Vol.1 / Issue 3

Duchamp at the Turn of the Centuries

by Jean Clair
(translated by Sarah Skinner Kilborne)

Excerpt from Marcel Duchamp et la fin de l'art by Jean Clair (Paris: Gallimard, 2000). Translated with permission of the author.

  "A dada creation of Teste, not the least
chimeric, was to want to preserve art -
Ars - purely by eradicating illusions
about the artist and the creator"

Paul Valéry
(For a portrait of Monsieur Teste)

A Provisional Portrait

He was courteous, articulate, cultivated. At least, one would imagine so. He practiced understatement, liked humor as well as irony. He kept himself at a distance, always in the wings, and would not provide his opinion. On the edge of the circus of the vanities, here was the opposite of a man of letters, of a student of the mind.

The hell raisers of modern art made him the father of the revolution which redefined taste in the 20th century, without really knowing how he was influenced by Alphonse Allais and how similar he was to Ravachol or Kropotkine.

The fact is that this discreet, elegant man, practicing the subtle art of conversation instigated change. He was invited, celebrated in the most elegant circles, and people didn't pay much attention to the crowd of roustabouts who, following him, invited themselves to the party.

After the patrons, came the institutions. In February 1977, for its opening, the Centre Georges Pompidou chose to celebrate him. This was a watershed event(1) . It posed the question of the century: What is art? - And it chose to answer by brushing aside the heroes that one expected to find, Matisse or Picasso(2) . With Duchamp, the Minister of Culture had to have faith, with twenty-five years still to go before the end of the millennium, to favor an art that he believed was liberal, anarchic, democratic, an art for all and made by all, and which answered therefore to the aims of an enlightened State which had known only to suffer an existing elite. Every man is an artist. Every gesture is a work of art. Every work of art can be anything at all.

The fact is that legions of slackers, hearing of artists out there without an oeuvre, without talent or profession, identified themselves with Duchamp, more or less. However, in their actions, their writings, their manifestations, the simplicity turned into misery; the subtlety, a heaviness; intelligence became stupidity; irony, slowness; allusion, crudeness, and finally the meticulous and mercurial method of "le marchand du sel" [Duchamp pseudonym] gave way to a plethora of productions by artists by the grosse, without spirit and without style.

Duchamp remained a silent witness to this phenomenon. He, who had carried on so little, written so little, and who had never taken credit for the result, with an amused smile, allowed the dream world of an avant-garde to become the palladium of fin de siècle societies.

There had been, without a doubt, a mistake about someone.

An Aristocratic Failure *

What was it exactly about the nihilism of Marcel Duchamp? What was the sense in his renouncing painting? By way of what did this transformation of values, this Nietzschian enterprise to which he attached himself, have some of the characteristics of the tabula rasa of the avant-garde at the beginning of the century?

By way of nothing, perhaps. The last of the decadents became, against his will, the first of the moderns.

* * *

Hannah Arendt saw and described that which in the first decade of the century bound modernity with totalitarianism. Contemporary artists during the First World War for the most part shared in "the desire, she said 'to lose oneself' and a violent disgust for all existing criterion, for all established powers. [...] Hitler and those who were failures in life weren't the only ones to thank God on their knees when the mobilization swept Europe in 1914.(3) " The elite also dreamed of coming to terms with a world it considered corrupt. The war would be a purification for all, the tabula rasa of values which enabled belief in a whole new humanity. An entry into nihilism, for sure, was this rejection of a society saturated with ideology and bourgeois morality: "Well before a Nazi intellectual announced, 'When I hear the world culture, I draw my gun,' the poets had proclaimed their disgust for this 'cultural filth' and poetically invited 'Barbarians, Scythes, Negroes, Indians, Oh! All of you, to the stampede.'(4) " This rage to destroy what civilization had produced as more refined, more subtle, more intelligent, "The Golden Age of Security" according to Stefan Zweig, but also to destroy this world which celebrated, in 1900, the triumph of scientific progress and humanitarian socialism, was shared by artists and intellectuals as well as terrorists from all sides, from the Nazis to the Bolsheviks. In the cafés of Zurich, Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara were mixing with, at neighboring tables, Lenin and the future trigger-happy political commissioners.

