example of Marcel Duchamp’s overlooked encounter with the mind of Leonardo
da Vinci is excerpted from a longer essay. The edition of Leonardo’s Treatise
on Painting referred to is Josephin Peladan’s 1910 French translation
Leonard de Vinci, Traite de la Peinture. This publication aroused
great interest among the Duchamp brothers and their Cubist friends at
To Be Looked
At, With One Eye, Close To, For Almost An Hour (in French: A regarder
d’un oeil, de près, pendant presqu'une heure) is a cruel set of commands.
Nobody would want to look at anything following this prescription. Duchamp
wrote the phrase in small capital letters across the face of a glass painting,
and insisted that his directive, issued in the infinitive, serve as its
title. But the owner of this work, Katherine Dreier, hated the title, and
referred to it instead as Disturbed Balance.
was being uncharacteristically descriptive with To Be Looked At...
because the image on glass is based upon optics and experiments with the
functioning of the eyes. It follows Leonardo da Vinci’s study of vision.
In fact, the idea, the image and the phrase itself all come from this
short illustrated passage in the Treatise on Painting(1):
in relief, viewed close up with one eye [vues de près avec un seul
oeil], seem like a perfect painting. If the eyes A and B look
at Point C, C will appear at
Paintings are flat surfaces.
Spacial illusions in paintings are derived from monocular, not binocular,
vision. Leonardo was fascinated by the transformation from physiological
optics to the artifice of painting, so he studied the behavior of a pair
of human eyes. When an object to be looked at is placed close to the face,
the paths of vision of the two eyes cross. Duchamp took Leonardo’s X-shaped
diagram of cross-eyed vision, along with the wording of his title, directly
from this passage in the Treatise. In a posthumously-published
sketch for To Be Looked At... he
even used Leonardo’s letters "A" and "B" to identify
the eyes, or viewing points, represented by
circles at the extremities of the cross. But he then placed the configuration
on a receding plane, in perspective, and turned it into a pair of giant
scissors, a device soon to appear in The Large Glass. Now the cross-eyed
observer, it would seem, could cut his way through the visual field by
flexing his eyeballs together and apart to make the scissors work. In
the small glass To Be Looked At... most of this peculiar tool lies
outside the rectangle of the picture, so only its tips can be seen.
The squat, transparent
pyramid hovering above the scissors would appear to transport the setting
of this one-act farce for eyeballs to ancient Egypt. But it does not.
Instead we are right back in the arena of the optics of Leonardo, who
and vehemently about the "pyramid of vision." According to Leonardo:
The body of the
atmosphere is full of infinite pyramids composed of radiating straight
lines (or rays of light), which are produced from the bodies of light
and shade, existing in the air; and the further they are from the
object which produces them the more acute they become, and although
in their distribution they intersect and cross they never mingle together,
but pass through all the surrounding air, independently diverging,
spreading, and diffused.(2)
If you look into a mirror
and close one eye, you will have formed a visual pyramid pointing at your
open eye, whose base is the shape of your face. Leonardo displays remarkable
insight into the mechanism of light as it reflects off our surroundings.
The receiving human eye always forms the apex of a complex geometric solid,
whose base is delineated by the outline of an object in view, and whose
sides are formed by the rays of light racing towards the viewpoint from
its edges. Leonardo’s use of the word "pyramid," however, is confusing,
because in common usage a pyramid sits on the earth, on a perfectly square
base, its axis pointing up to the sky. Duchamp’s Egyptian pyramid in To
Be Looked At... is a deliberate and mocking distortion of Leonardo’s
idea as it occurs, in the Treatise on Painting, at the center of
his theory of optics.
1918, from the isolation of Buenos Aires, where he made To Be Looked
At..., Duchamp had good reason to poke fun at the visual pyramid.
He was probably sick to death of it. His brother, the painter Jacques
Villon, was, in contrast, obsessed. Villon believed that Leonardo’s pyramid
could provide the unifying theory in his enterprise to make Cubism more
than just a passing fad, to transform it into an enduring, classical art
form. In 1915, the last time the two were able to meet until after the
Great War, Villon would talk of nothing else. All this had started in
1911, when the brothers and their Cubist friends became fascinated by
Leonardo’s optical formulations: "Every body in light and shade fills
the surrounding air with infinite images of itself; and these, by infinite
pyramids diffused in the air, represent the body throughout space and
on every side."(3)
Was Leonardo da
Vinci a Cubist himself? He was, it is true, presenting a vision of the
space around objects filled with latent images. The eye at any
given location could only perceive one image at a time. Visual pyramids
"intersect and cross [but] they never mingle together..." But
could a painter, a Cubist painter, overcome the laws of light and vision?
Could his imagination and intuition capture these half-formed, transparent
images, as evoked by Leonardo, before they are condensed into a point,
as they overlap, interpenetrate, and jostle for predominance? Jacques
Villon struggled to embed this concept of latent visual pyramids into
his paintings for the rest of his life.
Marcel Duchamp discussed
these ideas with his brother in the early days of Cubism. Then he chose
a different path, a directly-perceptual method of creating transparency
and overlapping planes in the visual field. He preferred the method that
children use. He crossed his eyes.
Duchamp asked his two brothers,
Jacques and the sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon, to sit in front of a chess
table, in the midst of a game, and face each other nose-to-nose. Marcel
then stationed himself within a foot of his motif, and, in an experiment
with scissored configurations of his binocular vision, observed his brothers’
profiles merging and multiplying, engulfing the armies of chessmen behind
them. Next, to sort things out, he studied Jacques, on his right, "with
one eye, close to, for nearly an hour." He followed this procedure
with Raymond, this time with his left eye, all the while intending the physical
proximity of the three artist-brothers (one behind and two in front of the
canvas), clustered around their favorite game, to reflect their intellectual
and emotional closeness. It is a rare glimpse into a private world.
Duchamp left a clear
record of the steps leading up to his finished painting. Five preparatory
drawings survive. One is in the format of a triptych,
with a central square
drawing flanked by two smaller contiguous squares. At first glance it
looks as if all three squares are filled with Cubist studies of a man’s
head. A closer look reveals Raymond’s, then Jacques’s, physiognomies,
delineated separately on either side, on the flanking panels. These two
monocular visions are repeated, combined and merged in the central panel,
which became the prototype for the final painting, the Portrait of
Chess Players. Duchamp had put Leonardo’s visual scissors, as depicted
a few years later in the small glass painting of 1918, into practice,
in the service of Cubism. He never repeated this experiment.
Josephin Peladan, translator and editor, Leonard de Vinci, Traite de
la Peinture (Paris: Librairie Delagrave, 1910), 113. English translations
in A. Phillip McMahon, translator, Treatise on Painting by Leonardo
da Vinci (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956), 177, and Edward
MacCurdy, translator and editor, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci
(New York: George Braziller, 1954), 241.
Peladan, Leonardo de Vinci, 89. English translation in Jean Paul
Richter, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Volume I (New York:
Dover Publications, 1970), 39.
Richter, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Volume I, 39.