What if Heidegger used Fountain instead of van Gogh’s Shoes to launch the Origin of a Work of Art?’

Heidegger’s reimagining of the artwork was instrumental in forcing a re-evaluation of modern aesthetic assumptions in the first half of the twentieth century. Heidegger’s theory of the origin of the work of art derives from a hermeneutic analysis of a single van Gogh masterpiece. On Heidegger’s view, the artwork provides a substantive and practical way of accessing the nature of art even if questions remain about all manifestations of the nature of art in general. This paper turns his analysis to an alternative influential artwork, Duchamp’s Fountain. I argue that Fountain presents difficulties for Heidegger’s method, some of which can be accommodated. However, the requirement to confine phenomenal engagement to the art object alone leads to problems when the object is appropriated from outside the artworld, not exhibited, and only one photograph bears witness to its existence. The prospect of broadening the focus of our attention from the art object alone to the “drama” of Fountain provides for a much richer phenomenal engagement. However, this move runs counter to a second stipulation of Heidegger’s approach – that the artist’s intentions and her performative acts in creating the object should be excluded from our engagement with the work. Duchamp’s radical move with readymades and Fountain, in particular, disarms more than Heidegger’s early post-modern conception of an artwork. It also places pressure on aesthetic theories that lack the capacity to reset ontological boundaries when deeper transformative experiences lie beyond the remit of the object alone, or when art-relevant concepts are appropriated into and out of the realm of art. Duchamp points to a richer means of engaging with artworks than the one construed by Heidegger, one that includes consideration of the relevant artmaking acts.

The making of Fountain

On the eve of the United States entering the Great War, an eccentric band of anarchists purchased a urinal for display as an artwork. Rejected by the curators, the urinal never is exhibited.1 The object itself, Fountain, by R. Mutt (fig. 1) is lost or destroyed shortly after the exhibition ended and there remains nothing for any museum to “preserve.” No artist is needed to authenticate a non-existent art object. There is no “thing” to be “conferred the status of candidate for appreciation” in Dickie’s terms.2 “Nothing to see here” is normally a vain attempt to have the public gaze averted, but what if this whole art appropriation exercise becomes one of the most significant art performances of the twentieth century?3

The Origin of a Work of Art

Nearly twenty years later, Martin Heidegger circles a pair of old shoes depicted in an oil painting by Vincent van Gogh (fig. 2). Heidegger4 leads us through a phenomenal engagement with this artwork and in so doing enunciates a theory of the origin of a work of art. Heidegger outlines how both artist and work are the co-dependent result of the art that is their source.5 He applies a metaphor linking the material reality of “earthly things” with the “world” they reveal. His method of interpretation is both multilayered and cyclic with each earth-to-world relation revealing the next.Heidegger develops his earth-to-world notion through the medium of the artwork. He starts from a position that sees the “nature of things” generally as “formed matter”.6 On this account, the formed matter of an artwork, its “thingly” nature, so to speak, comprises material things such as paint and canvas.7 Artworks do a certain kind of work in revealing the truth of how things act in the world – the van Gogh artwork itself displays its workly character in revealing a pair of peasant shoes “and nothing more.” The shoes themselves display their own workly character as equipment of the earth protected in performing their role in the world of a peasant.8 This revelation about how the shoes are “working” in the world of a farm worker brings us back to the workly character of the artwork itself. The artwork’s “work” reveals the “truth of being” for the shoes in the painting. Finally, Heidegger captures this revelation from a particular artwork and proposes, albeit tentatively, how it might be, more generally, for the workly nature of all great works of art. He concludes that art just is truth, but truth construed in a radically different way. It is the “truth of beings setting itself to work.”9 Here “beings” is read as a verb, comprising multiple dynamic actions of things over time. In the case of the van Gogh artwork, the truth of a particular “being” (i.e. the truth of the shoes doing their work), is made to “stand in the light of its being.”10 This process of engagement leads us to see what and how this “thing” (i.e. the shoes) is in the context of its world.

In this way, a work by a great artist “discloses a world” for us, revealing an endless array of possibilities that can flow from a multitude of similar phenomenal engagements with the artwork. Heidegger’s phenomenological hermeneutic analysis of a painting turned modern aesthetic theory on its head and came to be an influential forerunner of postmodern art interpretation.11

For Heidegger, modern aesthetic theory,12 popular among philosophers in the early twentieth century, views the art experience as “subjects” accessing art “objects,” through the senses (fig. 4). Artworks are the result of creative exercises that reflect the experiences of the artist.

The artist embeds these experiences in the body of the artwork and, in-turn, the artwork elicits similar experiences in the art consumer.13 Heidegger views modern aesthetics problematically in that it creates a subject/object dualism. In short, he sees modern aesthetics as making art available to be “consumed” and, along with technology, science, and culture, is part of a world trend to objectify and control the whole of reality.14 According to Heidegger, this subject-to-object view of aesthetics mischaracterises the way we actually encounter the world on a day-to-day basis. Heidegger does not deny that the subject-object view of the world forms part of the artwork experience, it is just that a richer engagement with art derives from a more fundamental phenomenal connection with things in the world.

What applies is a more complex interweaving of subjective self and objective things in the world. In our use and experience of objects, we are colonised by them directly into a unified engagement with the artwork and its contents. We become immersed in a largely unconscious process of our lived experience of those things.
To understand how Heidegger sees this unified system working, it helps to reflect on the lived experience of a bike-rider.

A champion cyclist effects manoeuvres rapidly and unreflectively and only occasionally stops to think if an error has been made or a change of movement is needed. Heidegger believes an everyday notion of direct phenomenological access better reflects our encounters with artworks than the more traditional account of a subject consuming the rewards of an art object (see fig. 5). In clarifying his account of phenomenal engagement, Heidegger warns against seeing it exclusively as a phenomenal experience in which the participant is engaged with the artwork. Were this exclusively the case, the person would be unable to distinguish her being from the thing.

On the other hand, it is incorrect to see the artwork entirely in a distinct subject-to-object relation. He sees it as a kind of experience lying somewhere between or moving between a distinct subject and object stance and a total unification of the self with the artwork.15

Heidegger demonstrates his theory of phenomenal aesthetics by guiding us through a series of encounters with the van Gogh painting and its contents – “a pair of peasant shoes and nothing more.” 16

But then, we are made to see the way the shoes are shaped and presented, and what the shoes are as essential equipment for a wearer, a person who toils on the earth. The shoes are understood, both in themselves and in their relationship to all the other things in the world they suggest. You can see the “truth” of the shoes encountered in the artwork because you have experienced it directly through the art of the painting. Heidegger’s phenomenological method provides a novel combination of lived experience and hermeneutic analysis which describes and interprets the lived experience. Moving back and forth between these two modes of thought, he takes us in ever widening circles encountering individual things as resources of the earth, and how they work and relate to the people who work with them. These parts reveal the whole and the world is seen in the work of art and, in turn, the whole discloses the truth in the parts (e.g. the shoes). Three kinds of “work” are relayed here; the woman using the shoes as equipment as she toils in the field, the work of the artist through the artwork bringing to life the world of the shoes and the woman, and the works done by great artists who, through their art, disclose a seemingly unlimited number of new ways of seeing the true nature of everyday things.

If Fountain was Heidegger’s chosen artwork

Heidegger’s theory of a work of art had one artwork as its guiding source. But what if Heidegger chose Duchamp’s Fountain rather than van Gogh’s Shoes as his starting point? A theory of the origin of an artwork should be robust enough to cover a work that perhaps more than any other provided the grounds for changing what we understand art to be. Could Fountain launch Heidegger’s theory?

This paper will review Heidegger’s theory employing Duchamp’s Fountain as the subject artwork. It will proceed by first clarifying why focusing on Heidegger’s theory and Duchamp’s Fountain is important. It will then attempt to answer four questions that this encounter raises. It will show that the theory is found wanting in some key respects. Finally, it will conclude that the identified limitations of Heidegger’s theory apply to other approaches which share Heidegger’s commitment to a fixed ontology for artworks and the exclusion of performative acts in the making of an artwork.

Why Heidegger’s theory?

Heidegger’s theory was a seminal influence in early post-modern art criticism. It helps explain artwork contributions that extend beyond the Kantian notion of “disinterested pleasure,”17 thereby opening up the possibility that great art will reveal new knowledge, and novel ways of seeing. This, in turn, shows how the creation of artworks can contribute in a profound way to how individuals and communities see themselves and provide a major impetus for the evolution of culture. Heidegger’s “Origin of the Work of Art” became an important base for other philosophers including existentialists Jean Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty and later post-modern theorists such as Hans Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas, all of whom repurposed Heidegger’s approach into their own interpretations of aesthetics.18
Many current theorists share with Heidegger an understanding that the revelatory or affective art experience derives from an engagement with the artwork and the artwork alone. Extrinsic features including artistic intention, social relations to the artwork, and art interpretation, may be excluded as not constitutive of the artwork itself. Some highly influential theories also share with Heidegger a respect for standard ontological boundaries regarding the chosen communication medium – whether it be painting, novel writing, drama, or poetry, these media are viewed as determinately distinct forms. Perhaps, most tellingly, the prospect that an object, concept, or material may be transferred in to or out of the artworld entirely by the design or intention of its maker, collaborator, or appropriator necessitates a fluidity in ontological boundaries that is beyond the countenance of Heidegger and like theorists. These two features, intrinsic features confined to the artwork and media boundaries around artmaking, prove crucial to this analysis. Proceeding to test Fountain against Heidegger’s theory arguably has implications for a broader group of contemporary art theories.19

Why Fountain?

Repurposing “found” or manufactured objects as artworks was an early twentieth century innovation that created a paradigm shift in philosophy of aesthetics. Fountain and similar “readymades” are credited with influencing the development of many later innovations including pop art, op art, conceptual art, minimalism, performance art, and art-reflexive or self-referencing artworks.20 Fountain is unique among repurposed objects because Fountain has doubtful provenance and was lost or destroyed soon after being rejected for exhibition. A background such as this provides a uniquely poor platform for an art object by itself to provide rich aesthetic or revelatory value. There are numerous critical assessments of why Fountain played a significant role in twentieth century art.Most of these accounts fall broadly into two camps. Firstly, there is a focus on the object as anti-art, a disruptor mocking the hallowed institutions of art including the veneration of great artworks, the artist as genius, and the status of art professionals as supreme arbiters of taste.21Fountain is simply “chosen” for admiration in the artworld when it is otherwise indistinguishable from hundreds of identical objects, mass-produced for their instrumental bathroom value. The very idea that a work with such a tenuous claim to artworld status should be presented as such establishes “mockery” as part of the artist toolkit. On this view, Fountain is a seminal source for many later art disruptors.

Second, Fountain references the concepts, planning and collaborative actions that brought into view Fountain’s transformative nature. The simple act of choosing an object, together with the subsequent associated collective actions that made it art, expanded our concepts of what art can be. Art becomes fundamentally conceptual and not merely “retinal” like so much art that went before it. Van Weeden claims that in choosing Fountain as a work of art, Duchamp recasts the space that art occupied – everything could be art.22 Artworks and artmaking are no longer distinct. They occupy a continuum of relations wherein artmaking acts are seen as the principal output and artworks themselves can be a window revealing these acts. Artwork and art acts are juxtaposed on a level playing field. Moreover, Fountain affirms that artmaking can be as straight-forwardly simple as selecting an object or concept as art. This makes the artworld the province of whoever deems what they do as “art”; no hierarchies involved; we all get to interpret and judge what is good and bad art.

