Marcel Duchamp: Of Landscapes and Readymades
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) is very popular and highly respected within the inner circles of art institutions and artists. However, he is less recognized in minor, art-interested circles. Probably this is because Duchamp’s overall production is somewhat limited and a good number of his works have been given to a museum in Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. Thus, it is difficult to study some of the artist’s works in the original, or even in reproduction, in many parts of the world.
Distinguished as one of “artists of the 20th century”, Duchamp had strong associations with European modernism.
Duchamp was originally a painter and, like other painters such as Pablo Picasso, he embraced modernism’s many “-isms” such as Futurism, Cubism, and Fauvism in his early paintings. However, artistically speaking, Duchamp and Picasso (and Duchamp’s other contemporaries) developed into nearly diametric opposites. In his early paintings and later works, the artist almost always focused on the human form as a point of departure or motif.
However, as the artist’s career developed, he brushed aside painting. In this period, most of Duchamp’s contemporaries abstracted themselves from the motif. On the other hand, however, the artist abstracted himself from the ground plane of painting. In other words, Duchamp abstracted himself from art in the traditional sense.
Today, much of Duchamp’s status in the art world is largely based on his concept of “readymades”, or the mass-produced objects that the he did not create but chosen (and, occasionally, modified). While generations of artists, art critics and art historians interpreted Duchamp’s readymades exclusively as ultramodern acts of anti-art, it can be observed that, in these works replacing the notions of physical artistic craft with intellectual acts of choice, he engaged questions of landscape not characteristically associated with sculpture. In this light, this paper will show that the artist employed the readymades to translate landscape into sculptural form.
The term “landscape” is defined in the dictionary as “a stretch of country as seen from a single point”. This implies a viewer, someone who organizes the infinite detail seen. Others define it as “a composition of man-made or man-modified spaces to serve as infrastructure or background for our collective existence” (Jackson, 1984, p. 8). Furthermore, many views landscape not only as the world one sees; rather, it is a composition, a construction of that world. Landscape paintings have been very popular since ancient times. However, their commercial and important social values were particularly highlighted during the period of development of modern art in the late 18th and 19th centuries (Jensen, 1994). This landscape tradition suited modern aesthetics in which the personal, expressive treatment of a subject was valued.
Early in his career, Duchamp was influenced by impressionist style. His Church at Blainville (1902) shows how the artist painted with the bright palette and loose brush strokes of Impressionism. Later on, impressionist painters turned their attention to the landscape of Europe, particularly Paris. Usually, they highlighted the landscape more than its human occupants. This emphasis represents the sweeping landscape aesthetic shared by Duchamp’s legion of authors and artists in the early 20th century Paris. Duchamp challenged himself to engage new means of representing the tone and pace of modern urban life. His search of finding new ways to re-imagine urban life through his art is important to art history of art and to geography as well.
While Duchamp used landscape as central to his works, this has received little critical attention. One of Duchamp’s best-known work, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923), also known as The Large Glass, had connections with the landscape revealed in the sketches and notebooks the artist published at regular intervals (Bonk, 1989). His drawings place the bride and the bachelors among rolling hills; there the mechanical forms of the bride and the bachelors are motorized by the electrical lines, making this a modern landscape. Duchamp’s The Large Glass is distinguished from traditional landscape paintings by modern elements in accordance with both form and content. According to Henderson (1998), the meanings of this work connect, at the same time, to the frustrated desire of the bride and her bachelors, to landscape aesthetics, and to popular science. Overall, Duchamp’s works question and challenge simultaneously notions of artistic traditions and landscape representation.
To emphasize, Duchamp employed the readymades to translate man-made urban landscape into sculptural form and to translate its elements into the interior landscape of his studio. It can be argued that readymades have played important role in reorganizing aesthetic categories compared with any other early 20th century art practice. Its major impact was the rejection of an ontological definition of art. These man-made objects, first selected by Duchamp and then installed in museums and galleries (his other readymades were not installed in such institutions), suggested that concept of “Art” was constructed and produced in context. Similarly, Duchamp’s self-conscious shunning of art’s unmediated visuality, and the inclusion of language in the readymades, suggest that meaning itself is produced actively by speaking and viewing subjects, interjected or interposed as they are by a number of institutional positions.