* * *

Still more recently, Enzensberger recalled some facts that France, sole remaining nation managing the arts in Europe, continues to ignore. "From Paris to Saint Petersburg, the fin de siècle intelligentsia flirted with terror. The premier expressionists called [it] the war of their wishes, just like the futurists [...]. In large countries, the cult of violence and the 'nostalgia for mud' in favor of industrializing the culture of the masses, became an integral part of heritage. Because the notion of the avant-garde took an unfortunate turn, its first supporters would never have imagined...(5) "

Let's remember above all from Hannah Arendt the term "failures." From Hitler, the regrettable candidate at the Academy of Beaux-arts in Vienna, to all those mediocre artists, poets and philosophers cultivating their resentment, failures hastened the twilight of culture.

Duchamp also, in a sense, was a "failure." The feeling of failure - the idea of being a loser, a pariah, an outcast, a Sonderling or whatever leads a person to finding out at the age of fifteen or sixteen that they're not in the "in" crowd - was most vivid. There was the social failure of being a notary's son, an offspring of small-town bourgeoisie in a province that was already looked down upon on the eve of the First World War. There was the professional failure of his entrance examinations to the Ècole des Beaux-arts in 1905, which drove back the spirits of the young artist. There was the failure of the Salon des Indépendants in 1912, when his work was refused. So many wounds to narcissism.

But the most vivid failure remained family-related, when we see his ambition of becoming an artist thwarted by his own brothers, more talented than he. Jacques Villon was a good, sensitive painter and, more than that, an extraordinary engraver. Duchamp-Villon was a wonderful sculptor who, if he hadn't been killed in the war, would have become one of the greatest artists of the century. Marcel, the youngest, was a menial, underpaid artist. How could he make a name for himself when his name was already taken?

Duchamp would be able in fact to serve as a perfect example to illustrate the argument, all the rage in the United States actually, that the youngest child is born to rebel. Put forth by Frank J. Sulloway, this argument tends to demonstrate on the basis of behaviors that the fate of great creators and reformers of society is dictated within the family dynamic by their birth order. While first borns identify in general with power and authority and have conservative personalities devoted to keeping their prerogative and resisting radical innovations, children born last weave a plan for turning the status quo upside down and often develop revolutionary personalities. "From this rank emerge the great explorers, the iconoclasts, and the heretics...(6) "

In open rivalry with his older brothers, Duchamp would have been the prototype of the last born who, in order to dig his ecological niche, had the only alternative of radically upsetting the values advocated by his environment.

* * *

Even so, nothing about him was known to be resentful. Nothing more remote than the idea, common to intellectuals of the time, that individuals had to blend in with the masses to fulfill their destiny. Nothing about him would have been more disagreeable to consider than this comradeship in action of the masses which proposed to fell with violence the society it repulsed.

It was therefore by the love of irony and the daily practice of failing that he responded with his creative powerlessness. The homo ludens against the homo faber.

An accident of life, this feeling of being a failure - and that which was the result of it, his lofty distance from the inner circle - was leading him on the other hand to take note, at the start of the century, of a phenomenon which was elevating the universal. Few onlookers were yet alarmed by the situation, one without precedent in the venerable system of the beaux-arts. And Duchamp was one of the rare to acutely grasp that which others were refusing to admit: art - art such as we knew it, the art of painting, with its rules, techniques, and enslavement to style and schools, art with its status, social recognition, academies, salons, glory - had no reason to exist any longer. Art, an invention of the XVth century, had had its day…

What then had it meant "to succeed"? The previous generation had been able to believe in brilliant careers on the perimeter of respectable society. The studio of the painter who had "arrived" was part of the fashionable scene. But the fin de siècle artist was hardly more well-off than the colorful figure of the previous decades, uneducated, filthy, "stupid like a painter..."

Duchamp's refusal never to let himself be seduced by the security of normal life and his scorn for the respectability and honors which accompanied this life were therefore sincere and very similar to the anarchic despair experienced by political explorers, by outcasts like Hitler. Without a doubt he didn't escape, no more than any other, from an infantile proclivity for provocation. From the Indépendants to the Armory Show, he had not a few of these acts which recalled the violence of the time. His actual approach -- so profound and so stubborn that it would define itself in the Large Glass, in the ready-mades, and later in Étant donnés was of a wholly different nature. It was a matter less of shocking the bourgeoisie and destroying their culture than engaging himself in an intellectual adventure without precedent.

Anarchists, Dadaists, Surrealists and other dynamos of society: Duchamp was decidedly not of this group. Rather, his camp was that of the deserters. His departure for New York, at the beginning of the war, resembles Descartes' departure for Amsterdam. To a cauldron of reflection, of daydreaming, far from the masses. Polite but reserved: he wasn't there for anyone.