Artists have available to them an unlimited range of ideas, materials, and audiences to choose from in the making of their art.23 In Roberts view the cognitive, cultural and political tenor of twentieth and twenty first century art is reshaped by Fountain so that we are now all “post-Duchampians.”24

A promising prospect

The idea of applying Heidegger to Fountain has some promise of bearing fruit. Duchamp and Heidegger had much in common in their construal of art. First, they both reject the notion that an artwork harbours aesthetic features gifted to the viewer through the senses. Heidegger rejects modern aesthetic theory on these grounds and Duchamp rejects “retinal” or visually-appealing art,opting instead for art that engages the mind. Second, both see engaging with an artwork as opening a multiplicity of revelations and interpretations. For Heidegger engaging is an in-the-moment experience for the individual with the work, a “presencing” that does not exhaust the world of meanings.25 This enables each individual engagement (for different people and different times) to produce a multiplicity of phenomenally grounded revelations.26 And for Duchamp, “aesthetic relativity” situates artworks as nodes in a relational web comprising multiple meanings.27

So with this promising beginning the paper will review key features of Heidegger’s model through the prism of Fountain.

Applying Heidegger’s theory of art to Duchamp’s Fountain

While Heidegger described a phenomenal engagement with one particular artwork, he intends his theory to apply to how we might engage with other great works of art. Engaging in this way with a work of art involves at least four relevant criteria implied or explicitly entailed by Heidegger’s model. These can be expressed as a list of questions needing answers:

1. What kind of thing is the “artwork” or object under study?

First, we need to settle on the work’s ontology or decide on exactly what kind of thing the artwork is. This first step seems a trivial one for conventional art; the artwork just is the painting, or sculpture, etc., before you. However, Fountain is anything but conventional. Is it art, plumbing, or something else?

2. Is there a singular creative agent behind the making of the work?

This second key feature follows from Heidegger’s assumption that each great work of art requires a singular great creator to realize and illuminate profound and unique truths about things in the world through their art.

3. What counts as “earth” in the creation of Fountain?

This third question involves fundamental resources (“the earth”) being “worked” to create and inform how things are in the world?

4. Does Fountain stand as an artwork, in its own right, without relying on the artist’s intentions or performative acts in its appreciation?

Finally, to be consistent with Heidegger’s model, whatever experiences or revelations arise will stem from a direct engagement with the artwork unsullied by anything external to the work.

Does Heidegger’s model for the creation of an artwork work for Fountain? If so, our phenomenal encounter will need to answer these questions.

What is the nature of Fountain?

Urinal as art object

If art is the origin of the artwork and of the artist, but no art object remains for our gaze, then we will need to rely on a photograph of the original by Alfred Stieglitz.28 Resting on a plinth, the object is transformed just enough so that its abstract form can be appreciated. It soon becomes clear that the thing depicted is a male urinal.

It is called Fountain and it is signed “R Mutt.” Before it was transformed for exhibition, the urinal was designed and produced to be restroom equipment and not a work of art. Whoever was the original designer is not the “artist” here. The urinal itself is transformed in the most meagre of ways – turned on its side with the inlet facing the viewer so it suggests a fountain. It is named, signed, submitted for exhibition, and rejected. There is not enough artistry here to call the “transformer” an artist either. No artwork and no artist should mean, at least in Heidegger’s terms, that this is not art. But whatever happened in the New York Spring of 1917 changed twentieth century art. Finding the “art” in this puzzle necessitates a different path to the one taken by Heidegger with van Gogh’s Shoes.

Fountain as drama

No object remains and the collaborators are long since dead so the story of the Fountain is sketchy and uncertain. However, what is known is that it has a beginning, a middle, an end, and a very long epilogue. It also has “dramatis personae,” an “auteur” of sorts. There is no art object, but there is a mildly vulgar prop around which the drama unfolds. The story has atmosphere, a backstory, it is riddled with puns.

There is not the space for a full exegesis of Fountain as drama or as a succession of performative acts. Doing so would reveal a cast of larger-than-life characters, a famous photographer, a most interesting director and the no-rules-barring-entry exhibition curators who broke their only rule by excluding Fountain from being exhibited.29

The drama would explain the quixotic quest of Dada to get a mad world to abandon the brutal logic of war on the eve of young Americans signing up for service to the background lyrics of “Johnny get your gun”.30

It would show that Duchamp’s play most probably has not ended. The long epilogue may show that, as he promised,31 Fountain really is for future generations.32

It would appear the urinal, taken as artwork in and of itself, leads to a lean reading; a dead-end. But znderstanding Fountain as a collaborative drama does have the potential to “disclose a world” in the way Heidegger would recognise. Duchamp himself adopted a deliberatively performative stance with regard to his artmaking and its reception by the public:

“You’re on stage,” he explains, “you show off your goods”; right then you become an actor; one accepts everything, while laughing just the same. You don’t have to give in too much. You accept to please other people, more than yourself. It’s a sort of politeness.33

Moreover, Fountain is invested with that polysemic potential that Heidegger sees as a necessary ingredient of great art.34 Is it a pun for “taking a piss” or a crypto-feminist plot for “taking the piss” out of men? Is it art, not art, neither or both; a real case of a true contradiction?35 Even the Fountain-as-drama reading bifurcates into a man-story with artist Joseph Stella, Walter Arensberg art critic, and Duchamp planning the “Fountain play” prior to Duchamp’s execution36 and a less told under-story with Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven, Louise Norton, Katherine Dreier, and Beatrice Wood playing leading roles37 with Duchamp as ally.. Rival narratives only add to the dramatic potential. If we do accept Fountain as drama for a Heideggerian analysis, this move is still problematic for his theory on a number of fronts. This leads us to the next important question.

Is there a single creative agent behind the making of the work?

While not ruling out collective acts, Heidegger’s project suggests he had in mind that a great artwork was the product of a single great creator uniquely realising her vision through the act of artwork creation. But with Fountain, there is no singular artist to take the mantle of greatness that Heidegger seems to assume is required for artworks to be imbued with the necessary transformative qualities. In Fountain, it would appear a collective of creative talents worked collaboratively, arguably, under the direction of Marcel Duchamp although there remain doubts concerning who exactly played what role in the Fountain drama.38 Removing the stricture of artist as sole creative agent does not affect the overall project dramatically. It means we accept that collective creativity can sometimes be transformative as well. Heidegger at least acknowledged that the “createdness” of the work was to be seen as distinct from the greatness of the singular artist:

The emergence of createdness from the work does not mean that the work is to give the impression of having been made by a great artist.39 In moving forward then, we tentatively have Fountain being read as drama with a collective of creative players. But how might we construe Heidegger’s earth-to-world relation which proves so crucial in his origin of an artwork?

What counts as “earth” in the creation of Fountain

Construing Fountain as drama and assuming a collective process of creation does not fully address the problem of applying Heidegger’s model to this iconic creation. A third hurdle for Fountain as drama relates to the earth-to-world metaphor. Heidegger enlists a variety of “world-forming” material resources that normally count as “earth.” While the urinal is certainly “material,” we have shown that it is an inadequate source for what Fountain becomes. In the case of van Gogh’s Shoes, the connections Heidegger makes between earth and world via the constitutive materials of the artwork and the relations of the shoes to the peasant’s work40 provide a rich account of how a great artwork can be culturally transformative. Contrasted with this rich account for ‘Shoes’, the physical object of the urinal by itself tells us little about how ‘Fountain’ comes to be a major catalyst in changing twentieth century art. In the case of Fountain then, what counts as earth? What can be the constitutive source for the “thingness” of no-thing? The construal for earth needs to be extended to, somehow, accompany the ‘Fountain’ performance. This includes the formative ideas that lead to the playing out of “Fountain as drama”; or, at least, the available records of what is said and done to enact those ideas as the basis of a plan to acquire a ready-made, display it, reject it, etc. Heidegger provides us with a clue in his discussion of poets using words inhe way artists use pigment:

To be sure, the poet also uses the word — not, however, like ordinary speakers and writers who have to use them up, but rather in such a way that the word only now becomes and remains truly a word.41

In fact, Heidegger says that the defining feature of all great works of art is found in “poesis” or their poetic nature of bringing important things into being:

All art, we learn from “The Origin of the Work of Art,” is essentially poetry, because it is the letting happen of the advent of the truth of what is. And poetry, as linguistic, has a privileged position in the domain of the arts, because language, understood rightly, is the original way in which beings are brought into the open clearing of truth, in which world and earth, mortals and gods are bidden to come to their appointed places of meeting.42

The constitutive origins of words are phonemes, and phonemes as physical acoustic artefacts may qualify as the “earth” of poetry. But what about the succession of performative acts at the heart of the “Fountain drama”? The earth could be seen here also as residing in the non-verbal signs and symbols of the actions of the players coupled with these same “acoustic artefacts” informing what is said. With this account of earth, the emerging “artwork” can be seen as the drama derived from performances of the players transforming acoustic artefacts with their utterances and the signs and symbols manifest in their actions revealing a world; a Fountain world.This brings us to the final question.43

Does Fountain stand as an artwork without relying on the artist’s intentions or performative
acts in its appreciation?

So far, we have seen that with some significant adjustments Heidegger’s phenomenal aesthetics can be made to work for Fountain. But a final hurdle remains for his construal. Heidegger is strongly of the opinion that the artwork and the artwork alone should be the focus of our phenomenal engagement:

Where does a work belong? The work belongs, as work, uniquely within the realm that is opened up by itself. For the work-being of the work is present in, and only in, such opening up.44

Moreover, Heidegger emphasises that this engagement should be considered as it is and not be narrowed by its creator:

The thrust that the work as this work is, and the uninterruptedness of this plain thrust, constitute the steadfastness of the work’s self-subsistence. Precisely where the artist and the process and the circumstances of the genesis of the work remain unknown, this thrust, this “that it is” of createdness, emerges into view most purely from the work.45

For Heidegger, direct phenomenal engagement with the artwork requires the undivided attention of the person. Taking into account the artist’s opinions and constitutive actions count as distractions to this primary purpose.

How does Fountain challenge this position? As we have seen, if Fountain is to be read in a manner that exposes us to its full revelatory potential, then it must be interpreted beyond the physical object itself. Reframing Fountain as drama provides such a rich reading. A consequence of this move is that the contents of the artwork necessarily comprise narratives of what the actors do and say. In this regard, it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the art; that is, the performative acts themselves from the opinions of the actors/artists.

As an example, Louise Norton writes an article in the Blind Man magazine shortly after Fountain’s rejection.46 Her article is both artist opinion and also a key step in a later chapter of the Fountain drama; making it a necessary part of the artwork-drama itself. Problematically for Heidegger’s theory, the performative acts of the artists must be included because they are constitutive of the artwork as drama and contradictorily not included to meet Heidegger’s stipulation of excluding the artist’s opinion. Separating this kind of opinion destroys or obscures the very work itself.

The problem of excluding the artist’s “opinion” and other key constitutive elements from the analysis extends to artworks generally. Access to Shoes suffers from being confined to a hermeneutical analysis of the painting itself. What if a work identical to the van Gogh masterpiece were produced by a forger simply copying the original stroke by stroke? Would we be in error if a phenomenal engagement with the copy means we imbued the shoes with the “earth and toil of the peasant”? Our only means of knowing the copy’s status derives from evidence of the faker’s performative acts in making the forgery – evidence, possibly, only available externally to the painting.

But surely the problem of conflating interpretative opinion with the composition can be addressed by finding a way of distinguishing acts that are part the creators’ critique of their art from those that are part of the art act performance simpliciter? In other words, why not place a boundary around artmaking performative acts and separate these from interpretations that lie outside the artmaking acts? The problem is that “Fountain-play” is not a formally framed orthodox “play” like a Shakespeare play with clear boundaries between the play and the play’s creation. Constitutive acts of the players are no less important than the object created. Duchamp would see other boundaries being blurred as well; the “spectator’s role” after the objects’ creation becomes equally informative of what the work is.47 Fountain has no such clear boundaries. All the creative acts connected to the Fountain drama are both acts of creation and performance with no clear limits of time, space or characters.

