French artist and writer Henri Robert Marcel Duchamp was born on July 28, 1887. He first came to my attention a few years ago at the summer program in Paris where I work. I was making room signs for teachers and trying to come up with an image to match the class name. For “L’Avant Garde,” I had absolutely no idea what to put. “Use a urinal,” suggested one of my colleagues. A urinal? OK, if you say so. Indeed, it was the perfect image for this artist who epitomized the Avant Garde movement in Paris in the first half of the 20th century.
Duchamp, considered one of the most brilliant thinkers of the century, is associated with the idea of “ready-made” art. He would attach his name to an object and label it “art” – including the famous upside-down urinal he called “The Fountain.” The idea was that it’s art if the artist says it is, which pushed the boundaries of the contemporary movement to the furthest fringes. Personally, I still think it’s just a urinal, but I pretty much think art died after art nouveau, so my opinion may not be particularly valid.
Duchamp’s family was generally “artistic” and rather gifted in intellectual pursuits. He learned to play chess from his brothers and competed at an international level for many years. Duchamp finished his baccalaureat at age 15 and received a médaille d’excellence for art. He started formal art training, but abandoned it after only one year because he found the courses too theoretical. He did, however, get really good at billiards. Duchamp began to sell satirical caricatures to the newspapers to help make ends meet.
His more serious art début took place at the Grand Palais when he participated in the Salon of 1908, displaying three paintings that showed the strong influence of the Impressionists. After this, however, each new Salon seemed to show a whole new Duchamp, first influenced by Cézanne, next by fauvism, then symbolism, then cubism. Finally, he abandoned painting altogether and launched into his “ready-mades.” It was at this time that he became associated with Dadaism. Duchamp was obsessed with the notions of movement and time, and he combined these two in some short films, including Anemic Cinema. He also began to participate in films with his friends, such as Man Ray.
Duchamp became a naturalized American citizen in 1955. He died on October 2, 1968; his epitaph reads, “D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent” (dieur seh toozjoors layz owetruh key mur), which means, “Actually, it’s always others who die.”
- Haunted by Duchamp (artnews.com)
- Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) – Artist vs Chess Player (musiqdragonfly.wordpress.com)
- The Controversial Urinal: Bringing Duchamp Back From Behind Closed Doors (theurbn.com)
- Marcel Duchamp & Chess & Video (longstreet.typepad.com)
- Urinal Fountain (addcsummer2013.wordpress.com)