Max Stirner(7) , therefore, rather than Nietzsche or Sorel. The idea of the unique pupil in advance of the obsession. Nothing owed to anybody and nothing repeating itself. There wasn't any need of "getting lost" because, in the world which he had entered, there was already nothing else to lose. He was the first to understand that he belonged to a world "without art," in the same way one speaks of a world "without history." When he began his work, the death of art had taken place. In this respect, Duchamp is a survivor, not a precursor. He wasn't preparing for the flood, he was exposing the conditions for survival.

From Decadence to Dandyism

The elegance of a dandy instead of the feigned untidiness of an anarchist. The lack of distinguishing adornments. To pass unnoticed was the distinction. This avoided the worst blows as well as applause. It was an attraction to the strict, the rigorous, the stripped down - "austere" was the key word for Duchamp's aesthetic, just the right tone in English flannel and tweed, enveloped in the wreath of a good cigar.

The distance he put between himself and his press was always very British. Every one of his talks, interviews, and writings was subject to: "Never explain, never complain." There was no theory to justify himself, no excuse to excuse himself. Such reserve was immediately sufficient to disconcert a questioner, to discourage the curious, to confuse the scholarly.

The style of this period was also, among the enlightened ones in London, Vienna, and Brussels, about American functionality. Duchamp's admiration for the quality of plumbing in New York was right up the alley of Adolf Loos; everything, like not tolerating the rancid smells of turpentine trailing about in the studios, was in accord with the architect of the Michaelsplatz, with his disgust for the pastry shops in Ringstraße. (The taste for industrial modernity, for every last technical comfort in improving a home, was already, right away, a trait of the decadent such as des Esseintes.) Nothing "dadaist" in any case, rather an exquisite education, confronting the trivialities of the time.

* * *

No, his admiration had gone instead, one could say, to Mallarmé, Laforgue, Jarry, Alphonse Allais. From his direct elders. From "countries" of Norman descent also, in that this concerned the last two. A nihilism well tempered. The line of the symbolist comet. It would be convenient to add, come to mention it, Huysmans - and Remy of Gourmont, another Norman - whom we think about very little.

From des Esseintes to the "Breather"

Huysmans first. Did he ever read him? Well, we couldn't leaf through Against the Grain without thinking at every turn of Marcel Duchamp. Plus, among the three paintings that Suzanne Duchamp submitted to the Salon des Indépendants in 1912 (thanks to the care of her brother) there was an homage, À des Esseintes. This seems to indicate some close reading of the author of Down There in their family's sBlainville household(8).

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1. Duchamp in his studio on 14th Street, New York (detail from a photomontage by Kiesler, Poème d'espace dédié à H (ieronymus) Duc'hamp, published in View, Series V, n° 1, March 1945)

Some features clarify this elective affinity. For example, in the solitude of his studio, on 14th street, the image of Duchamp seated in his armchair, his expression fixed, his hand "à la maisselle" as we see him in some photographs, among so many things scattered in an "amusing physique," piled up to the sky, overcome by the "dust breeding," the Rotoreliefs, the sketches of mysterious machines, unique optical devices, a movie projector and bits of film, stereoscopes, and the chessboard hanging from the wall, similar to the magic square of Dürer. ill. 1. This instantaneous office of the idle and curious, marked by fatal signs of melancholia, this eternal "sad young man on a train,(9) " transported to New York, in the beginning of the century, a new version of the insomniac of Fontenay-aux-Roses, a "des Esseintes" "seated pensively among all the wise toys that civilization offers to its sick for their procuring disappointing respites.(10) " Henri-Pierre Roché would not be mistaken; he suspected the accediosa nature of his new friend, such a hermit and yet the prophet of a religion. Entering Duchamp's New York studio for the first time, "Pierre realized that he was in a monastery.(11) "

When we asked him if he believed himself an artist, Duchamp responded that he was only a "breather"(12) whose masterpiece, he would say again to his friend Roché, had been the use of his time.