Opting for a “Neo-Heideggerian” solution

We have shown Heidegger’s theory provides an inadequate response to Fountain unless four important questions integral to his approach, can be addressed. So why not just “bite the bullet” and accept some adjustments to Heidegger’s theory to enable Fountain to be accommodated? This move has the advantage of preserving the core innovative feature of the theory – hermeneutical phenomenology. Heidegger’s artwork methodology helps explain the revelatory potential of engaging with an artwork while avoiding the subject/object dualism that Heidegger roundly criticises. While adopting a substantially modified “Neo-Heideggerian” theory of the origin of an artwork is plausible, the move creates something like the problem of the old kitchen broom – the one that has three replacement handles and four new heads. It really isn’t the same broom. In addition, the revised theory is lacking an adequate explanatory account for any of the relaxed criteria – for example, how should we understand performative acts of multiple players undertaken over different times and places as the “work” of art when Heidegger’s account is confined to engaging with a single art object ostensibly at one sitting. Even in its expanded “Neo-Heideggerian” form, Heidegger’s original analysis lacks the epistemic resources to accommodate this move and it is therefore lacking in the required explanatory narrative to enable a robust account of Fountain.


Heidegger’s phenomenal hermeneutics was instrumental in forcing a re-evaluation of modern aesthetic assumptions in the early twentieth century. Heidegger’s theory of the origin of the artwork is born from a hermeneutic analysis of a single van Gogh masterpiece. This essay turned his analysis to another great artwork – perhaps the most influential work of the twentieth century – Fountain. While Heidegger’s method can accommodate some hurdles thrown up by Fountain, the requirement to confine phenomenal engagement to the art object alone leads to problems when the object has such limited potential as an influential work of art. The prospect of broadening the focus of our attention to the drama of Fountain provides for a much richer phenomenal engagement.
However, this move runs counter to a second stipulation that the artist’s intentions/opinion and performative acts in making the art should be excluded from our engagement with the work. Adjusting Heidegger’s theory to better accommodate works like Fountain also fails.

This paper focused on the capacity of a single early post-modern theory of art to explain a singular work. However, the two key limitations that defeat Heidegger’s theory also limit similar theories, particularly those approaches that privilege the intrinsic features of the artwork but exclude the actions of artmakers, collaborators and appropriators. It also places pressure on aesthetic theories that lack the fluidity to reset ontological boundaries when the richer revelatory experience is found beyond the exclusive remit of the object alone.

This theory limitation would be of minor consequence if it applied to a singular exception – Fountain. But as we have seen, Fountain is only the first in a long succession of art making practices characterised by repurposing or appropriating objects, concepts, and styles into the world of art from elsewhere. Heidegger’s “Origin of the Work of Art” and like theories are restricted in their capacity to reveal the rich potential of Fountain’s innovative progeny, the very progeny that have helped to define current art practice.


Figure 1: Fountain – Marcel Duchamp

1917 Photo – Alfred Stieglitz Retrieved from http://academics.smcvt.edu/gblasdel/slides%20ar333/webpages/m.%20duchamp,%20fountain.htm

Figure 2: Shoes Vincent van Gogh, 1886

Oil on canvas, 38.1 cm x 45.3 cm van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)


Figure 3: Heidegger’s Hermeneutic cycle applied to van Gogh’s painting. Heidegger employs a series of connected earth-to-world relations to understand the origin of an artwork. ‘Things’ like shoes and artworks are ‘formed matter’. Van Gogh’s painting reveals shoes and, in turn, their ‘being’ brings into being the working life of the woman. This very process illuminates the workly character of a particular artwork and, tentatively, for Heidegger, the true nature of all great works of art.

Figure 4: The modern aesthetic model of art requires a subject/object dichotomy between the subject and artwork.


Figure 5: Heidegger’s alternative model for engaging with an artwork


1 Robert Kilroy, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain: One Hundred Years Later, 2017 ed. (Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: Palgrave Pivot, 2017), 51.
2 George Dickie, “Defining Art,” American Philosophical Quarterly 6, no. 3 (1969): 254.
3 Kilroy, 1.
4 Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, Translations and Introduction by Albert Hofstadter, Perennial Library (New York ; Sydney : Harper & Row, 1975, c1971., 1975), 15-86.
5 Ibid., 17.
6 Ibid., 26.
7 Ibid., 19.
8 Ibid., 33.
9 Ibid., 35.
10 Ibid., 35.
11 Iain Thomson,Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 65-77.
12 The modern aesthetic tradition that Heidegger criticises had its origins in the eighteenth century through the writing of a number thinkers, the Earl of Shaftesbury and Immanuel Kant, prominent among them. Modern aesthetic theory held that beauty existed in things independent of humans. In the ‘Critique of Judgement’, Kant emphasised that judging the ‘taste’ of an object requires the subject to adopt a state of disinterest to enable the experience of delight derived from the object to be fully appreciated.
Jerome Stolnitz, “On the Significance of Lord Shaftesbury in Modern Aesthetic Theory,”The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), no. 43 (1961). https://doi.org/10.2307/2960120; Immanuel Kant,
Critique of Judgement (Oxford University Press, 2005), 37.
13 Thomson, 47-51.
14 Martin Heidegger and William Vernon Lovitt, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, Harper Torchbooks: Tb 1969 (New York [etc.] : Harper and Row, 1977., 1977), 116; Thomson, 45.
15 Heidegger, 25.
16 Ibid., 33.
17 Kant, 41.
18 Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting (University of Chicago Press, 1987); Hans Georg Gadamer and Robert Bernasconi,The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays
(Cambridge University Press, 1986); Leonard Lawlor and Ted Toadvine, The Merleau-Ponty Reader (Northwestern University Press, 2007), 69-84, 241-82, 351-78; Emmanuel Lévinas and Seán Hand,
The Levinas Reader (B. Blackwell, 1989), 129-65; Paul Ricoeur, “Aesthetic Experience,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 24, no. 2-3 (04/01/ 1998); Jean-Paul Sartre,
Essays in Aesthetics, Essay Index Reprint Series (Books for Libraries Press, 1970).
19 Arguably, Ricoeur, Merleau-Ponty and Gadamer are theorists who fall short in these respects. Paul Ricoeur emphasizes the
singular character of the ‘work’ as crucial in engaging with art. He alludes to the significance of the frame of a painting in
separating the work from its background. In so doing, it provides us with a window on the world of the painting. He finds contemporary
notions of appropriation, for example ‘a chair being placed on a platform’, troubling for art. Ibid.Ricoeur, 30. Merleau-Ponty argues
the authenticity of a painting can only be judged by examining the painting and ‘if the counterfeiter succeeded in recapturing not only the
processes but the very style of the great Vermeers he would no longer be a counterfeiter’. See Lawlor and Toadvine, 261-62. Gadamer comes
closer to realizing the fluidity in art boundaries with his idea of the ‘play’ in artworks and how spectators are not excluded from joining in
the ‘play’ suggested in the work. See Gadamer and Bernasconi, 24. On the other hand, Gadamer understands works of art as being ‘set free’ and
‘released from the process of production because it is, by definition, destined for use’ Ibid., 12. Duchamp’s ‘Bottle-rack’ is viewed through
the object’s determinate character in suggesting the effect it once produced Ibid., 25. The performative acts of the appropriator are not
needed here to fulfil Gadamer’s account of the ‘Bottle-rack’.
20 William A. Camfield and Marcel Duchamp, Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (Houston Fine Art Press, 1989), 88; Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp : A Biography
, 1st ed. ed. (H. Holt, 1996), 455-56.
21 Allan Antliff, “The Making and Mauling of Marcel Duchamp’s Ready-Made,” Canadian Art 23, no. 1 (Spring2006 2006): 57; Camfield and Duchamp, 42; Kilroy, 48.
22 Dirk van Weelden, “Black Coffee. Marcel Duchamp’s Pataphysical Sensism,” Relief: Revue Électronique de Littérature Francaise, Vol 10, Iss 1, Pp 70-76 (2016),
no. 1 (2016): 71. https://doi.org/10.18352/relief.925.
23 If ‘Fountain’ does lead us to a greatly expanded construal of art, it also increases uncertainty concerning the boundaries of art. Where should I draw the line
between what is and is not art? Of course, contesting the boundaries of art did not begin with Duchamp. Resolving the art status of borderline works may be a less
rewarding exercise than finding the pathway that reveals the revelatory potential of any given work despite its status as art or something else.
24 John Roberts, “Temporality, Critique, and the Vessel Tradition: Bernard Leach and Marcel Duchamp,” Temporality, Critique, and the Vessel Tradition: Bernard Leach and Marcel Duchamp,”
6, no. 3 (2013): 256. https://doi.org/10.2752/174967813X13806265666618.
25 Iain Thomson, “Heidegger’s Aesthetics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010).
26 Heidegger, 81.
27 van Weelden, 71.
28 Mystery surrounds even this one photograph with some claiming it is not all it seems. See Rhonda R. Shearer, “Why the Hatrack Is and/or Is Not Readymade :
With Interactive Software, Animations, and Videos for Readers to Explore,” Tout-fait 1, no. 3 (2000).
29 Paul Franklin, B., “Object Choice: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and the Art of Queer Art History,” Oxford Art Journal 23, no. 1 (2000).
30 Lyrics from the popular song ‘Over There’ by George M Cohen.
31 Camfield and Duchamp, 142.
32 Duchamp in a talk titled ‘The Creative Act’ acknowledges the role of the spectator as collaborator in art-making: “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone;
the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and ‘ interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

33Kilroy, 84.
34 Thomson, Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity, 69.
35 Damon Young and Graham Priest, “It Is and It Isn’t,” Aeon 2018 (2017).
36 The story of ‘Fountain’ is a collection of narratives arising from actions by members and associates of the Society of Independent Artists.
Alfred Steiglitz is credited with the one known photograph of ’Fountain’ taken shortly after its rejection from the exhibition, and Walter Arensberg,
art critic and collector, who together with Joseph Stella and Marcel Duchamp arguably planned the exhibition of ‘Fountain’. Marcel Duchamp himself may
have ‘directed’ much of the execution of the ‘Fountain play’ Camfield and Duchamp, 20-43.
37 There is a significant body of evidence that the women collaborators played a far greater role in Fountain’s creation than has been historically
acknowledged. Beatrice Wood, the ‘Mama of Dada’ along with Henri-Pierre Roche and Duchamp edited the Blind Man which provided narrative for the ’
Fountain’ story. Louise Norton’s article in the Blindman “Buddha of the Bathroom,” The Blind Man1917. played a seminal role in making what ’Fountain
eventually became particularly given the object’s early disappearance and continuing uncertainty surrounding its origins. Katherine Dreier was the
first to offer the ‘originality objection’ against ‘Fountain’ but subsequently became an advocate for the Society of Independent Artists to rescind
their rejection of the work, Camfield and Duchamp, 28-32. Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is credited, by some, as being the real creator of
Fountain. See, for example, Irene Gammel, Baroness Elsa : Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity : A Cultural Biography (Cambridge, Mass. ; London : MIT,
c2002., 2002); Julian Spalding and Glyn Thompson, “Did Marcel Duchamp Steal Elsa’s Urinal?,” Art Newspaper 24, no. 262 (2014). Gammel. Spalding and
Thompson. However others have disputed this claim. See Thierry de Duve, “The Story of Fountain: Hard Facts and Soft Speculation,” Nordic Journal of
28, no. 57/58 (01// 2019): 42.
38 Anne Sejten, “Art Fighting Its Way Back to Aesthetics: Revisiting Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain,” Journal of Art Historiography 15, no. 2 (2016): 3-4.
39 Heidegger, 63.
40 Ibid., 30-36.
41 Ibid., 46.
42 Ibid., 73.
43 Including the words and actions of all those with a part to play in the making of ‘Fountain’ as drama does not exclude the role of the object i.e.
the urinal itself. It remains a central defining point of reference – one that the ‘Fountain’ players continually reference as
the drama unfolds. In a certain sense, the urinal becomes a ‘prop’ essential to the drama.
44 Heidegger, 40.
45Ibid., 63.
46Norton, 5-6.
47Camfield and Duchamp, 142.


