In 1913 Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) mounted a bicycle wheel on a stool. In 1917 he submitted a urinal to an art exhibition, turning the art world on its head. From the 1950s the conceptual way in which he presented everyday objects as art in his ‘readymades’ earned Duchamp the status of most influential artist of the twentieth century. But does this do justice to Duchamp’s original intentions? This exhibition placed the work of the infamous artist in a new context.
In the autumn of 2013 the museum’s Print Room hosted an exhibition on the artistic practice of Marcel Duchamp. The exhibition, based on research by art historian Bert Jansen, showed that Duchamp was more than the supposed Conceptual artist avant la lettre. The museum placed Duchamp’s work in a broader historical framework and elucidates the many personal references and humorous wordplays to be found in his work. Duchamp was not only an artist, but also a hobbyist or – to use his own word – an ‘anartist’. The centrepiece of the exhibition was the work ‘De ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy’ (La boîte-en valise) / ‘From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy’ (Box in a Valise) of 1952. This small suitcase from the museum’s collection contains miniature reproductions of Duchamp’s oeuvre that introduce the eight themes in the exhibition. The suitcase was supplemented by drawings, texts, photographs and other documentary material by Duchamp and his contemporaries, including his brother Jacques Villon, Juan Gris and František Kupka.
Duchamp in a new light
In the Print Room, Duchamp’s work was shown for the first time in the context of events in the artist’s life and personal experiences that inspired his works. A good example is the readymade ‘Hérisson’ from 1914, a bottle rack that Duchamp bought in a department store. The name probably refers to a series of waterfalls on the River Hérisson, which Duchamp visited with his muse Gabrielle Picabia in 1912. A similar bottle rack was included in the exhibition.
Humour and wordplays
Other important elements in Duchamp’s work that have often been overlooked are humour and wordplays. The exhibition showed that Duchamp’s cool and detached manner of looking, often explained as cynicism, was actually a means of investing everyday situations with humour. This was illustrated in the exhibition by the humorous drawings that Duchamp made for newspapers. In his notes, Duchamp described his work ‘The Large Glass’ as a ‘hilarious picture’. Duchamp’s readymade ‘Bicycle Wheel’ of 1913, is also a play on words. In French ‘wheel’ (roue) and stool (selle) sounds like the surname of the writer Raymond Roussel (1877-1933), whom Duchamp greatly admired.
The exhibition in the Print Room was based on articles that art historian Bert Jansen has published in Jong Holland, Metropolis M and Kunstbeeld. Jansen has written about art for Het Financieele Dagblad since 1982.
Duchamp’s work has influenced generations of artists, including his friend and collaborator Man Ray. In the spirit of the readymades, Man Ray photographed apparently random combinations of everyday objects. Together Duchamp and Man Ray made the film ‘Anémic Cinéma’ (1926), in which rotating spirals are interspersed with wordplays. In the spring of 2014 the museum exhibit sculptures and photographs by Man Ray together with the work of sculptors Constantin Brancusi and Medardo Rosso in the major exhibition ‘Brancusi, Rosso, Man Ray: Framing Sculpture’. Over the next few months the museum showed the work of other famous artists of the avant-garde, with three galleries devoted to an exhibition centred on Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, who was a friend of Duchamp.