How is Marcel Duchamp's fountain viewed as art?

Marcel Duchamp or: Art as a staging

Michael Wetzel has been Professor of Modern German Literature at the Department of German Studies at the University of Bonn since 2004. Since 2005 he has also headed the "Media and Cultural Communication" project at the Cultural Studies Research College.

On a beautiful summer day in June 1912, a sad young man was sitting on the express train from Paris to Munich. It is the first time that he has crossed the borders of his homeland, but it will not be the last. He was drawn to Munich by the art that flourished in what was then the capital of the German Bohème, although it is less the expressionism of the Blue Rider that attracts him than the historical treasure of the Alte Pinakothek, especially the pictures by Lucas Cranach.

But it was only a few weeks that he spent in Munich, and even those were filled with intensive work on the drawings of virgins and brides, for which the works of the old masters inspired him. His own oil painting, depicting an act of going down a flight of stairs, had recently been rejected at the independent Cubist exhibition in Paris. But just a year later, this picture was to cause a scandal in New York and make his painter a celebrity. No wonder, then, that the sad young man left France only three years later and embarked for New York on June 6, 1915. Just a year later, the art agent Henri-Pierre Roché also comes there, who writes in his memoirs:

"Marcel Duchamp was the most famous Frenchman in New York at the time, along with Napoleon and Sarah Bernard. He would have had the choice between the daughters of the richest men, but no, he preferred to play chess and for a living, French lessons for two Dollars to give the hour. He was a riddle, contrary to custom, and yet it attracted all hearts. "

Marcel Duchamp, the son of a respected Norman notary, born on July 28, 1887 in Blainville near Rouen, was the enfant terrible of the artistic avant-garde of the 20th century. Art played an important role in his family and his two brothers - Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon - found recognition in Cubist circles early on. Marcel also tried his hand at this stylistic direction for the first few years, but - as I said: his first masterpiece, the "Nude Descending a Staircase" fell out of favor with the keepers of the Grail of the new style. He even developed an innovative technique based on experiments in chronography.

In the 19th century, Jules Etienne Marey invented a type of photographic shotgun that worked like a drum revolver and allowed a large number of shots to be shot in a row. Experiments with fast movements of humans and animals could be made, which held the positions of the limbs next to one another in fractions of a second. Duchamp made use of this experience and tried to capture the movement of his act as he descended the stairs, as in a multiple exposure in around twenty different overlapping positions over the entire course of time. That was how he discovered his passion: movement. However, he did not want to express it through kinetic or dynamic moments like the futurists, but through time segments that testify like traces of the idea of ​​movement. Years later he stated in an interview:

"My goal was a static representation of movement, a static composition of signs for different positions that a moving form assumes - without trying to achieve cinematic effects through painting, for example. The reduction of a moving head seemed to be a line For example, a shape moving through space crosses a line, and as the movement continues, the crossed line is replaced by another line, and then another, and so on to reduce a moving figure to a line instead of a skeleton. Reduce, reduce, reduce, was my idea - but at the same time I turned inward rather than outward. And by pursuing this view, I later came to the view that an artist can use anything - a point, a line, the most conventional or the most unconventional symbol - to say what s he wants to say. "

The insight formulated here makes it clear why Duchamps became a pioneer of modern art, namely a modernism that, unlike classical modernism, for example Picasso's, is no longer defined by a work, but by an idea and its staging. Duchamp himself later called it "pictorial nominalism", that is, an artistic practice dominated by concepts and conceptions that were later established in so-called Concept Art. The decisive factor is their experimental character, which actually only understands works of art as traces or documentation of experimental arrangements. Duchamp expressed this principle even more clearly in another object, the "three standard pot sizes".

The truly surreal experiment consisted in dropping three threads, each one meter long, from a height of one meter onto three different canvases in order to fix the random shapes, which differ from case to case. The whole thing was of course not meant seriously and Duchamp spoke ironically of "chance in the can".

Ultimately, however, all of these artistic strategies turned against the tradition of painting or - as Duchamp also called it - against it retinal effects a visual language for the eyes. The report of the painter colleague Fernand Légers of a joint visit with Constantin Brancusi to the Paris Aviation Exhibition in 1912 is symptomatic:

"Marcel, who was a dry, rather impenetrable guy, went around the engines and the propellers without saying a word. Suddenly he turned to Brancusi: 'The painting is finished. Who can do anything better than these propellers? Can you do it? '"

You can literally feel how Duchamp's frame of canvas and paint is getting too narrow and his will to represent movement is looking for other materials and media. Years later he made experiments with the so-called rotor reliefs, disks on which spirally arranged figures emerged three-dimensionally when they were set in rotation on record players. But only with the materiality of the glass and its transparency should he find his image carrier par excellence. Experiments with panes of glass can be found very early in Duchamp's work; his magnum opus, "The Great Glass", however, could only be realized as a total work of art after various practices that went beyond painting were found, such as the technique of replacing lines not only with threads but also with wire. But before this new chapter in the history of Marcel Duchamp's work could come about, a decisive change of location to the New World was required.