Antliff, Allan. “The Making and Mauling of Marcel Duchamp’s Ready-Made.” Canadian Art 23, no. 1 (Spring2006 2006): 56-60.

Camfield, William A., and Marcel Duchamp. Marcel Duchamp, Fountain. Houston Fine Art Press, 1989.
de Duve, Thierry. “The Story of Fountain: Hard Facts and Soft Speculation.” Nordic Journal of Aesthetics 28, no. 57/58 (01// 2019): 10.

Derrida, Jacques. The Truth in Painting. University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Dickie, George. “Defining Art.” American Philosophical Quarterly 6, no. 3 (1969): 253-56.

Franklin, Paul, B. “Object Choice: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and the Art of Queer Art History.” Oxford Art Journal 23, no. 1 (2000): 25.

Gadamer, Hans Georg, and Robert Bernasconi. The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Gammel, Irene. Baroness Elsa : Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity : A Cultural Biography. Cambridge, Mass. ; London : MIT, c2002., 2002.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought, Translations and Introduction by Albert Hofstadter. Perennial Library. New York ; Sydney : Harper & Row, 1975, c1971., 1975.

Heidegger, Martin, and William Vernon Lovitt. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Harper Torchbooks: Tb 1969. New York [etc.] : Harper and Row, 1977., 1977.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Kilroy, Robert. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain: One Hundred Years Later. 2017 ed. Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: Palgrave Pivot, 2017.

Lawlor, Leonard, and Ted Toadvine. The Merleau-Ponty Reader. Northwestern University Press, 2007.

Lévinas, Emmanuel, and Seán Hand. The Levinas Reader. B. Blackwell, 1989.

Norton, Louise. “Buddha of the Bathroom.” The Blind Man, 1917, 2.

Ricoeur, Paul. “Aesthetic Experience.” Philosophy and Social Criticism 24, no. 2-3 (04/01/ 1998): 25-39.

Roberts, John. “Temporality, Critique, and the Vessel Tradition: Bernard Leach and Marcel Duchamp.” Journal of Modern Craft 6, no. 3 (2013): 255-66. https://doi.org/10.2752/174967813X13806265666618.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Essays in Aesthetics. Essay Index Reprint Series. Books for Libraries Press, 1970.

Sejten, Anne. “Art Fighting Its Way Back to Aesthetics: Revisiting Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain.” Journal of Art Historiography 15, no. 2 (2016): 15.

Shearer, Rhonda R. “Why the Hatrack Is and/or Is Not Readymade : With Interactive Software, Animations, and Videos for Readers to Explore.” Tout-fait 1, no. 3 (2000): 10.

Spalding, Julian, and Glyn Thompson. “Did Marcel Duchamp Steal Elsa’s Urinal?”. Art Newspaper 24, no. 262 (2014): 59-59.

Stolnitz, Jerome. “On the Significance of Lord Shaftesbury in Modern Aesthetic Theory.” The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), no. 43 (1961): 97. https://doi.org/10.2307/2960120.

Thomson, Iain. “Heidegger’s Aesthetics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010): n/a.

———. Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Tomkins, Calvin. Duchamp : A Biography. 1st ed. ed.: H. Holt, 1996.

van Weelden, Dirk. “Black Coffee. Marcel Duchamp’s Pataphysical Sensism.” Relief: Revue Électronique de Littérature Francaise, Vol 10, Iss 1, Pp 70-76 (2016), no. 1 (2016): 70. https://doi.org/10.18352/relief.925.

Young, Damon, and Graham Priest. “It Is and It Isn’t.” Aeon 2018 (2017).


The author would like to thank the Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference and the University of Melbourne Philosophy Post-Graduate Colloquia participants for helpful suggestions on early drafts of this paper.

Photographic Masquerades: The Readymade Femininity of Greta Garbo and Marcel Duchamp

Always the vamp I am, always the woman of no heart.

– Greta Garbo 1

Nowadays, this may be all very well – names change with the times – but Rrose was an awful name in 1920.
– Marcel Duchamp 2

Click to enlarge

Greta Garbo as Mata Hari Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
Illustration 1: Greta Garbo as Mata Hari, 1931 Illustration 2: Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, 1921
Let us compare two photographs…

The first is of Greta Garbo as Mata Hari, one of several from a series of publicity stills of the movie star taken in 1931 by Clarence Sinclair Bull. In this particular image Garbo’s hands are posed on the white fur of her collar, which, pressed suggestively against her cheeks, frames the mysterious beauty of her face; half hidden in shadow and with a notably seductive arch of her eyebrows, her eyes stare boldly out of the picture. A large ring on her left hand calls attention to her ambiguous marital status, allowing for the possibility that any viewer could possess her. It is important to remember that Garbo, in the words of Roland Barthes, “belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy.” 3 The ecstatic beauty of Garbo’s face in this image is at once captured and produced by the medium of the photograph, which represents a space of simulation in which the reality of the movie star can be said to truly exist.

The second photograph, taken by the Surrealist photographer Man Ray, pictures the artist Marcel Duchamp posturing as his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy. This image, referred to as Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, is visually quite similar in composition and pose to that of the Garbo photograph, except Duchamp uses the standard feminine props to photographically invert his gender. Interestingly enough, Duchamp tells us that his first idea “was to take a Jewish name,” but he considered the possibility of changing sex as “much simpler.” 4 Richly dressed in dark furs and a geometrically patterned hat, Rrose’s fingers arch in a feminine gesture as she holds the fur collar close to her exposed face. On her right hand is a simple wedding band that, in European fashion, mates her to her male counterpart Duchamp. Rrose is in this way created as a readymade woman that is constructed out of readymade elements, Duchamp’s body and Germaine Everling’s hands. Through the strategic implementation of readymade femininity, Rrose is brought to life in New York in 1920. Her reality is quite literally sustained within the frame of the photograph, which demonstrates, as we argue, the readymade nature of gender positions.

Duchamp’s use of femininity in this photographic sex-change is a direct extension of his famous artistic readymades, in which (often mass-produced) objects are chosen rather than created by an artist to be art. Fountain (1917), for example, is a urinal purchased from a lavatory supply store, one of a series of virtually identical objects within a commercial line of products, which could be easily replaced by another with little to no difference in the object itself. The only feature that distinguishes this artwork from the other urinals in the series is the signature of R. Mutt, Duchamp’s pseudonym for this piece. As Duchamp makes clear in his discussion with Pierre Cabanne, the readymade is based within object-relations: “It’s difficult to choose an object, because, at the end of fifteen days, you begin to like it or to hate it. You have to approach something with an indifference, as if you had no aesthetic emotion. The choice of readymades is always based on visual indifference and at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste.” 5 Prominently included in a list of Duchamp’s readymades, Rrose exists as a photographic – a readymade medium par excellence – manifestation of the already existing language or signifiers of femininity. According to Judith Butler, “femininity is an ideal which everyone always and only ‘imitates.’ Thus, drag imitates the imitative structure of gender, revealing gender itself to be an imitation.” 6 Duchamp’s imitation of femininity in his pose as Rrose is in this way an imitation of the imitation of femininity as a cultural discourse of gender, a discourse that Garbo also participates in with her own imitation of the feminine.

In addition to the remarkable similarity in the respective poses of Garbo and Duchamp (or Rrose), the photographs also share a visual psychology that, as Moira Roth points out, is astonishing similar in terms of their “beauty and remoteness: staring out of their photographs, with their hands idly protecting them, they both project an image of utter aloofness. In both portraits there is an impenetrable impassivity.” 7 It is the photograph as a major site of the production of femininity that we argue is the basic subject of both Garbo’s and Duchamp’s portraits and, more significantly, it is their apparent playing with the productive capacity of the photographic medium that allows them to perform a masquerade.

In “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” the psychoanalyst Joan Riviere makes the point that womanliness can “be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it.” 8 Yet it is this possession of masculinity or masculine traits that made Garbo such an attractive public figure, not the least of which is due to her deep voice and the questions surrounding her sexual orientation. There is a dramatic contrast between Garbo’s photographic eroticism, a quintessential visual representation of the female film star, and her active challenge to the strict understanding and even performance of gender identity. Throughout her career Garbo highlighted the ease with which cultural conceptions of gender and sexuality can be manipulated. Through her masquerade of masculinity and her homosexual tendencies, Garbo lays claim to the masculine characteristics that at the time were outside the realm of most women’s experience – and in this way she appropriates a certain amount of power with her pose.

This power is evident in Garbo’s direct gaze in the Mata Hari photographs, since it is still rare today to see an eroticized feminine figure challenging the viewer with such a bold look. A comparison can be made between the gaze of the courtesan in Édouard Manet’s Olympia , confronting the viewer with the power of a woman as a sexual subject that looks back, and the gaze of Garbo. Manet’s painting is still discussed as controversial for the simple fact that cultural presentations of eroticism do not make room for the female gaze and, more specifically, women’s active acceptance and employment of their own sexuality. In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey points out,
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.9

While Garbo is set up as an erotic feminine figure to be looked at in the Mata Hari publicity still, she undermines the traditional presentation of women as passive by powerfully looking back at the viewer.

Whereas Bull’s photograph of Garbo is specifically intended to produce a feminine consumer object (through photography and film) that is womanly , it is clear that Duchamp’s Rrose is not attempting to be a woman but instead is trying to bring into dialogue the cultural signifiers of man and woman through Rrose. Although constructed and staged using similar readymade feminine props and poses as those employed in the image of Garbo, Rrose remains obviously not a woman – or at least can be seen as an intentionally fake woman. Yet Rrose is no longer strictly a man either, the photographic medium allowing Duchamp to perform both genders simultaneously. Poised in a feminine masquerade Duchamp can be seen taking on the cultural qualities that are considered “feminine” or “womanly.” As Amelia Jones states: “It is because Duchamp and Man Ray constructed Rrose Sélavy through photographic conventions that draw directly from cultural codes constructing femininity in relation to commodification that the images can be said to subvert these inexorable effects of the advertisement’s production of femininity.” 10 Duchamp’s masquerade as Rrose, similar to Garbo’s photograph as Mata Hari, draws upon the methodology and processes of popular culture advertisements, specifically the manner in which femininity as a social category is constructed or assembled through the production of imagery.

This complex relationship between Duchamp the “man” and Rrose the “woman” performed by the “man” is made evident in the works title: Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy. Duchamp sets up his name in a typographical pairing with Rrose, in a typical surrealist game where words are seen as making love with words, in this case “Marcel Duchamp” poetically making love to “Rrose Sélavy” and vice versa. Hence, for Duchamp, it is possible to unhinge his gender through a reinvention of his name and play with other matings of meaning. This multiplicity of meanings is most evident in the wordplay of Duchamp’s chosen name Rrose Sélavy , which is an elaborate double pun in French: “eros c’est la vie,” eros that’s life, and/or “arroser la vie,” drink it up, celebrate life.