The idea was to elude the taedium vitae which fills up a tired civilization, a Spätkultur, a civilization after the death of art, overloaded with memories and overcome with masterpieces, both authentic and inauthentic, a civilization where the signs of a new empire which is the world of science multiply and disturb the outlook by their unusual configurations, a world where the artist retires, becomes an amateur, critic, collector. Duchamp, like the Arensbergs and Katherine Dreier, his first patrons, would initially be a collector, and an expert; then he would become the first curator of the Société Anonyme, choosing its art, writing notices, advising buyers. In many of these areas, he resembles Huysman's hero who, in order to escape his condition of failure, turns into a dilettante, collector, book lover, decorator, and consumer of rare and original sensations.

"He had searched the libraries, exhausted the boxes, encumbered his intellect to skim the surface of this mess, and all for idleness, for momentary appeal, without a desirable conclusion, without a useful goal." The portrait of this researcher worn down by the acedia of the end of the century could have been that of Duchamp in the library of Sainte-Geneviève, leafing through old treatises on the perspective of Nicéron, Abraham Bosse or the celebrated Kircher, or the new treatises on mathematics by Jouffret and Henri Poincaré, in search of an impossible synthesis. It's that of des Eissentes, prey to his fin de siècle neurosis and subjugating himself to what ultimately resembles, now as well as then, with Duchamp or the hero of Huysman's, some very modern spiritual practices, the ersatz of a world that's become decidedly impossible.

The esthetic dilettantism of a collector and the idle curiosity of the curious. But also the erotic dilettantism of he who searches for adventure. The dilettantism, therefore, of Duchamp-Don Juan. Just as des Esseintes collects sexual adventures, here was the novice rogue, after young women at New York's high society balls. Henri-Pierre Roché, in Victor, would create a portrait of this(13) .

Both in effect are bachelors, and both are misogynists. Both are heirs of Beaudelaire: "Woman is natural, that is to say, appalling." The same man who affirms that "Nature made time and the moment has come for it to be replaced with artifice" is he who wrote "One has only: for femail the urinal and one lives by it.(14) " Better yet, he mocks the "abominable abdominal skin.(15) " All are evidence of the same root.

Artifice must be substituted for art because art is already dead. Similarly, cynicism in sexual matters must replace love because the time has come to subjugate Nature, and therefore its accomplice, woman, to the artificial genius of man. Forays by Duchamp into transgendering and cross-dressing through his alter ego Rrose Sélavy echo the singular curiosities of des Esseintes and his fascination for both the athletic, monstrous Miss Urania and the "sashaying" Adonis.(16)

Confronting a love as broken down as art remains the challenge, even if it will be one of infinite despair. Artifice will always be superior to Nature. And the machine, for the bachelor, has charms that a woman doesn't.

* * *

Of all the connections that Michel Carrouges made in his essay(17), he overlooked that the steam engine, which fascinates des Esseintes, appears even as a prototype of the "accouplements de visceres et de machines" [the coupling of innards and machinery] that Duchamp will combine in his Bride. Because she is artificial like the would-be Eve (only two years later) she is superior in natural beauty. The unsurpassable perfection of airplane propellers that Duchamp remarks upon during a visit to the aeronautical museum in the Grand Palais in 1912, crosses the mind of the hero of Huysmans. "The beauty of woman is, in everyone's opinion, the most original and the most perfect." In revenge man makes "an animated and artificial being who is amply worthwhile from the point of view of fabricated beauty."

These new beings, they are, in relation to blasé des Esseintes, two adopted engines on the lines of the Northern railroad. "One, the Crampton, is an adorable blonde, with a high-pitched voice, a very tiny waist, imprisoned in a sparkling corset of brass […] whose extraordinarily horrifying grace when, tensing her muscles of steel […], sets in motion an immense rosette of its wheel […] The other, the Engerth, a monumental and somber brunette with muffled, husky noises, with solid organs, chokes in a cast-iron armor…(18)

* * *

The anthropomorphism of the machine dates from its appearance, from the first loom, "Jenny," named after the daughter of its inventor, up until La Bête humaine of Zola(19) . But Huysmans is the first to give it this erotic appeal which makes the metaphor of the male/female anticipate by thirty years the description that Duchamp will make, piece by piece, organ by organ, the driving force of the Bride in 1912(20) .

Another "bachelor machine" of des Esseintes is a liquor organ. It contains an element that all experts of the Large Glass will recognize, a bottle of Benedictine which Huysmans described in his leisure as the bulging form "solid, of somber green." The hero's attention dwells amorously on it, dreaming of "cornues" and "alambics" prepared for "incontestable authority" and fascinated by "the extraordinary disaccord established between the containing and the contained, between the liturgical outline of the bottle and its soul, every ounce feminine, every ounce modern…(21) "

An idealistic thinker

"Liturgy" and "soul" - these terms seem a long way now from Duchamp. The "black" mass of des Esseintes, viewed as a sacrifice where one celebrates in reverse, "à rebours," comes under a decadent religiosity from which the work of Duchamp seems to remain foreign.