The decisive event was the legendary Armory Show in New York in 1913, for which a careful selection of European artists was made and Duchamp's early works were also received with great interest. But who describes the sensational reaction to that "act of descending a flight of stairs" that triggered a real scandal. For most of the American visitors, it was the epitome of European art decadence: the queues of visitors jammed in front of this particular picture and the press broke into polemics. There was talk of satirical titles such as: "Explosion in a clapboard factory" or "Rush hour in the subway", but all shock statements could not prevent the picture from finding its buyer, who, incidentally, did not later sell it to Duchamp's main collector, Walter Arensberg, wanted to resell. Duchamp found a solution that is typical for him by coloring a black and white photograph of the picture in its original size and creating a veritable "work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility", as Walter Benjamin called it.

In America he was a star in one fell swoop. So he arrived there as no stranger, but as the artist of the "nude descending a staircase" as the epitome of avant-garde modernism. In addition, he immediately tried to maintain his image as a scandal-ridden bohemian. A not insignificant step in this direction was the development of another new artistic practice, which he established in style with a translation from French into American: the invention of the ready-made work of art.

The French word for ready-made, tout-fait, has been in use since the second half of the 19th century to differentiate mass-produced ready-made goods or standardized finished products from individually made custom-made products. Duchamp now also introduced this term into art by simply buying industrially and that is serially manufactured goods in the store and declaring them to be works of art through this selection, combined with the act of signing.

In various interviews Duchamp himself repeatedly emphasizes the non-intentional and impersonal character of these objects, which even as works of art have nothing to do with an aesthetic taste judgment:

"The strange thing about the ready-made is that I was never able to arrive at a definition or explanation that fully satisfied me. ... My ready-mades have nothing to do with the objet trouvé, because the so-called 'found object "Is completely guided by personal taste. Personal taste determines whether this is a beautiful item and unique. Another important difference is that most of my ready-mades were mass-produced and could be duplicated. In some cases they were duplicated to." thereby avoiding the cult of uniqueness, capitalized art. I consider taste - bad and good - to be the greatest enemy of art. In the case of the ready-mades, I try to keep myself free from personal taste and deal with this problem to be aware.

I would like to emphasize one point in particular, namely that the choice of these ready-mades was never dictated by an aesthetic desire. This choice was based on a response of visual indifference, with a simultaneous total absence of good or bad taste. ... Another aspect of the ready-made is its lack of uniqueness ... because a ready-made's replica conveys the same message; in fact, almost none of the ready-mades still in existence today is an original in the traditional sense. "

The first ready-mades were made in the Parisian period, such as the bicycle rim screwed on a stool upside down, which, however, was not yet referred to as ready-made, but rather served as an entertaining game with rotational movements. Shortly afterwards Duchamp bought the famous one in a department store Bottle dryer, a cast-iron household item that was quite common at the time for drying washed-out wine bottles.

However, it is a myth that was only propagated later that these ready-mades - which were also accompanied by a snow shovel, a hat stand or a coat hook - also found their way to exhibitions or museums. They all ended up in the trash at some point and only survived in photographs from the artist's studio, where they were, however, an important source of inspiration. It was only later, after Duchamp's fame as a leading avant-garde artist had spread around the world, that he was asked to make replicas of the old models, which are now proud objects in any modern art collection.

Neither did the authoritative signature have anything to do with Duchamp's individuality, as perhaps the most notorious ready-made with which Duchamp continued to work on the staging of his artist myth: that urinal, also Fontaine called.

After Duchamp got to know the collector couple Louise and Walter Arensberg, who were decisive for his future life, he also took part in the founding of one of them Society of Independent Artistswho wanted to offer modern artists a democratic and prejudice-free forum for the presentation of their work. Duchamp was appointed head of the committee responsible for the hanging. His own contribution to the first exhibition was that he was with the company Mott Iron Works, a manufacturer of plumbing supplies, bought a "Bedfordshire" branded porcelain urinator, which he put on his back and signed in black on the edge as "R. Mutt" next to the year "1917". According to the association's rules, he paid the six dollar membership fee for the fictional Mr. Mutt from Philadelphia and had the ready-made work of art delivered for the exhibition. The board was outraged and refused to recognize and display this shiny white object as a work of art. Arensberg and Duchamp, who continued to keep his authorship of this coup secret, resigned from the board, but the obscure object disappeared and the only trace that remained was a photograph of Alfred Stieglitz.