Duchamp uses the photograph as what he terms an inframince or infrathin medium. 11 Through this quality of the photograph, he both is and is not Rrose Sélavy, is and is not a woman. This inter-distinction is reflected in the use of the term “and/or” to negotiate the relation between Duchamp and Rrose, connecting them through the “and” while at the same time separating them through the “or.” Jones even suggests that this and/or is a mating device in which Duchamp and Rrose “are related by way of an inframince asymmetry (incongruence) carried through all of Duchamp’s productions: Duchamp and/or Rrose Sélavy, bride and/or bachelors, man and/or woman, viewer and/or viewed.” 12 The photograph functions as a means of visually positing such inframince visual relationships through the materialization of the image as a simulation or representation. “In the photographic process it’s not a question of considering the world as an object, of acting as if it was already there as an object, but of making it become an object, in other words, of making it become other,” Jean Baudrillard states. 13 In this way, Duchamp’s relationship with Rrose Sélavy is an infra-thin coupling of sexual identity that is accomplished strictly within the representational space demarcated by the photograph.

Duchamp’s use of the advertising industry’s strategies of producing femininity can be seen as a parody of gender differentiation. But, as Jones asks:
What are the specific codes of femininity the Rrose Sélavy images parody? Here it is worth turning to studies in the history of photography that have linked nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century representations of women to the massive expanse of consumer culture and concomitant developments in photographic technology and the mass media. Since its origins around 1840, photography has developed a special relationship to both the commodity and femininity. 14

We can readily see this relationship in the Mata Hari photograph in which Garbo is presented as a commodity object of the film industry, embodying the fantasy of femininity that Hollywood sells. In images of Garbo, the relationship between commodity and femininity is made explicit: she is the object of desire who seduces spectators who seek to consume her image. Garbo the fetishized movie star exists only as a product of this system of signification. Similarly, Rrose is “also highly seductive, having been photographed with portrait conventions used in advertisements and celebrity photos of the time, conventions used for eroticizing the female image to sell commodities or the female herself as a commodity.” 15 As an extreme example of this same system of cultural signification, Rrose exists as a representation defined through the readymade modes of femininity she exhibits, yet without the relation to any “real” womanly presence. In other words, Rrose represents all of the signifiers used in the photographic commodification of femininity without a bodily or “real” referent.

In Belle Haleine (1921) Duchamp uses the star power of his alter-ego to sell perfume under the readymade label Belle Haleine (Lovely Breath), Eau de Voilette, which bears the authorizing signature of RS: Rrose Sélavy. But like the signifiers that constitute the feminine, this perfume bottle is only the surface appearance of what is actually an empty shell. This work consists of a readymade Rigaud perfume bottle originally labeled Eau de Violette (Violet water), which Duchamp slightly alters to say Eau de Voilette (Veil Water) and uses the reversed R of the Rigaud label to create the initials of Rrose Sélavy. Rrose, like many other celebrity figures, is pictured – a photograph of her, again taken by Man Ray, graces the custom cut label affixed onto the crystal surface – as the embodiment of feminine beauty on a perfume bottle, a commodity object advertised as a key element in the cultural production of the feminine. Duchamp’s Belle Haleine can in this way be seen as a parody of the conception of purchasing a readymade product the sole purpose of which is the production of womanliness.

As a cultural readymade, Butler reminds us, “femininity is an ideal which everyone always and only ‘imitates,’” and Duchamp’s imitation of the feminine or womanly through Rrose, his act of transvestitism, reveals the imitative structure of gender itself as a product. 16 Photography is also based upon imitation and therefore reinforces the imitative qualities of Duchamp’s act. “Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise,” Susan Sontag notes, “in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision.” 17 What is the duplicate gendered role that Duchamp is creating? The answer appears to lie in the masquerade of representation: the interchangeable signs of gender, the poses and its props, that constitute the erotic play of femininity that Duchamp and Garbo engage in.

Let us consider in more detail the significant similarities between the photograph as an imitative form and the notion of the readymade. This overlap is particularly apparent when considering the representation or masquerade of femininity as a cultural readymade, which significantly uses eroticism to hide sexuality both in terms of the physical body and the power dynamics that accompany gender constructions. Eroticism, according to Duchamp, becomes a tool to reveal “things that are constantly hidden – and aren’t necessarily erotic.” 18 In this way, Rrose’s erotic traits are largely the result of the photographic medium that quite literally hides the reality of what is pictured, turning all that it captures into a readymade image. This, stated simply, is the power of the photograph that reveals the masquerade hidden within life, showing us not what we see but rather what we want to see.

As Garbo and Duchamp demonstrate in different ways, femininity is a culturally transmitted and easily purchased readymade language, one that can be used by anyone who wants to participate in the production and/or reproduction of its qualities. This aping of the masquerade of femininity by Duchamp illustrates the construction of the feminine self that Susan Bordo describes as a manifestation of social control of women: “With the advent of movies and television, the rules for femininity have come to be culturally transmitted more and more through standardized visual images. As a result, femininity itself has come to be largely a matter of constructing[…] the appropriate surface presentation of the self.” 19 Bordo’s observations can readily be seen in the ready-made or standardized visual images that constitutes Duchamp’s work and also the whole of the industrial world; the ready-made is tangible in all aspects of modern life, including the objects of femininity that are used to create a surface illusion of what it is to be a woman. Rrose bears the photographic surface presentation of a woman because she, paradoxically, visually reproduces all the signifiers of femininity without having to physically embody them as a reality. In the hyperreality of the photographic image – which generates real models without origin or reality 20 – there is a level of perfection that cannot be achieved outside its simulated frame. It is therefore no coincidence that photography is the primary means through which femininity as a readymade cultural object is produced and communicated.

The use of readymade femininity is most evident in the popular culture use of film or publicity stills, which function as fetishistic objects that stand in for the hyperreal movie star. In photographic film stills produced by the film industry, John Ellis states:
The star is tantalizingly close and similar, yet at the same time remote and dissimilar. Further, the star is a legitimate object for the desires of the viewer in so far as the star is like the viewer, and an impossible object for the desire of the viewer in so far as the star is extraordinary, unlike the viewer. There is a complicated game of desires that plays around the figure of the star: every feature in it is counteracted by another feature. The male and female star can be desired by either sex, yet that desire has access to its object only on condition that its object is presented as absent. Desire is both permitted and encouraged, yet knows it cannot achieve any tangible form of satisfaction, except the satisfaction of looking.14

The desire exhibited by Garbo and Duchamp is permitted and encouraged through the mode of still image presentation, the tangible photographic object achieving a hyperreal eroticism that is not possible outside the illusionism of this frame. There is a complicated game of desire being played out within the photograph of Greta Garbo as Mata Hari, a tantalizing closeness resulting from her tightly cropped face that makes her a legitimate object for the desires of spectators. The Hollywood publicity still is not simply a means of promoting and selling films, it is also an active site within modern culture for the production of feminine desire based upon the spectator’s ability to experience this erotic encounter as an act of (visual) consumption, with women being the primary object of this envisioning desire.

Using the conventions of the publicity photograph readily seen in the Garbo image, Duchamp disappears as a subject in order to recreate himself as an object: the photographic Rrose. The photographs of Garbo and Rrose use the seductive gaze of womanliness to create masks that are adorned with readymade signifiers of femininity such as the furs and rings that accentuate their overtly feminine postures. Such classic props, as Barthes refers to those objects that “constantly make the unveiled body more remote,” function as a powerful means of making “the living body return to the category of luxurious objects which surround men with a magical décor.”22 This effect in fact is a key purpose of the publicity still, which is a fetishistic object that distinctly separates the erotic representation from any physically reality. Garbo, considered from this perspective, is a model produced through the processes of photographic image creation that is created without an original “Garbo” – Greta Gustafson being simply the feminine prototype from which Garbo the international icon was formulated. Stated differently, Garbo the movie star is a hyperreal construction that exists through the reproducibility of photographic technology, which makes her become or disappear into the object of the photograph.23 But, whereas Garbo is transformed into an object through the photograph, Duchamp uses the photograph to make the object of Rrose around which there is literally no reality: Rrose is purely hyperreal (infrathin).

The paradox of the movie star is that, in the case of Garbo, the spectator’s experience of eroticism is based on a pretense of the possibility of a real encounter with the object of the image, namely Greta Gustafson. Duchamp forgoes this possibility, instead basing Rrose’s eroticism in the readymade cultural signifiers that are used to produce femininity as a hyperreal state. Rrose is in this way not a photographic representation of feminine eroticism but rather exists as an object of the erotic female stripped bare of any pretense or mask of real or authentic subjectivity.

Georges Bataille points out that it is through objects that we first flirt with sexuality, the photographic object being a key example. He observes:
We thus achieve awareness only by condemning and by refusing to recognize our sexual life. Eroticism is not the only thing to be brushed aside: we have no direct awareness of anything within us that cannot be reduced to the simplicity of things, of solid objects. In the first instance we are clearly conscious only of things, and anything less sharply defined than a physical object is not clearly perceived at first. It is only later that analogy provides us with concepts not possessing the simplicity of a solid object.24

Duchamp is masking the illusion of his gender identity with another mask, one constructed through the significations of femininity with which he as Rrose adorns himself. This dual identity, being both the male Duchamp and the female Rrose, is made possible by the hyperreal space of the photograph, which allows him to escape the physical genital reality of maleness or femaleness and to propose an infra-thin gender position based on the realities of the masquerade.

In Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy , the figure of Rrose is a play of feminine parts that collectively contribute to the creation of a gender and identity while at the same time making us aware of this constructed nature. For example, the fragmented signifiers of the “real” woman’s hands, the fur collar, the hat, the wig, the made-up face of Duchamp all function as parts in an elaborate cultural masquerade. These fragmented effects, however, are visually resolved in the medium of photography, through which the real and/or masquerade is brought into dialogue. Duchamp’s pictorial cross-dressing as Rrose, however, embodies the fragmented process of gender signification as a means of parodying the production of sexual and gender identity. This embracing of the fragmentation of femininity as a cultural product or commodity allows for multiple meanings and, as evidenced in his photograph, opens up possible perspectives that cannot exist in gender roles as they are culturally constituted.

Unlike Garbo’s penetrating gaze, which visually seduces us into her image, Duchamp’s look is drowsily seductive and suspiciously evasive. Rather than an overt sexuality that invites the possibility of an erotic encounter, Duchamp presents a mysterious sexuality that, although playing with the signifiers of femininity, calls our attention to the fact that he is a man masquerading as a woman. In fact, this masquerade is made even more clear by the signature in the lower right corner of the photograph that reads lovingly Rrose Sélavy, alias Marcel Duchamp. Here Duchamp presents the full complexity of this pictorial representation: Duchamp is named as the alias of Rrose and/or Rrose is the alias of Duchamp. More generally, masculinity is presented as a masquerade of femininity and/or femininity is a masquerade of masculinity. Femaleness, according to Bordo, is an artificial constitution the rules of which are learned “directly through bodily discourse: through images that tell us what clothes, body shape, facial expression, movements, and behavior are required.”25 Garbo, although born a woman, was not born feminine and, just like Rrose, has to pose in order to achieve this feminine state. What Duchamp makes obvious with the readymade feminine character of Rrose is that bodily discourse is regulated through a complex network of already existing cultural conceptions of gender and sexual identity, with femininity in particular being powerfully enacted through consumerist enterprises – the film industry representing a key example – that sell the image of the feminine.

Gender and sexuality are projected onto subjects and objects alike, functioning as symbols and signs that subvert and conceal the complex and convoluted reality of identity as a lived state. Identity becomes a floating category, a game to be played by social subjects. As Riviere states in response to her use of “womanliness” as a category: “The reader may now ask how I define womanliness or where I draw the line between genuine womanliness and the ‘masquerade’. My suggestion is not, however, that there is any such difference; whether radical or superficial: they are the same thing.”26 Duchamp draws upon this indifference between genuine womanliness and the “masquerade,” that Riviere highlights, in the (photographic) creation of Rrose, who, at her most basic level, exists as an active questioning of the strictly binary view of gender in modern culture. Both Garbo and Rrose exist through a play with the culturally constructed and disseminated nature of gender, which in both cases supersedes any physical or bodily reality.