It is ironic that, behind the scenes, he showed a taste for the marvelous that certain surrealists exhibited. Especially when we consider that André Breton, Desnos, Crevel, Brauner, accorded so much credit to hypnosis, telepathy, and the interpretation of dreams that they left him cold. As they left their friends Man Ray and Soupault. We know also with what an amused distance he welcomed the gloss that certain of these commentators made of his work from the approach of an alchemist or an agnostic.

But to see him as a true believer opposed to the supernatural is to forget that Duchamp had not ceased to interest himself, between the ages of ten and twenty, and perhaps beyond, in paranormal phenomena. Without a doubt one must be prudent. Duchamp was too ironic. He cultivated too much skepticism not to be watchful of the reality of these clairvoyant phenomena. He observed them, considered them, believed in them without a doubt always, entirely. However, each time he was interested in them they seemed to be based on a scientific approach that pulled him instantly from his ennui.

In this way, he responded to Arensberg, from whom we know of Duchamp's taste for spirituality and theosophy; in fact, he had once been unconsciously preoccupied by "a metarealism...a need for the 'miraculous.'(22)" Similarly, after the war he spoke of the artist as a "medium" in a famous declaration, often cited(23), and of art as a means of accessing "non-retinal" reality.

Idealism? The romanticism of Novalis? The temptation of a young man for a spiritualism à la Kandinsky, whose writings he conscientiously annotated, even though they are written in a language he little understands? Yes. It was very much this, all of this, that he had gone looking for in Munich in 1912, and it merits our attention. His exemplary copy of Concerning the Spiritual in Art was covered in pencil marks. At the turn of the century, every possible occultist was putting in their two cents about this feeling of intuition that guides the artist blind through "the forest of symbols" of our three-dimensional universe toward a superior reality.

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2. Mold of an imprint produced by Eusapia before the editorial committee of the journal Lux, plate made of Albert de Rochas, L'Extériorisation de la mortricité, Paris, 1906
3. Marcel Duchamp, With my Tongue in my Cheek, 1959, Paris, Collection of Centre Georges Pompidou.

However, it was no longer the occultism of Peladan, Gaïta or Papus which gripped him ten years, twenty years later, and which gripped him perhaps throughout his life, until his last works of art. In 1959, for example, With my Tongue in my Cheek, curiously recalls the three-dimensional impressions, in plaster molds, that mediums in their seances were claiming to receive from the spirits. ill.2,3. The mold of Duchamp's jaw, akin to a spiritual manifestation, became then a sarcastic commentary, twelve years before his death, of a Duchamp pre-posthumous - of this comic held in the making of the allusion of its English title, "tongue in cheek" - quand on ne rit pas à se décrocher la mâchoire - this discreet turn at mortification was already present in 1954 in another anatomical fragment, the Coin de chasteté, executed with dentistry material and which evokes in effect a filling. The fin de siècle ennui was turning into a morose wallowing: acedia diaboli balneum est.

It was therefore an occultism more refined, more demanding of its material, more subtle. It remained very much also Luciferian: the progress of mathematics and of science were extensively absorbed, and they seemed to bring to him, from now on, a semblance of validity.

From Flatland to the Fourth Dimension

Two domains of science have in effect kept this revival going. They are the discovery of invisible radiation and the development of multidimensional geometries.

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4. Sacha Guitry, Gaston de Pawlowski
5. Léonard Sarluis, cover illustration for Voyage au pays de la quatrième dimension by Gaston de Pawlowski

I was certainly one of the first, in 1975, to draw attention to the major influence that the speculations on the fourth dimension had on Duchamp and which he had learned about first in the serial of Gaston de Pawlowski ill. 4, 5, seen in 1911 in Comoedia(24) which, more than speculation or science-fiction, rose instead from the genre of mathematical entertainment created by Edwin Abott in Flatland(25), then in the library Sainte-Geneviève, in the Trait de géometrie by Élie Jouffret. Later, when Paul Matisse published with my help Duchamp's unpublished notes(26), the multiplication of references to the fourth dimension brought proof of the validity of this approach. It was with Jouffret in particular that he found the concepts of "blossomings" and of "infra-mince." It was in the writings of Henri Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis, published in 1902, in particular in chapter IV, "Space and Geometry" but above all in The Value of Science, published in 1905, in particular in chapter IV, there again, "Space and its Three Dimensions," that he found the notion of "cutting" and the essence of his "non-retinal" approach(27).

