How Duchamp made a splash (and changed art forever)

By Richard Cork
Friday 03 December 2004 01:00

Nothing could have been more brazenly heretical than Marcel Duchamp's shameless decision in 1917 to buy an ordinary urinal and display it as his own work of art.

Nothing could have been more brazenly heretical than Marcel Duchamp's shameless decision in 1917 to buy an ordinary urinal and display it as his own work of art.

Outrageous avant-garde movements were challenging everyone's ideas about what modern art could be, but no one before Duchamp had dared to exhibit - quite unaltered - an object purchased in a shop.

Where was the art? He must have known everyone would ask this, and feel either bewildered or incensed by his effrontery in daring to select something as lowly as a urinal. But Duchamp relished his role as the great subverter - one celebrated when 500 leading art figures voted the piece, Fountain, as the most influential piece of modern art yesterday.

Having established his youthful reputation as a painter, he triggered outrage in 1913 when his Nude descending a Staircase was sent over from Paris to New York. There, in a notorious show at the Armory, his painting became the target of widespread hilarity, anger and derision. Overnight, he found himself branded as an arch heretic in the US.

But instead of recoiling from al the notoriety, Duchamp was spurred into pushing his ideas to even more inflammatory extremes. In 1913, he stopped painting and placed a readymade bicycle wheel upside down on a kitchen stool. At this early stage, not even Duchamp would have dared to claim it as his own artwork. He called Bicycle Wheel a "distraction''. But its revolutionary implications fascinated him so much that, only a year later, he sauntered into a Parisian department store and bought a bottle rack. Its projecting hooks gave the structure a spiky appearance, like one of the weapons about to be unleashed in the First World War. As if in recognition of its aggressive look, Duchamp thought about calling it Hedgehog.

And in 1915, soon after leaving his native France to settle in New York, he bought a snow shovel from a store and called it In Advance of the Broken Arm. By this time, he was fully prepared to call it a "ready-made", and nominate this manufactured object as a work of art. Duchamp's daring was now at its height. Already a celebrity in New York because of Nude descending a Staircase, he drew additional strength from his friendships with like-minded American artists and writers, including Man Ray and William Carlos Williams. His work was avidly purchased by the admirably open-minded Walter and Louise Arensberg, who assembled the largest collection of Duchamp's art.

Soon enough he founded, with his friends, a New York branch of the Dadaist movement, which had begun in 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Profoundly committed to liberty and anarchism, Dada's members declared themselves defiantly opposed to war and civilisation alike. Led by Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara and Jean Arp, they turned Zurich into a crucible for the most audacious and shocking initiatives. The word "Dada", a sound traditionally made by babies, signifies "hobby horse" in French.

In New York, Duchamp and his allies were determined to cause an equal amount of uproar. An ideal opportunity arrived when Walter Arensberg joined the American Dadaists in founding the Society of Independent Artists. Fed up with academies and professional juries who censured anything that diverged from conventional notions about art, this dissident society staged a big exhibition under the watchwords "No Jury, No Prizes, Hung in Alphabetical Order". Everyone willing to pay $6 as an entry fee was included in this deeply subversive show and Duchamp felt even more emboldened than before. With astonishing affrontary, he paid a visit to "Mott Works" on Fifth Avenue. They supplied bathroom fixtures, and, here, Duchamp decided to buy a men's urinal. Without changing it apart from adding the provocative signature "R Mutt" and the date, he sent it in to the Society under the title Fountain.

Although he turned the urinal on its back, nobody was fooled. It caused a furore among the organising committee, even though members had no right to reject any submissions. George Bellows, the prominent American painter and supposedly a supporter of experimentation in art, greeted Fountain with seismic disapproval. Living up to his surname, Bellows insisted that Fountain be banned from view. Walter Arensberg came swiftly to his friend's defence, arguing that the Society wanted this exhibition to let "the artist decide what is art, not someone else".

Bellows hurled a scornful question back at the committee: "If a man sent in horse manure glued to a canvass, we would have to accept it?" But the other members held firm, replying: "I'm afraid we would."

By rallying to Duchamp's defence, they upheld one of the cornerstone beliefs of modernism. The principle became so widely espoused that, by 1950, when Ernst Gombrich first published his best-selling classic, The Story of Art, he insisted in his introduction that "Art with a capital A has no existence". Unlike so many diehard defenders of tradition, who deplored everything that Duchamp and the Dadaists stood for, Gombrich championed freedom: "There are only artists," he declared.

Duchamp wanted to assert the artist's right to be a thinker rather than a maker, and escape from the limiting notion that an artwork must always be handcrafted, the product of skill and technical excellence. But his urinal was considered so offensive that it was pushed behind a partition at the 1917 exhibition. Nine days after the show's opening party, Duchamp finally tracked down his Fountain. Protesting, he resigned from the Society and took the urinal to the celebrated 291 Gallery, run by Alfred Stieglitz, whose admiration for modernists was as legendary as his own photography. Stieglitz displayed Fountain for a week, and his photograph of the ready-made now provides an indispensable record of the original work. For the urinal was subsequently lost; the version now owned by Tate Modern is one of the eight replicas made by Galleria Schwarz with the artist's consent in 1964, only four years before his death.

Looking back on the scandal, Duchamp wrote an anonymous article for a Dadaist magazine called Blind Man. Describing how some had attacked the urinal as "immoral, vulgar", while others had deplored it as "plagiarism" of a piece of plumbing, he insisted that "Mr Mutt's fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you can see every day in plumbers' show windows."

Then Duchamp went straight to the centre of the radical belief in forming his ready-made: "Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view - created a new thought for that object."

This, in essence, was the point at issue - not only with Fountain, but every other ready-made by Duchamp. But the fact that it was a urinal ensured that this particular work has always been seen as a landmark. How could an object intended for men to piss in possibly be seen as a sculpture? By removing it from everyday use, Duchamp invites us to view this lowly receptacle as a beguiling form, worth scrutinising in its own right. In a fascinating article in Blind Man called "The Buddha of the Bathroom", the poet Louise Norton claimed that: "The photographs of Fountain make it look like anything from a Madonna to a Buddha." She also reported the response of a viewer who claimed that Duchamp's urinal was "like the legs of the ladies by Cezanne", asking "but have they not, those ladies, in their long round nudity, always recalled to your mind the calm curves of decadent plumbers' porcelains?".

Like so much of Duchamp's work, the curving urinal's erotic quality soon becomes self evident. But the sexual identity of Fountain is still tantalisingly ambiguous. Reminiscent of a female body, it also possesses a phallic silhouette.

In this respect, it looks forward to Duchamp's later fascination with gender-bending. In 1919, after his return to Paris, he produced a "corrected ready-made" inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci. On a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, he added a moustache and beard in pencil. And the title he gave the work, L. H. O. O. Q, is a pun: "Elle a chaud à cul" (she has a hot arse).

The following year, he went even further by dressing up in drag as an enigmatic woman called Rrose Selavy (a pun on "Eros c'est la vie" - Eros is life). Man Ray photographed him as Rrose, and Duchamp later delighted in pretending that she had been responsible for all his ready-mades. The truth is that Duchamp seasoned his subversive manoeuvres with a cunning amount of mischievous wit. And even today, when Fountain has acquired a more mythical status than ever, it is still able to make us all smile.

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