On this point, therefore, we can recognize a key distinction between the two photographs. In Garbo as Mata Hari – as well as in most if not all publicity stills – the expression of gender functions through an assumed reality that is projected onto the image, with viewers assuming the persona of “Garbo” to be the same as the person named Greta Gustafson; it is the possibility of this fantasy becoming a reality that is at the heart of these erotic images. The same is not true for Rrose, who exhibits readymade gender signifiers not as a prelude to the real but instead to accentuate the unreality of performed gender roles. In Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, Duchamp pictures a coming together of the polar categories of male and female in order to produce an ambiguous and dialogic eroticism only possible in the object of the photograph.

1 Greta Garbo, quoted in Alexander Walker, Garbo: A Portrait (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 11.
2 Marcel Duchamp to Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp , trans. Ron Padgett (Cambridge: Da Capo Press. 1987), 64.
3 Roland Barthes, Mythologies , trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 56.
4 Duchamp to Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 64.
5 Duchamp to Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 21.
6 Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 145.
7Moira Roth, “Marcel Duchamp in America: A Self-readymade,” in Difference / Indifference: Musings on Postmodernism, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage (Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 1998), 20.
8 Joan Riviere, “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” in Formations of Fantasy, ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan (New York: Methuen, 1986), 39.
3 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 837.
10 Amelia Jones, Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994: 168.
11 Duchamp never directly defines the term “infrathin.” Instead, he presents examples of how it functions. As he writes in one of his notes: “infrathin separation – better/ than screen, because it indicates/ interval (taken in one sense) and/ screen (taken in another sense) – separation has the 2 senses male and female.” Marcel Duchamp,Marcel Duchamp, Notes , ed. and trans. Paul Matisse (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980), np.
12 Jones, Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp, 95.
13 Jean Baudrillard, “The Art of Disappearance,” in Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact, ed. Nicholas Zurbrugg (London: Sage Publications, 1997), 30.
14 Jones,Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp, 164.
15 Jones, Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp, 147.
16 Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, 145.
17 Susan Sontag,On Photography (New York: Picador, 1977), 52.
18 Duchamp to Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 88.
19 Susan Bordo, “From Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: Norton, 2001), 2366.
20 Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), 2. There is a comparison to be made between Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal and Duchamp’s idea of the infrathin, both of which define a form of simulation as model.
21 John Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video (London: Routledge, 1992), 98. 22 Barthes, Mythologies, 85.
23 Baudrillard, “The Art of Disappearance,” 30.
24 Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986), 161-162.
25 Bordo, “From Unbearable Weight,” 2366.
26 Riviere, “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” 39.

Duchamp with Lacan through Žižek

Duchamp’s Legacy

As we approach both the fiftieth anniversary of Marcel Duchamp’s death and the centenary of his most famous “readymade” it would appear that not a lot more can be said about the man and his work. And yet, most scholars would agree that, since Duchamp’s passing and the subsequent emergence of the enigmatic Étant Donnés, the reception of his oeuvre has become highly problematized. As Benjamin Buchloh notes in one of the most recent publications directly addressing this issue, the “near total silence” which has surrounded Étant Donnés attests to the fact that Duchamp’s oeuvre has “fallen short of its actual historical potential.” (1)

In an effort to break this silence and move beyond the impasse in question, many scholars have taken Étant Donnés as a point of departure for the reassessment of the Duchampian project. Through the peephole, this re-reading has involved an assessment of the erotic dimension of Duchamp’s work, primarily on the basis of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Some of the most important research in this area has been undertaken by two of the most prominent scholars in the field, Thierry de Duve and Rosalind Krauss. Krauss, for her part, was one of the first to explore the precise connections between Lacan and Duchamp when, in a chapter entitled “Notes on the Index” from her seminal 1986 work The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, she uses Lacanian theory to unlock the mysteries of the Large Glass. First, she develops Lacan’s notion of the “mirror stage”: how the “child’s self-identification through his double” allows for the movement from “a global undifferentiated sense of himself towards a distinct, integrated notion of selfhood.” (2) She then uses this concept to read the Large Glass as a ‘‘split self-portrait” which – through the emphasis placed on certain syllables in the title La MARiée mise à nu par ses CELibataires, même – displays a “self-projected as double.”(3)

This analysis is extended further in her 1994 work, The Optical Unconscious, where she again differs to Lacan – through reference, this time, to his “L schema” apparatus – in order to put forward an “alternative” reading of modernism.(4) Indeed, it is not difficult to recognize the Lacanian co-ordinates which frame Krauss’s thesis regarding Etant Donnés: that, at the peephole, “vision is demonstrably hooked up to the mechanism of desire” so that the viewer as voyeur becomes a “carnal being trapped in the searchlight of the Other’s gaze […] a self that exists on the level of all other objects of the world.”(5) It is ultimately by recourse to Lacanian theory that she can argue that, in the Duchampian field, “nothing […] breaks the circuit of the gaze’s connection to its object or interrupts the satisfaction of its desire.”(6)

In his 1991 work Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade, Thierry de Duve calls for a parallel approach to the relationship between psychoanalysis and art history – what he terms a “heuristic parallelism” (7) – which uses Lacanian theory to read the work of art in terms of dream analysis. First, he examines how the development of Lacan’s conceptual apparatus takes place through a close reading of Freud’s approach to dream analysis. From this theoretical standpoint, de Duve then interrogates Duchamp’s oeuvre using the Freudian method, arguing that Duchamp discovered “a truth that has long been familiar to psychoanalysis,” namely, that “the practice of painting has something to do with sublimation.” (8) Like Krauss, de Duve does not attempt to hide the fact that his analysis of Duchamp is supported by Lacan’s conceptual apparatus, declaring that Duchamp’s “definition of the Real was strictly that of Lacan.” (9)

One can conclude, then, that Krauss and de Duve’s respective readings of Duchamp’s work are governed by a common grounding in Lacan’s conceptual apparatus. However, it should be remembered that, as with the history of psychoanalytic studies of art, there is also a long and well-established tradition of psychoanalytic interventions into the Duchampian field, of which Krauss and de Duve’s Lacanian stances are simply the most recent examples. As Paola Magi has recently noted, the range of perspectives which make use of psychoanalysis in assessing Duchamp’s work is wide and varied: from Lebel’s brief intimations on the possible connection between the clinical setting and the Large Glass, to Schwartz’s thorough examination of the lIbidinal forces at work in Duchamp’s oeuvre , to the different interpretations put forward by Ulf Linde, Maurizio Calvesi, and Octavio Paz.(10)

A surprising omission from this list is the name of Jean Francois Lyotard, whose 1977 work Les Transformateurs Duchamp, written at a pivotal moment during the rediscovery of Duchamp’s work in France, paved the way for all subsequent appraisals of Duchampian eroticism.(11)Of course, one should also make reference to the many rigorous interpretations of Duchamp’s work offered by Lacanians themselves: for example, Jean Copjec’s suggestion that Duchamp may have in some way understood the aesthetic object as a form of sublimation;(12)or Badiou’s recent claim that the psychoanalytic aspect of Duchamp’s work is “another story” which “is probably the contradictory destiny of the most important part of modern art.” (13)

What, in my view, separates Krauss and de Duve from other scholars in the field is the extent to which they have applied Lacanian theory to Duchamp’s work; they have, I would argue, gone the furthest in integrating Lacan’s conceptual model into the field of Duchamp Studies, as an established methodological tool. The necessary predominance of this specific Lacanian line of enquiry was given an increased level of credibility in 1987 when, to mark the one hundredth anniversary of Duchamp’s birth, the Philadelphia Museum of Art reissued the Bulletin that had been devoted to Étant Donnés in 1969. It was this publication which, by foregrounding the connection between Duchamp’s final work and a series of preparatory etchings produced in 1968 entitled The Lovers, caused the Lacanian connotations in Étant Donnés to reverberate. It was firstly deemed to be highly significant that one of the sketches was taken directly from Gustave Courbet’s 1861 painting Woman with White Stocking. Even more important, however, was the fact that another seemed to directly indicate the influence of Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde – a painting which, at the time Duchamp was working on the etchings, was in the possession of none other than Lacan himself. The significance of this curious set of circumstances was again underlined as recently as 2009 when, in the catalogue released to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Étant Donnés installation in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the precise nature of the link between Duchamp, Courbet, and Lacan was further clarified. According to Michael Taylor, Duchamp most likely saw L’Origine du Monde in late September 1958, “when he and his wife were invited to dine with the Lacans at their apartment at 3 rue de Lille in Paris.” (14) Thierry Savatier goes as far as to suggest that Lacan deeply admired Duchamp and that it was therefore “inconceivable that he would not have brought the painting to Paris for this important rendez-vous”.(15)

While this new evidence adds weight to de Duve and Krauss’s Lacanian interventions, I would argue that it also brings to light a number of important questions which remain unanswered by Duchamp scholars. The first point worth noting is how the relationship between The Lovers and Étant Donnés, while strengthening the validity of a psychoanalytic reading, also brings into focus the specific dilemma which art historians faced when the preparatory sketches were first discovered; namely, the fact that the direct, unambiguous reference to Courbet fundamentally undermines all the criteria according to which Duchamp’s work had for so long been judged and evaluated. How, as Calvin Tomkins asks, can we account for the fact that Duchamp was explicitly claiming as an influence over his last major work an artist who he had previously criticized “for setting art on its exclusively ‘retinal’ course’,” the very attitude against which he was seen as reacting?(16)Krauss’s answer to this question appears insufficient since, by insisting on the distinction between the eroticism of Duchamp’s later works and the earlier “cerebral Duchamp” who rejected “the world of material sensations” in favour of “the world of ideas,” she simply holds in place the very categories which the Courbet/Lacan question forces us to re-examine. (17)

If we choose to interrogate this interpretative aporia a little further, we begin to see that its roots lie in the paradoxical nature of the relationship between the Large Glass and Étant Donnés, the two diametrically opposed centre-pieces of Duchamp’s visual output. For almost fifty years, scholars have struggled to adequately explain what is at stake in the overlapping dimensions of openness and closure which penetrate each work: one is a blatantly figurative installation which remains fixed at a limited viewpoint; the other is a frustratingly inaccessible form whose opacity is counteracted by its transparency, the simple fact that the viewer is free to walk around it. This obvious feature was identified by Anne d’Harnoncourt as early as 1969, a year after Duchamp’s death, in what was the first critical appraisal of the work; and yet, to this day, several issues raised by d’Harnoncourt’s initial response remain unresolved. For example, her description of Étant Donnés as “the alter ego of The Large Glass” raises a very important question for Duchamp scholars: if we are to understand Étants Donnés as a “mise-en-scène” of the Large Glass’s implicit “erotic content,” then how do we account for the role of the viewer-come-voyeur positioned in the space mapped by the “Glass”? If the allegorical content of the “Glass” is rendered visible in Étants Donnés – so that the “Bride” can be seen lying on a mass of twigs and the “brick base” of the “Bachelor” machine is “echoed in the inner brick wall and the outer brick doorway” – then what is the precise “allegorical” role of the viewer located at the peephole? (18)

What this apparent dichotomy leads us to is the fundamental impenetrability of the Large Glass itself. As Tomkins has noted, there is no getting away from the fact that, for almost one hundred years, nobody has come to fully understand the work. The reality is that, despite the transparency of its support, the forms in the Large Glass remain opaque: although each element has a name, it is impossible to move beyond the work’s purely formal qualities – its status as a Large Glass – and identify specific motifs. The “conceptual” interpretation which appears to overcome this obstacle is here undermined by Duchamp’s insistence that the Large Glass has “no theoretical substratum,” that “fundamentally, there are very few ideas.” (19)If, as has been generally accepted, the Glass’s “anti-retinal” status marks it as a work of “conceptual art” then why does Duchamp continuously emphasize the importance of its formal dimension: the various “technical problems” concerning the support, the colour, the “rehabilitation of perspective” based on “dimensions,” etc.? (20)On the whole, such efforts to account for the dilemma the work presents have been undone by their own acute cynicism: despite openly dismissing as naive those readings which attempt to unlock the mysteries of the Glass, scholars continue their own efforts to excavate the secrets the work contains. The fact remains that, in the face of assertions that meaning is impossible to decipher, the Large Glass’s impossible status continues to exert a fascinating hold.