* * *

In France, apart from the subtle Jean Suquet(28), few preoccupied themselves with the necessity of the epistemological overthrow that this approach had provoked. The fourth dimension had never been taken into account by art historians among mathematical novelties which, born of the analysis situs, had turned the esthetic reign of the 20th century upside down, in the same way Pacioli on perspective was upset during the Renaissance. We had seen, for want of knowing exactly what it was, only barely a literary fantasy(29). We preferred therefore to continue lazily considering Duchamp a Dadaist, a provocateur, an ancestor of New Realism, of kinetics, of the conceptual, of action, or more generally of the nihilism of art. That he managed, contrary to this caricature, a strong, thoughtful method, reasoned, and founded upon mathematical speculations, nobody, in a French tradition foreign to the scientific culture, even ignorant of the history of the sciences and reticent, powerless in any case to cross the frontiers of its narrow disciplines, above all, in a historically lazy tradition which believes in economizing the research of source-material, nobody, historian, university lecturer or simple critic was willing to admit Duchamp had done this. Protected by ignorance, we continued to foolishly surrender to the myth of a Duchamp, originator of acts and absurd objects and, for need of a title, prophet to the avant-garde.

There are English historians who interested themselves in this approach: first Susan Compton and John Dee in England(30). The first important work, which synthesized everything preceding it, was that of Linda Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art published by Princeton University Press in 1983. The same year there appeared a study by Craig E. Adcock, Marcel Duchamp's Notes from the Large Glass: an N-dimensional analysis (University of Michigan Press) which, for a good part, relied on my research. The many studies which have followed, in the last twenty years, are too numerous to cite here, and only serve to repeat old material, without adding new elements. One will cite, for a recent example, the latest work by Linda Henderson(31).

More original and more adventurous is the approach of newcomer Rhonda Roland Shearer who is determined to demonstrate the total artificiality and rigorous fabrication of the so-called "readymades," which far from being found objects have been supposedly modified and manipulated in every aspect of their proportions. According to her, no readymade exists which wasn't carefully prepared and calculated. Apolinère Emameled, for example, which seems to offer at first glance the parallelpiped construction of a metal bed for an advertisement of paint enamel, reveals, upon examination, an impossible figure which defies the laws of classical perspective. Relying on a very detailed reading of Poincaré and his theory of probability, Rhonda Shearer is, in this way, putting forth that the three-dimensional readymades by Duchamp are, in reality, significant shadows of a four-dimensional entity(32).

We could support this demonstration with the following remark: exhibited during Duchamp's lifetime, the ready-mades have always been accompanied by their cast shadow. Bottle Dryer, Hat Rack, Trébuchet [a coat rack] weren't even presented: a projector, judiciously placed, projected their outline onto a wall or on the floor. They are therefore objects of n dimensions which, because of the trick of their projected shadow, are reduced to three-dimensional objects belonging to our space. The procedure had been used by prospectors in the 17th century to grasp the passage of the geometrical to the perspective, just like mathematicians did later to grasp the passage from a world of n dimensions to a world of n + 1 dimensions. The tableau Tu m', in 1918, inventory of varying procedures for "transcrbing" codes of representation of varying dimensions, represents the cast shadow of a ready-made, Bicycle Wheel.

If this tableau were the occasion for Duchamp to quit painting, the apparent promise of its title shuts the door once more on a long history. Remember that the myth of the original painters was formed around the idea of cast shadows. As Pliny the Elder tells it, there was the fable of Butadès de Sicyone, the lover of a potter, who outlined the enchanting shadow of her face as it was projected onto a wall. All things considered, the myth is ambiguous: does it suggest the art of the drawer, therefore an art of two-dimensions, created by the hand of the young woman, or does it suggest instead a three-dimensional work, the clay relief that the father of the young woman derived from the drawn silhouette? The fable of Butadès would have designated then the origin of casting - of "molding" - and not of painting. In both cases, the myth of the shadow of the loved object throws back to the "cutting" of a dimensional universe by another. Remember again that Duchamp, in one of his notes, proposed to create a "Société anonyme des porteurs d'ombres" represented by every source of light - sun, moon, star, candle, fire…It would be, again, a link to the ancient tradition of Ars magna lucis et umbrae.