In general, Duchamp’s readymades engage shifts, transitions, humor, and analogy in scale in translating these elements, paralleling the conceptual and physical transformations of urban landscape into maps. Duchamp started his series of readymades before leaving Paris, by choosing objects that recalled the Eiffel Tower and the Ferris Wheel. The Bottle Rack (1914) was among Duchamp’s first readymades, transformed from its utilitarian origins by the artist’s selection and signing of the object. The artist may not have made this bottle rack, but he displaced it and disallowed it of its utility. Its metal forms echo the cast-iron structure of the Eiffel Tower, a positive symbol of Paris. Bottle Rack transformed a machine-made household object into a sculpture of equally strange metal forms. The link between the Eiffel Tower and Duchamp’s Bottle Rack was strengthened by the readymade’s companion in Duchamp’s studio, Bicycle Wheel (1913), which was mounted on a stool. The wheel’s spinning form recalls the Ferris Wheel.
By finding minimal-scale substitutes for sites in monumental Paris, Duchamp’s readymades engage an aesthetic approach that parallels the modernist concept of the object portrait. Duchamp effectively established a “map” and “portrait” of Paris that represented its landscape in his Paris and New York City studios. From these first readymades on, the meaning of the objects would be context specific. They could be seen together only in the personal realm of Duchamp’s studio or the carefully controlled reproductions of his work that he issued himself.
Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a common urinal that he signed with under the pseudonym R. Mott, is by far his most popular readymade. The industrial-porcelain urinal, with its smooth, white surface, rounded forms, recall the distinctive form and color of the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur, an important monument of the Parisian landscape. Before Fountain disappeared, it made its temporary home in the artist’s studio in New York City, where he mounted it at ceiling level. Its location makes a spatial reference to the northern, hilltop setting of the Sacre-Coeur. Like the great white basilica perched on the Montmartre hilltop, Duchamp’s urinal becomes a point of organizational reference for the other readymades.
The readymades set the stage for Duchamp by providing a Parisian backdrop in his New York City studio. For some art historians, the importance of the 19th century art of the diorama is an indicator of the changing modern concept of landscape; it “marks the appearance of a new kind of drama-one which takes place in a domestic interior and involves domestic and psychological problems, hidden from the public world” (Jackson, 1980, p. 75). The artist’s arrangement of the readymades to create a landscape within his studio complicates this notion by introducing a space that is both public and private. Moreover, the readymades create a complex relationship in which American-made objects stand in for French national treasures. In his studio, Duchamp could be in Paris and New York City simultaneously. Such a situation hinges on the possibility that modern artworks foster multiplicity of meanings instead of singular interpretations.
The complex, layered associations of the readymades are consistent with the multiplicity of meanings found, individually and collectively, in the works that make up Duchamp’s entire creative output. For Duchamp, things are never only what they seem to be. A bit of bloody gauze can become the profile of George Washington, but, viewed from another perspective, the same work becomes a map of the physical nation the president represents. Context and perspective change the viewer’s experience, and a geographically grounded reading of Duchamp’s art proposes new meanings for the well-known work of this major modern artist.
Overall, Duchamp’s readymades contributed to modern art’s interest in the urban landscape in ways that have not previously been recognized. Duchamp’s Bottle Rack, Bicycle Wheel, and Fountain can stand in for the Eiffel Tower, Ferris Wheel, and Basilique du Sacre-Coeur, respectively, at the same time that they are iconoclastic challenges to artistic traditions. Modern art history and the history of geography are related in ways that are not always apparent and that often require complex investigation and interpretation. Although modern art does not always represent the landscape in immediately recognizable ways, the relationship between modern art and landscape merits further critical attention. With the examples offered by Duchamp’s readymades to consider, landscape artists are enabled to identify previously unrecognized methods and traditions of landscape representation in everyday life and in art.
Bonk, E. (1989). Marcel Duchamp, The Box in a Valise. D. Britt (trans.). New York: Rizzoli.
Henderson, L. D. (1998). Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in The Large Glass and Related Works. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Jackson, J. B. (1980). The Necessity for Ruins, and Other Topics. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Jackson, J. B. (1984). Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Jensen, R. (1994). Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siecle Europe. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (Also called The Large Glass). (1915-23). Oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels. 109 1/4″ x 69 1/4″. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Landscape at Blainville. (1902). Oil on canvas. 61 x 50 cm. Private collection.
Fountain. (1917). Photographed in 1917 by Alfred Steiglitz
Bottle Rock. (1914). Lost. Replica. (1964)
Bicycle Wheel. (1913). Lost. Replica (1964)
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