The basic premise of this paper – and the central argument in my doctoral thesis, Marcel Duchamp: Resolving the Word/Image Problematic, Afterthought – is that this set of obstacles persists because the dominant Lacanian interventions into the Duchampian field remain limited in their theoretical scope. The reason for this, I claim, is that such readings rely heavily on what Slavoj Žižek has called “the distorted picture of Lacan as belonging to the field of ‘post-structuralism’.”(21)Thus, my hypothesis is that, in order to answer the above questions and build on Krauss and de Duve’s work, one must continue their Lacanian analysis of Duchamp’s oeuvre from a Žižekian perspective. That is to say, in order to account for the fundamental lacuna in Duchamp scholarship and properly address the problematic nature of his reception, one must revisit the 1958 encounter between Lacan and Duchamp on rue de Lille with Žižek as a companion.

It is worth noting here the significance of recent remarks made by Hal Foster on the subject of Duchamp’s legacy. In an essay entitled “What’s Neo About the Neo Avant Garde” Foster appears to be one of the first scholars to advocate the need for a specific Žižekian reading of Duchamp as part of a broader psychoanalytic understanding of the avant-garde tradition. Through a critique of Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, he examines the paradoxical nature of the avant-garde’s reception and offers a precise description of Žižek’s revised interpretation of Lacan when he affirms the importance of “rigourous” re-readings which take the form of a “radical” return. The problem with this approach, I claim, is that it does not perform the particular reading it calls for: by narrowing his focus to an analysis of the neo avant-garde Foster overlooks what precisely is at stake in Žižek’s “return” to Lacan. In doing so, he obscures the precise “symptomatic” nature of the avant-garde tradition in general and Duchamp’s “readymade” in particular.(22)

In order to address this limitation I will engage in a Žižekian reading of Duchamp that accounts for the revolutionary nature of Žižek’s re-reading of Lacan. The aim, in short, is to bring together Duchamp with Lacan via Žižek: to re-habilitate the psychoanalytic core of Duchamp’s work by re-examining it through the prism of Žižek’s revised interpretation of Lacanian theory: namely, his attempt to articulate how Lacanian theory, rather than belonging to the tradition of post-structuralist thought, represents a “radical break” with this tradition and as such should be viewed as one of the most “radical contemporary versions of the Enlightenment.” (23)

At the same time, this revised Lacanian reading of Duchamp sets the scene for an important encounter, over the Lacanian threshold, between Duchamp and Žižek. Not only does Žižek allow Duchamp’s work to become readable in a new and interesting way, his conceptual apparatus also re-coordinates the parameters of the Duchampian field, redefining them for the concerns of visual culture in the twenty-first century. In short, Duchamp’s work begins to operate as a crucial iconological tool in a re-defined critique of ideology; a matrix enabling us to locate contemporary ideological phenomena operating on the visual (aesthetic-iconological) plane. This may have important implications for avant-garde scholarship in particular and the discipline of art history as a whole: a reading of Duchamp (via Žižek) on the basis of Lacanian theory opens up a radical revision of the historical avant-garde in which an alternative understanding of modern art becomes possible. One is thus directly responding to Alain Badiou’s assertion on the urgency of telling “another story” about the work of Duchamp in order to re-engage with “the most important part of modern art.”(24)What this “other story” both entails and engenders is a re-habilitation of art history to its psychoanalytic foundations and, ultimately, the emergence of a new mode of disciplinary exchange which moves beyond the “parallel” approach offered by Thierry de Duve. (25)

With regard to the broader implications of these claims, the current paper should be viewed as the first step in contributing to a paradigmatic shift in the field of Duchampian scholarship, an effort to bring about what Žižek has defined as a Copernican revolution: instead of seeking to overcome the persistent obstacles which Duchamp’s work continues to present by “adding complications and changing minor premises”.(26)within the terms of the established interpretative framework, I am calling for a fundamental change in the foundations of this basic framework itself, a new paradigm of Duchamp studies which fully recognizes the revolutionary kernel of his work. (27) Through Žižek, Duchamp’s oeuvre will be opened up to a Lacanian-Hegelian heritage where – against the standard “post-structuralist,” “postmodern” (“conceptual”) reading of his work – he is located in a lineage of rationalism alongside figures such as Kant, Hegel, Freud, and Marx. It is only in this way that the deafening silence surrounding the man and his work can be shattered so that, to the sound of broken Glass, the emancipatory potential of his project can become fully realized.

Two sides of a Coke ad: The Duchampian title and the Lacanian signifier.

When searching for a place to begin such a radical re-thinking of Duchamp’s project it helps to consider Duchamp’s own point of departure, the genesis of his major work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. “It’s not the bride itself,” he famously declared, “it’s a concept of a bride that I had to put on the canvas one way or another, but it was more important that I should have thought of it in words, in terms of words, before I actually drew it.(28) With this statement, Duchamp reminds us that the Large Glass’s impenetrability is rooted firmly in a distinct and original use of language: the indecipherable nature of the allegory the Glass is said to represent, namely, the story of “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors.” Although acknowledged as the tale of an erotic encounter, the extremely cryptic nature of the hand-written notes through which the story itself is told ensures that a clear reading is always blocked. Thus, given that a full understanding of the visual dimension of Duchamp’s work is not complete without unlocking the meaning of these notes – or, more specifically, by identifying their precise signifying logic, what Charles Cramer has loosely defined as a particular Duchampian “syntax” – it is here that the focal point of this paper resides. (29)

Our analysis of the visual dimension of Duchamp’s oeuvre will therefore begin by focusing on the system of language that supports it. Adding an increased theoretical rigour to Cramer’s analysis, my basic thesis is that the notes are the most complex and extreme form of what Žižek terms the “poetic act of naming,” an elaborate system of metaqua signifierassociations rooted in a fundamental psychoanalytic understanding of language. In what remains of this paper, I will argue that, in his use of words, Duchamp literally follows the basic rule of psychoanalysis to the letter (à la lettre)In Žižekian terms, he grounds “the irreducible gap between the enunciated content and the act of enunciation that is proper to human speech.” (30)
Or, to Duchamp’s own words, he gives palpable presence to the “art-coefficient,” the “gap […] between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.” (31)

Of the many statements Duchamp makes on the subject of language, one of the more curious was offered in the recently published “afternoon interviews” with Calvin Tomkins. Discussing how a painting comes to acquire a mystical aura, he explains that “an object is an object, a three-dimensional form, but words are taken and repeated.”(32) Duchamp then elaborates on his point by drawing on an example from the world of advertising: “Like publicity. All along it’s the same thing, “Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola.” After a while magic appears around Coca-cola […] maybe in fifty years, if nobody speaks of Coca-Cola again, it will disappear.” (33) It is with this strange analogy that one begins to notice an interesting overlap between Duchamp and Žižek. The first point worth noting is how, with these comments, Duchamp returns to a point made in an earlier interview undertaken fifty years after the rejection and subsequent celebration of his Nude Descending a Staircase. In conversation with Francis Steegmuller, he declared that, if the painting’s “infamy” has lasted fifty years, then “there’s more to it than just the scandal.” When pressed to elaborate (“what else is there?”) he responds as follows: “There’s It” – “It?” – “It. Whatever has no name.” (34) Further contextualization of this point can be found in his assertion that the “Nude” scandal was ultimately rooted in a basic misunderstanding on the part of his colleagues (and brothers) in the Puteaux group of the painting’s title. In another statement focusing on the central issue in question, Duchamp explains that “they thought it was too much of a literary title, in a bad sense–in a caricatural way.” (35) It is the same misunderstanding, he maintains, which contributed to the subsequent scandal the work provoked at the New York Armory Show in 1913: “what contributed to the interest provoked by that canvas was its title.”(36) In short, one can conclude that, by referring to a Coke ad in order to demonstrate the general function of language in sustaining the aura surrounding the work of art, Duchamp is effectively highlighting the specific role of the title in his own work.

The crucial point is that, in one of those unique intellectual analogies which have become the hallmark of his Writings, Žižek also uses an advertisement for Coca-cola to elucidate his own particular theoretical understanding of language. In doing so, his analysis displays a striking overlap with Duchamp’s comments: from his Lacanian perspective, the “magic” described by Duchamp is articulated as an effect of the act of naming whereby the “‘spirit of America’ (the cluster of features supposed to express it)” is “condensed in Coke as its signifier, its signifying representative.” Furthermore, Duchamp’s specific reference to the “it” which persists in the “Nude” – the “whatever has no name” – is formulated by Žižek as the “impersonal it” or surplus-X of the commodity-form, that “unattainable something” which is “in Coke more than Coke.” (37)

The Coke ad can therefore be viewed as the point at which an encounter between Žižek and Duchamp might be said to take place: for Duchamp, the ad demonstrates the particular status of titles in his work and the more general function of language in relation to the work of art; for Žižek, it is used to exemplify the Lacanian logic of the signifier and show how it diverges radically from post-structuralist theory. It is through the coke ad, then, that it becomes possible to undertake a new reading of Duchamp’s titles on the basis of Žižek’s re-reading of Lacan’s conceptualization of language. Conversely, by further exploring the implications of this overlap one engages in a psychoanalytic reading of Duchamp’s oeuvre which functions, at the same time, as a Duchampian reading of psychoanalysis. In other words, it might be argued from a uniquely psychoanalytic viewpoint that Duchamp’s work provokes a new understanding of the signifier, a shift from a post-structuralist to a Lacanian notion which, by opening up the radical break Žižek speaks of, ultimately contributes to a re-evaluation of Lacanian theory.

The Lacanian signifier and the Žižekian name

How, then, might we draw out the Lacanian connotations suggested by this curious parallel between Duchamp and Žižek? In this section, my aim is to sketch the theoretical background to Žižek’s “Coca-Cola remarks” in order to specify where his reading of Lacan diverges from post-structuralist theorists such as Krauss and de Duve. In turn, I will use this distinctly Žižekian perspective to offer a new way of understanding Duchamp’s use of titles. The elucidation of Žižek’s theoretical apparatus will thus be followed by a close, formal analysis of Duchamp’s work. (38)

The central argument being put forward is that Žižek’s Coca-Cola reference, by demonstrating the psychoanalytic logic of language, allows us to re-read Duchamp’s work in terms of what Žižek terms “the dogmatic stupidity” of the signifier. Žižek’s basic point is that, as a signifying structure, the advertising image is not constituted as a field of representation – it does not come to represent the “spirit of America” – until it is supplemented by the label “Coke.” It must be remembered that, as a name, the label “Coke” has no meaning; it is fundamental empty, its function is purely structural: as such, it acts as what Žižek calls a “reflexive marker” (39) or unifying feature: a registered trademark which, by supplementing the advertising image, constitutes it as a totality. It is this operation – referred to by Lacan as a “quilting” process – which allows the interplay between visual-verbal elements to generate the ad’s central message.

