed in, and in period, was pissed upon by the art establishment.