But Duchamp had his scandal and his thieving joy. In the magazine "The Blind Man", which was published together with friends, he published next to Stieglitz's photo an article entitled "The Richard Mutt case", in which he defended the poor artist while at the same time discussing his conception of the ready-made to propagate:

"They say any artist who pays six dollars is allowed to exhibit. Mr. Richard Mutt submitted a drinking fountain. Without discussion, this item disappeared and was not exhibited at all.

What were the reasons for the rejection of Mr. Mutts drinking fountain? First: Some claimed that the piece was immoral, vulgar. Second: Others said it was plagiarism, a simple piece of plumbing supplies.

Well, Mr. Mutt's drinking fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, at least no more than a bathtub is immoral. It's an accessory that you see in the window of the plumbing store every day.

Whether or not Mr. Mutt made the fountain with his own hands is of no importance. He has her selected. He took an ordinary object of everyday life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view - created a new thought for the object. As for plumbing, that's absurd. The only works of art America has produced are its plumbing and bridges. "

With this ironic move to lead a fictional ready-made artist into the field in order to make him fail due to the again conservative small-mindedness of the self-proclaimed representatives of an independent and non-academic art, Duchamp succeeded in creating his aesthetic program in one fell swoop to make it public.

The artist is no longer the genius who invents new forms and creates beautiful works; Duchamp wants to "de-divine" him, as he puts it, trivializing his actions by bringing him back down to the status of craftsman that was common before the Renaissance. But of course that is again a ruse: Because the ready-mades are far removed from any usefulness or usefulness of craft products, they tend to work by disturbing or disturbing. The new type of artist is more like an intellectual whose creativity tends to create intellectual added value rather than visual enjoyment.

Hence the many humorous allusions and puns in the titles of the works, such as in "Fresh Widow", a French window based on the Parisian model, the panes of which Duchamp sealed with black leather. The title "Fresh Widow" can be translated into German as "freshness" in the sense of "merry widow", which pairs the sad aspect of the darkening blackness with the ambiguity of sexual permissiveness. But "Fresh Widow" is also quite simply derived from the name of the French window by deleting the two letters "n" in "French Window". At the same time, this object also plays with the long painterly tradition of a window display, which is deliberately negated here by covering the opening.

During the following period of his stay in America, Duchamp persistently worked on his myth, or rather on his mystification. When asked about his job, he liked to refer to himself as a "breather". Because life itself, which is expressed in this fundamental activity of inhaling and exhaling, was art enough for him:

"I would have loved to have done something, but basically I was indescribably lazy. I prefer to live and breathe rather than work. And since I do not believe that the work I have done will be of any significance for society in the future I have decided, if you will, to make my life my art - to practice the art of living. Every second lived, every breath is a work of art, a work of art that cannot be expressed anywhere, neither visually it is still cerebrally recognizable that it is rather a kind of uninterrupted feeling of elation. "

This attitude also agrees with the logic of the ready-mades, which made all things appear as finished products.Duchamp also practiced this skepticism towards original new creations in his private life. He didn't want to take responsibility for other people any more than he did for his chosen objects. This of course also precluded the idea of ​​marriage or family, and after a precipitous Dadaist marriage in 1927 with the daughter of a Parisian automobile manufacturer, which led to a divorce after a few months, he did not marry a veritable ready-made family in the form of until he was 66 Teeny Matisse, who from her marriage to Pierre Matisse, the son of the famous painter Henri Matisse, brought three children who had already been produced. Otherwise a bond with the notorious and avowed bachelor Duchamp would not have been conceivable. But for him women were only masturbation machines, an obsession that keeps cropping up in his works, especially in his main work, the Big glass Entitled: "The Bride Stripped Of Her Bachelors, Herself".

What has arisen under this enigmatic title in painstaking precision work over the years is not only the sum of all attempts and discoveries by Duchamp, but at the same time, through the choice of glass as the material of the image carrier, the first example in art history of a work of art that also has its space The exhibition includes, for example, looking through the transparent surface at the viewer behind it. And when setting up in the Philadelphia Museum of Art Duchamp even integrated a veritable moment of movement into the picture by arranging it in the line of sight of a window through which one can access the forecourt of the museum with a fountain, a Fontaine looks in the middle.

