Marcel Duchamp’s artistic career, and that of some of his seven siblings, began in Normandy when he was still very young. His cultural restiveness was immediately apparent and, after he moved to Paris in 1904, it led him to acquire a passion for a whole range of different experiences, as can be seen in his extremely brief painting period, in which he produced about fifty canvases. Neo-Impressionism, Fauvism and Symbolism, and ultimately, in 1912, a fusion of Cubism (the geometrical deconstruction of figures, reducing them to pure volumes) and Futurism (though he himself claimed to have had no contact with the Futurists, the representation of movement, linked to his passion for machines and gears, closely recalls the ideas of the Italian avant-garde) all appear in his Nude Descending a Staircase no.2. The painting was rejected by the Salon des Indépendantsin Paris, but the following year it went on display at the Armory Show organised by Alfred Stieglitz in New York, where it caused a sensation, putting the seal on Duchamp’s endorsement by the American public.
Shortly after, he decided to abandon traditional painting and to work on a conceptual, non-visual form of art. Thus it was that, in 1913, he mounted the front wheel of a bicycle on a three-legged stool, taking and elevating an everyday, mass-produced object to the status of art. This involved a complex process with the object that was conceptual, but also physical, creating the first-ever ready-made, and the first fundamental step in his artistic revolution. The art critic Arturo Schwarz, Duchamp’s long-time gallerist, pointed to four key conditions that govern this process of transforming an object: firstly, “verbal colour”, in the form of a non-descriptive title able to trigger the imagination, secondly, the creation of synchronicity around the work, “to meet the object in a kind of rendezvous” thirdly, to decontextualise the object, changing the angle from which the object is normally perceived and, fourthly, to “limit the number of readymades yearly”, so as not to fall into the trap of repetition.
In the exhibition By or Of Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy, we are pleased to present the only readymade that never had any subsequent editions, and thus remained a unique piece, Door: 11, Rue Larrey. In 1927 Duchamp lived in a small apartment in the Rue Larrey, in the fifth arrondissement of Paris, where he had also decided to set up his studio. To make the space inhabitable for himself and his wife, he decided to have only one door, in a strategic position: between the studio, the living room and the bathroom. This meant that the door was always open and always closed, since it was hinged between two rooms. If the bathroom was closed, the living room was open, and if the living room was closed the bathroom was open. By an act of subtraction, the artist managed to create. From its “regeneration” in the form of a work of art, which took place in 1927, the Door had an extraordinary destiny. At the 1978 Biennale it was mistaken for just another door in the room and was given a double coat of colour by the housepainters, which ended in a very expensive compensation being given to the owner of the work at the time.
One of Duchamp’s greatest contributions to contemporary art was the inclusion and use of chance as a factor in the artistic process. This is clear to see in an extraordinary work such as La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even),also called The Large Glass.The work consists of two glass panes painted with oils, with silver and lead foil, and it tells a story of love and desire with unusual characters personified by mechanical machines: a bride, bachelors and eyewitnesses, who move among chocolate grinders, sieves and watermills. Duchamp himself considered it to be the most important work in the process he had begun in 1915. It was deliberately left unfinished in 1923 and was seriously damaged during a move, but he decided not to repair it, showing that he accepted the complicity of chance. This made it one of the most enigmatic works of the twentieth century. Duchamp’s literary activity intervened alongside and in support of his sculptural work, for he was concerned with generating not so much a visual art form as a mental one. LaBoîte Verte (The Green Box)appears in the exhibition in the luxury version, of which 20 replicas were made, as well as in the version with a larger run. It contains 93 notes, writings, projects and photographs for the creation of The Large Glass.
Marcel Duchamp must be considered as an innovator also in terms of the reproduction of his own works, often in series. It took him six years, from 1935 to 1941, to develop the idea and create La Boîte-en-Valise (The Box in a Suitcase), also on show here. 68 pieces, including a small version of Fountain and one of the rectified readymade of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with a beard and moustache and the inscription “L.H.O.O.Q.” (this is a play on the letters which sound out the French sentence “Elle a chaud au cul”), reproduced in miniature and thus made transportable “in a suitcase”, a catalogue of all his work. The themes of reproducibility and “portability”, however, are not the only themes introduced by the Boîte,for this compendium encapsulated in a box closely recalls the concept of an album, and thus of an autobiography. Setting aside the canons that until then had been considered fundamental for the creation of a work of art (taste, style, the search for form, and intentionality), miniatures and reproductions offered a new degree of accessibility, for a wider public, as though Duchamp had created a miniature portable, independent museum.
The exhibition also includes an extraordinary set of photographs taken by Ugo Mulas, memorabilia of the artist, and the complete collection of etchings that he made to illustrate the creation of the individual parts of The Large Glass and the theme of the lovers, as a continuation of the theme of the same work.
Marcel Duchamp was one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century and, in view of the uniqueness of his ideas, he can be considered as a great innovator of art.