* * *

So does the ready-made, object of subtle demonstration, through the projection of its shadows, lead into multidimensional universes? This is what Ulf Linde, the best critic of Duchamp and the least well-known since much of his work is in Swedish(33), had already advanced, as of 1977, in the catalogue for the Centre Georges Pompidou. The Bicycle Wheel, far from being a banal object found in a bicycle shop and mounted on a stool, is in reality an ingenious optical machine which allows the principle of "demultiplication" to be realized by "elementary parallelism" which, from the painting of Moulin à café, in 1911, occupied the mind of Duchamp: "It schematically gives shape to the principle of cubism: if one turns the wheel, one creates a multiplicity of n dimensions - the spokes become innumerable - a unit of n + 1 dimensions.(34)" Likewise was he going to prove the astonishing complexity of Why not Sneeze, Rrose Sélavy? with the presence, under the marble cubes, of porcelain cups(35).

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6. Window display from l'Exposition surréaliste des objets, Paris, Galerie Charles Ratton, 1936
7. Projection of a three dimensional regular body into four dimensions, brass and string, Paris, Institut Henri Poincaré

Let's consider, finally, that in the surrealist exposition of objects at the Charles Ratton gallery in 1936, the ready-made by Duchamp, the Bottle Dryer and the birdcage of Why not Sneeze, for example, were enthroned under the same light and to the side of some mathematical objects in string and brass from the Poincaré Institute which served to visualize the fourth dimension. ill. 6,7. Such near posturing, yet again, in favor of a complex ready-made conceptual machine destined to make visible the multidimensional continuum, rather than an ordinary object supposedly "elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the simple choice of the artist."

* * *

Another newcomer, Hector Obalk, in recalling judiciously that this blindly accepted definition of the ready-made had appeared only belatedly, twenty years after its creation, and under the pen of André Breton, lends itself to a rigorous test of the topology of these singular objects and to an ontology of their mode of existence. Combining art history with analytical philosophy, Obalk looks to demonstrate that, on those very rare ready-mades more or less "nus" (neither touched nor assisted) by Marcel Duchamp, none is truly a "ready-made" - if one considers the addition of an engraved title on the object and the very significant extravagance of their installation in his studio(36). He equally recalls that in spite of these secondary properties, none of these pure ready-mades has been assumed to be a "work of art" by the artist of the era - not only because they have all been lost but above all because of the absence of public exhibition in their time. He finally affirms that "if there's a work of art, the art by no means resides in the chosen object but, to a much greater degree, in the fanciful scenario which exists within the choice," or in other words, "in the fiction, most often literature, according to which a ready-made is a work of art." For Hector Obalk, it's in spirit that the ready-mades, on the historical plane, are nowhere to be found - and that the ready-made is, by all logic, impossible(37)...

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1. It produced a publication in four volumes, under a green, lightweight felt cover: L'Œuvre de Marcel Duchamp, vol. 1 - Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 2 - Chronologie, vol. 3 -Abécédaire, Approches critiques, vol. 4 -Victor, a novel by H-P Roché. Paris: Centre National d'art et culture Georges-Pompidou, 1977.

2. See the account by André Chastel, "L'au-delà de la peinture de Marcel Duchamp" in L'Image dans le miroir. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1980. p. 377.

3. Hannah Arendt. Les Origines du totalinarianisme - Le Système totalitaire. Paris. Éditions du Seuil, 1972. p. 53.


5. Hans Magnus Enzensberger. "Culture de haine, médias en transes" in Vues sur la guerre civile. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1995. p. 123-135.

6. Frank J. Sulloway. Born to Rebel. Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives. New York: Random House, 1996. Introduction, p. XIV.

7. It was between 1910 and 1925 that the Stirner doctrine spread, mainly in the lower classes, in Germany and Italy. Ardently individualistic and egotistical, it clashed with the collective anarchism of Bakounine, at the same time that it shared in a hatred for the State.

8. See the letter from Marcel Duchamp to his sister Suzanne, March 15, 1912. Letter graciously supplied by Hector Obalk.

9. One evening that Duchamp put on a happy front, reported Robert Lebel, Man Ray addressed him with this remark: "Mais non, tu es triste, tu l'es depuis toujours…" [But no, you're sad, you've always been sad…"]Robert Lebel. "Dernière soirée avec Marcel Duchamp" in L'Œil. November 1968, no. 167. P. 19.