In terms of motif, this monumental sculpture brings together all themes since the time in Munich. Already in the division of the picture surface into the upper area of ​​the bride and the lower area of ​​the bachelors, an iconographic tradition is reflected, as Duchamp was able to study thoroughly in the Alte Pinakothek using examples of the adoration of Mary, Mother of God, through apostles or saints.

The idea of ​​the bride, who by the way is called "mariée" in French and is reminiscent of Mary's name, is already old. Numerous sketches and oil paintings by Duchamp's early revolve around the fascination of the transition, the passage from the virgin to the wife. The state of the bride is, so to speak, the state of limbo in between, at the moment of exposure or development, if one adds the entomological meaning of the bride or nymph as a pupated butterfly, which is common in entomology.

No wonder that the scene depicted in the upper half has often been compared to a peep show. The bachelors arranged in the lower part, who use archaic mechanical machines such as a water wheel or a chocolate grater to stimulate their expressions of love to the bride, which are clearly masturbatory at this distance, are also like machine elements.

The whole ensemble thus symbolizes a so-called bachelor machine, which energetically drives the ritual of erotic desire between the bride, who is baring herself above, as the motor and the bachelors struggling in the gears below, and which does not make up a finished picture, but rather its individual modules in free interplay should keep moving in the imagination of the beholder. And this is the purpose of another idea by Duchamp, who made notes and blueprints for the whole thing right from the start, which in the so-called "boxes" themselves should be part of the total work of art by creating an arc of tension between text and image. One of these notes reads in typical enigmatic language:

"In general, if this motor-bride is to appear as an apotheosis of virginity, that is, the ignorant wish, the sheer wish (with a dash of malice) and when (graphically) disobeying the laws of unwieldy equilibrium; so will." , regardless of which a gallows made of shiny metal can pretend the bond of the untouched with their friends and relatives (whereby this and that graphically correspond with a solid base, on solid ground, like the masonry base of the bachelor machine itself rests on solid ground).

The bride is an engine at its core. But before it is still a motor that transmits its shyness power, it is this shyness power itself. This shyness is a kind of automobile, love gas, which - distributed among the weak cylinders and within the reach of the sparks of her constant life, serves the development of this virgin who has reached the end of her desire. "

With this Dadaist combination of mechanics, dynamics and sexuality, this fusion of electrics and eroticism, Duchamp stands in the great tradition of the male fantasy of the automaton woman, which has haunted the West since Pygmalion and was boosted by films like "Metropolis" especially in Duchamp's time. What is new, however, is the link between artistic staging and intellectual reflection.

These explosions of the unity of the work of art on the way of literal anagrammatic word games go even further. From 1920 Duchamp invented a female doppelganger under the name Rrose Sélavy, which read aloud in French means: Eros is life. Man Ray photographed him wearing a fur collar and a woman's hat to document the fictional artist when Duchamp used to sign ready-mades from then on. He plays similar transvestite games with Leonardo's Mona Lisa, for whom he paints a mustache in the style of Dali. At the same time, Duchamp turned to the new technology of his "suitcase boxes", in which he collected miniaturized replicas of his main works together with selected notes and thus created a portable miniature museum.

It was this offensive and affirmative way of dealing with the technical reproduction possibilities of the modern media world that led to its enthusiastic reception by American pop art artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and the British Richard Hamilton. Even though he was repeatedly courted by Dadaism and Surrealism, Duchamp never allowed himself to be assigned to an art movement. In his later years, in addition to the obligatory chess game, he concentrated entirely on his last secret, which he was to keep until after his death: his last work "Etant donnés ...": "Given: 1. The waterfall 2. The lighting gaz" , the strangest work of art that had been in a museum until then to still have its posthumous scandal.

It's an installation in the Philadelphia Art Museum that can only be seen when stepping in front of a shabby wooden door in a wall and looking through two peepholes. The viewer is then offered a view through a breakthrough in a brick wall onto a half-concealed, naked woman's torso lying on the floor with widely spread thighs and exposing his bare and shaved pubes in the center. The left hand holds a gas lantern steeply upwards in front of an almost Arcadian landscape with a waterfall animated by light effects. Has the bride finally been bare and has become the victim of lust murder, or is it the tomb of Rrose Sélavy?

Duchamp commented on this just as little as on most of his works. On the night of October 1st to 2nd, 1968, 40 years ago, he died of a laughing fit after a cozy feast with his wife Teeny and friends Lébel and Man Ray. He had the inscription chiseled on his tombstone: "By the way, it's always the others who die!"