Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia, Tate Modern, London

Duchamp eclipses his fellow Dadaists – and yet, when all's said and done, this show revolves around a urinal

If you're of a sensitive turn of mind, you might want to stay away from Tate Modern's new show, Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia, on two counts. The first is that you will find your heart bleeding for the last member of the trio, and even, to a lesser extent, for the second. Then there is the infinitely depressing fact that the art of the leader of the pack – Marcel Duchamp, a man whose influence on Western culture arguably ranks with that of Freud and Darwin – looks as though it might have been made yesterday, which it could.

Unless you've made a hobby of the early 20th-century avant garde, you may wonder why the three men have been included in one show at all. The answer to that is that they planted the seeds of an anarchic movement, born in Zurich and known as Dada, in New York in the early years of the Great War. Dadaism done, the trio contributed variously to the various Surrealist currents in Paris and elsewhere, and remained friends and rivals for nearly 40 years until the Franco-Cuban Picabia's death in 1953. (Duchamp lived until 1968 and Man Ray, the baby of the group, until 1976.) The Tate's show begins with portraits of the three men of themselves and by each other. It ends, a dozen rooms later, with the aged Man Ray obsessively re-working Duchamp with an energy that seems part homage and part hatred.

This is all to say that Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia sets out to suggest an equivalence between its protagonists, men it describes as "three of the great pioneering figures in early 20th-century art". From the outset, though, it is clear that this even-handedness is, to put it kindly, quixotic. To put it unkindly, it is nonsense.

The first rooms show the artists' juvenilia, their early careers having all been spent as painters. Even here, it's clear that we are dealing not with a three-legged race but with gold, silver and bronze. Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2 (1912) is an amazingly sophisticated work, synthesising Cubist and Futurist thinking in a way that is entirely confident, wholly its own. The Lovers (1914) by the American-born Man Ray, ex-Emmanuel Radnitzky, shows the artist's exposure to the European avant garde via the 1913 Armory Show. It also suggests a native way with form. Adam and Eve (1911) by Picabia – in this context, poor, sad Picabia – is flaccid and floundering; and, bar his Fig Leaf of 1922, that is how he stays for the long course of this show.

Over Francis Picabia's inclusion, in other words, hangs the question: why bother? His role in the theorising of Dada was certainly important, but his work itself is an embarrassing distraction from the main event, which is Duchamp. The same, though to a far lesser extent, is true of Man Ray. The cruel truth is that Duchamp's particular genius lay in uncertainty, and that uncertainty was (and is) the defining spirit of the age. Its greatest lyric poet was Sigmund Freud, who showed that humanity is defined by a sexuality revealed in accidents and slips of the tongue, and it is that revelation that is at the heart of Duchamp's work.

Duchamp dressed as a woman whose name – Rrose Sélavy (Eros, c'est la vie, roughly "sex is life") – was a punning celebration of the ambiguous. So, too, was his notorious drawing of a moustache on the Mona Lisa. His eye (and ear) for the accidental was miraculous, ranging from endless French games with homophones – puns on the words savant and savon, noting that the letters LHOOQ sound like "she has a hot arse" – to seeing a wine rack as a woman's body covered in penises. And Duchamp wasn't just a master of form. The means of his art-making – the spotting of visual kinships in those everyday objects he would dub "readymades" – was itself scrupulously random, the sporadic outcome of a sporadic time. Half a century before, Charles Baudelaire had lauded the artist of the future as a flâneur, a lounger in the streets. It is arguable that his prophecy found its fulfilment not in Manet, but in Duchamp.

I've saved that urinal for last for the good reason that it is arguably (and laughably) the most important artwork of the past 100 years. Fountain – inscribed with the pseudonym R Mutt – isn't entirely a thumbing of the nose – it also has a formal interest as a feminine object designed to receive the outpourings of men – but it is largely that. It was "made" barely a decade after Duchamp's late-Impressionist painting, House in the Wood, and yet, philosophically, the two works are separated by aeons.

Between Duchamp's Fountain and Tracey Emin's My Bed, though, there is not a day's difference. Both are about the same historical accident, namely the transporting of a non-artwork into an art context. Fountain – actually a Sixties copy, the original having been lost – will have been carried reverently by conservators to Tate Modern's Level Four in its own champfered crate, it will be insured for God knows how much, and we will gaze at it in awe. Layered by now with so many meanings and so much history, it is neither an artwork nor an artefact but a totem. It is a snug-bar truism to say that nothing new has been done in art since Duchamp, but, looking at Fountain, it is also true. The rest of this show is merely a footnote, and so, perhaps, is the rest of art history.

Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888) to 26 May

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?