10. Marc Fumaroli. Introduction to Huysman's À rebours. Paris: Gallimard, 1977. p. 27.

11. Henri-Pierre Roché. Victor, in L'Œuvre de Marcel Duchamp, catalog for the exhibition, volume IV, produced by Danielle Régnier-Bohler. Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1977. Chapter XVIII, "Le Travail de Victor."

12. To Brian O'Doherty, at the time of a visit to the University Medical Center in New York. April 4, 1966.

13. Henri-Pierre Roché, op. Cit.

14. Note, from the Boîte de 1914.

15. In Littérature, no. 5, V.

16. Certain erotic episodes of Marcel Duchamp in New York, as a young man, as they were recorded by Roché in his Carnets, reveal a feminine nature, very pronounced. Even from the final party between Duchamp, Roché and Louise Norton on April 18, 1917.

17. Michel Carrouges. Les Machines célibataires. Paris: Éditions Arcanes, 1954.

18. Joris-Karl Huysmans. À rebours [Tr. Against the Grain], op. cit., p. 104.

19. See Günter Metken. "De l'homme-Machine à la Machine-Homme. Anthropomorphie de la machine au XIX siècle" in Jean Clair and Harald Szeeman's Les Machines célibataires, exhibition catalog. Venice: Alfieri, 1975. p. 50.

20. See p. 169, the chapter "Métaphores automobiles."

21. Joris-Karl Huysmans, op. cit., pp. 279-280.

22. Unpublished letter (in English) to the Arensbergs, dated July 25, 1951, cited in the L'Œuvre de Marcel Duchamp, exhibition catalog, op.cit., vol 1, p. 34.

23."Selon toutes apparences, l'artiste agit comme un être médiumnique qui, du labyrinthe par-delà le temps et l'espace, cherche son chemin vers une clairière."

24. Gason de Pawlowski. Voyage au pays de la quatrième dimension. Paris, 1912. Republished in 1924.

25. Jean Clair. Marcel Duchamp ou le Grand Fictif. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1975.

26. Paul Matisse. Marcel Duchamp, Notes. With a preface by Pontus Hulten. Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980.

27. Henri Poincaré contrasted simple visual space of two dimensions with tactile space, similar to what a finger can trace in different positions and which would have three dimensions.

28. Jean Suquet. Le Grand Verre rêve. Paris: Éditions Aubier, 1991.

29. Multidimensional mathematics have engendered a specific literary vein, to be sure. Besides Pawlowski, there's H. G. Wells in The Time Machine, Apollinaire in Le Roi Lune, or still later, Maeterlinck, who, in La Vie de l'espace, in 1928, devoted an entire chapter to the fourth dimension.

30. John Dee. Four Space a Forgotten Dimension of the Mind. Cumbria: LYC Museum, 1977.

31. Linda D. Henderson. Duchamp in Context, Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

32. Rhonda Roland Shearer. "Marcel Duchamp's Impossible Bed and Other "Not" Ready-made Objects: A possible route of influence from art to science" in Art &

Academe - A Journal for the Humanities and Sciences in the Education of Artists, vol. X, nos. 1, 2. Autumn 1997 and 1998.

33. Ulf Linde. Marcel Duchamp. Stockholm: Rabén & Sjögren, 1986.

34. Ulf Linde. "La roue de bicyclette" in Abécédaire, L'Œuvre de Marcel Duchamp, exhibition catalog. Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1977. Vol. 3, p. 37.

35. See note 65.

36. The Bottle Dryer, at first glance the most "found" and the most trivial of the ready-mades, is in fact, for someone who would ignore the use of it, an object with a very intriguing aspect. Far from satisfying the principal of indifference dear to Duchamp, it forces one's attention and isn't short of reminding us, through a succession of circles, one after the other, fraught with stings, of some objects used in religious rituals. Furthermore, it bore an inscription erased and forgottenss that "had colored" it. 

37. Hector Obalk. The Unfindable Ready-Made. Boston: College of Art Association, February 1996. It appears in French in the Cahiers du musée national d'Art moderne.

* Tr. The French word for failure is "échec" and the expression "jouer aux échecs" means "to play chess." Considering that Duchamp gave up art for chess, he must have appreciated the lexical link. My thanks to Lyn Merrington for pointing this out.


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