This occurs when the empty label “Coke” acquires the status of a sign: that is, it comes to explicate the meaning generated by the advertisement. The shift from empty name to sign takes place through a simple inversion whereby “coke” comes to designate the field it supplements; that is to say, the question “What does ‘Coke’ mean?” is given an answer: “Coke is [‘the Spirit of America’].” The process is complete when the sign “Coke” becomes a signifier, a stand-alone label with its own significance: when “Coke” takes the place of the advertising image by functioning as a metaqua signifierreplacement for its central message. In other words, the sentence “Coke is [‘the spirit of America’]” simply shifts to “this object–a Glass bottle or red tin can–is ‘the spirit of America’ [because it is a bottle/can of Coke].”

The crucial point worth emphasizing is that, as a signifier, the label “Coke” does not represent or bring to mind the concept created by the ad: despite its apparent wealth of significance – its status as a signifier – it remains an empty name or trademark which, through a metaqua signifieroperation, simply stands in for the concept it is seen to “represent”; in this sense, the ad should simply be understood as the “missing representation”(40).whose place is held by the label inscribed on the tin can or Glass bottle. It is this shift in perspective which allows us to grasp Žižek’s basic argument: the signifier does not designate an object from a distance (or, the label “Coke” does not point to the contents of the Glass bottle or tin can); rather, it is inscribed into the object, onto its surface, as the empty name holding the place of the missing representation (the advertisement).

This is what Žižek means by the “dogmatic stupidity” of the signifier: the fact that a name is no more than a tautological, performative element which, rather than calling to mind a particular signified-idea, represents its lack. What conceals the signifier’s “stupidity” is a fundamental formal inversion, a reversal in causality, through which the object-referent is misrecognized as containing the signified content designated by its name: the red can or Glass bottle is believed to contain a set of particular properties because it is a can or bottle of Coke; in short, the object is viewed as the physical embodiment of the “spirit of America”. This is what Lacan termed the retroactive production of meaning: the way the missing representation – the advertising image and all the significance it carries – magically “stays behind” in the object as its “immanent essence,”(41) as the impersonal “it,” that magical aura which cannot be named because it is merely an effect of naming. (42)

It is the “dogmatic stupidity of the signifier,” Žižek maintains, that is overlooked in the post-structuralist conception of language. In Žižek’s reading, the post-structuralist perspective makes two basic theoretical claims. The first assertion is that “the relation of the subject to the world of objects is mediated through language” and, consequently, the objective world is no more than the “imaginary effect-illusion of the signifier’s play” which must therefore be abandoned to the “infinite self-interpretive play of language.”(43) This “self-referential” conceptualization of language, Žizek argues, is based on a clearly defined theory of the signifier: that language is “the place of auto-reflexive movement” in which metonymy is given “logical predominance” over metaphor.(44) Thus, in the post-structuralist reading, the signifying chain functions, at its most fundamental level, as a “decentered network of plural processes” in which meaning is constantly sliding along the signifying chain. (45)

According to Žižek, it is on the basis of this particular understanding of language that Derrida criticizes Lacan for giving primacy to metaphor over metonymy. For Derrida, Lacan localizes the central lack in the signifying chain in a single (Master) element thereby stemming the differential flow which corrupts the closed nature of the signifying field. For Žižek, this critique betrays a misunderstanding of the notion of Lacan’s notion of the signifier: how, for Lacan, the signifier does not represent a lack but incarnates – takes the place of – a lack. Žižek’s point is that such an understanding of the signifying process, by giving primacy to the metonymical relations between signifier, misreads the distinctly metaqua signifierstatus of the signifier as defined by Lacan. It is for this reason that Žižek insists on the distinction between the post-structuralist understanding of the signifier and the psychoanalytic version put forward by Lacan. While the Derrida’s conceptualization of language remains rooted in the Saussurean tradition, Lacan’s represents a radical break with this tradition: it inverts the fundamental principles of Saussure’s semiotics by submitting them to a Freudian reading.

It is this precise theoretical error which, I claim, Krauss and de Duve fall victim to in their “Lacanian” interrogations of Duchamp. While both thinkers claim to use the Lacanian notion of the signifier to examine Duchamp’s Writings, it is clear that their analysis is based on a post-structuralist mis-reading of Lacan. Krauss, by equating the Lacanian signifier with Jakobson’s concept of the “shifter,” over-simplifies Lacan’s radical Freudian interpretation of linguistic theory. The result is a distinctly Derridean reading of Lacan in which Duchamp’s notes are seen to display a “strategy of infecting language itself with a confusion in the way that words denote their referents”; in line with the self-referential conception of language, she argues that the notes “upset the balance of meaning” through an “outrageous formalism” which, by causing confusion, grounds the logic of the shifter such that “form begins to erode the certainty of content.” (46)

De Duve, as I have noted, examines Lacan’s theory of the signifier through a close reading of Freud’s dream analysis in order to argue that, in his titles, Duchamp’s “definition of the Real was strictly that of Lacan.” (47)The problem is that this thesis is rooted in what Žižek calls “a fundamental theoretical error” regarding the analysis of dreams. In mapping the structure of a dream onto a work of art de Duve overlooks Freud’s basic point: that the “essential constitution of the dream”(48) is not its “latent content” but the mechanism of displacement and condensation which transforms this content into “the form of the dream.” As a consequence, his analysis obscures the psychoanalytic dimension of Lacan’s theory of the signifier, as it is articulated by Žižek, thereby overlooking what is at stake in Duchamp’s titles.

On the whole, it would appear that de Duve’s particular understanding of the Lacanian signifier is governed by the very formal inversion which, according to Lacan, conceals its true workings. For example, from the assertion that the word assumes its fundamental form “when the signifier has no other signification than its own being as a signifier” (49) we can see that the basic (Saussurean) notion of the signifier is retained; in other words, de Duve’s reflexive recognition of the signifier’s status qua signifier (that the signifier signifies itself) is supported by the assumption that the signifier is a material representative of a signified-idea (that it signifies). Beneath his claim that language is reduced to a basic “zero-degree” level of “nothingness,” to “the realm of non-language,” when “words ought to ‘forget’ that they have referents,”(50) it is not hard to detect the central tenant of post-structuralist theory: the notion that language is a self-reflexive system, that “there is no pure-object language.” (51)

One might even go as far as to argue that, beyond Krauss and de Duve, it is the Derridean rather than Lacanian understanding of language that has served as the dominant interpretative framework through which Duchamp’s Writings have been received. Indeed, is it not the post-structuralist conceptualization of language which, to date, has framed our understanding of the notes in Duchamp’s “Green Box”? In accordance with the theoretical principles described above, it has been widely acknowledged that the notes have a “cryptic, absurd” dimension which is rooted in the fact that they are “unanalyzable by logic.” It is assumed that the notes are “simply impossible to fathom,” that they have “no meaning whatsoever” and are simply examples of Duchamp’s humorous word-play, his ironic poeticism.(52) What all of this ultimately bears witness to is the fundamental contradiction which penetrates the current state of Duchamp scholarship. To paraphrase Žižek’s words, this (post-structuralist) insistence on a type of ironic poeticism is ultimately affected: that is, the whole effort to reinforce the idea that Duchamp’s Writings are “caught in a decentered network of plural processes,” the constant attempts “to evade the theoretical form,” mask a fundamental fact: that at the root of what is being said “there is a clearly defined theoretical position which can be articulated without difficulty.”(53)

The Duchampian title and the Žižekian name

How might Duchamp’s homology between the Coke and the “Nude” acquire new meaning against this theoretical background? To put the question another way, how does the overlap between Žižek and Duchamp allow us to read the Duchampian title on the basis of the Lacanian signifier? In order to closely examine the status of the title in the “Nude” – a task I have undertaken in more detail elsewhere(54) – it is perhaps best to focus on the 1911 painting which served as its preparatory work: Sad Young Man on a Train (Jeune homme triste dans un train). The most striking aspect of this painting – a detail, it must be said, which is all too often overlooked by art historians – is the fact that “the sad young man” mentioned in the title is nowhere to be seen in the image in question. Duchamp’s reduction of the visual motif to a precise configuration of points, lines and planes ensures that the viewer inevitably struggles desperately to identify any recognizable content. He himself underlined this point when he said that “the object is completely stretched out, as if elastic” (55) so that, in the painting, “there isn’t much of the young man, there isn’t much of the sadness, there isn’t much of anything in that painting except […] a repetition of schematic lines.” (56)

What Duchamp achieves in this painting, I claim, is the dissolution of the illusion which conceals the true workings of the title, its true status as a (Lacanian) signifier: namely, the perspectival error according to which the title’s representational content is (mis-)perceived as being inherent to the object (the painting). The effect of such an operation manifests itself, I would argue, in the very acute feeling of discomfort which accompanies the viewing of the work: the way the viewer, standing perplexed before an explicitly opaque surface, is forced to ask in vein: “Where is the man indicated in the title?”(57) Indeed, is it not this very simple yet direct question which lies at the root of the art historical debate surrounding “Sad Young Man,” the continued attempts to decipher the work’s title and subject matter? What the question “where is the man on the train?” reveals is a basic misconception regarding the title’s actual function and status. In other words, the assertion made in the catalogue entry for the work, that the title expands upon “the simple description of the figure for (or of) a nude, by also designating it – as if with a subtitle – ‘Jeune homme triste dans un train’,”(58) is made on the assumption that the title has the status of a sign; that it somehow points to (or designates) the content of the painting from an objective distance.

Could it be possible to argue, then, that many Duchamp scholars have, to date, made the same error as Duchamp’s colleagues in the Puteaux group? Just as the hanging committee misunderstood the title’s “literary” status, so too have scholars missed the basic fact that the “subtitle” Sad Young Man on a Train is not a sign at a distance from the painting but a sentence [“sad-young-man-on-a-train” or “JEUNE-HOMME-TRISTE-DANS-UN-TRAIN”] inscribed onto the surface of the picture? This alternative reading is given weight when we consider Duchamp’s decision to directly paint the name of the work in block capitals, a procedure he goes on to repeat with the “Nude” (“NU-DESCENDANT-UN-ESCALIER”) and all his subsequent works thereafter. The most explicit example of this is, of course, the sentence which Duchamp literally inscribed in black paint on the back of the lower panel of the Large Glass: LA MARIÉE MISE À NU PAR/SES CÉLEBITAIRES, MÊME/Marcel Duchamp/1915-1923/inachevé. Through this explicit act of inscription Duchamp is doing much more than simply emphasizing the title’s role in the painting; he is foregrounding the fact that the title functions not as a sign (in the Saussurean sense) but as a type of signifying structure, a verbal inscription which is part of the picture, on the same level as the visual inscriptions. This might well have been what was meant by his insistence that “I always gave an important role to the title, which I added and treated like an invisible colour.” (59) This is also why it is Žižek who appears to offer the most precise description of the Duchampian title when he writes:

In this case the relation between the picture and its title is not the usual one whereby the title corresponds simply to what is depicted […] Here the title is, so to speak, on the same surface. It is part of the same continuity as the picture itself. Its distance from the picture is strictly internal, marking an incision into the picture. (60)

The basic point is that, in Duchamp’s titles, we encounter the Žižekian re-conceptualization of Lacan’s master signifier in its purest form.(61) Given that the title [“sad-young-man-on-a-train,” “JEUNE-HOMME-TRISTE-DANS-UN-TRAIN”] cannot be said to designate or represent the motif in question, one can logically conclude that the man on the train is the central absence around which the picture is constructed: the motif is, in Žižekian terms, the missing representation for which the title is a metaqua signifiersubstitute. The title is only part of the painting in so far as it fills the central hole in the painting. It should therefore be understood not as a sign but as a signifying structure – an inscription – which holds the place of that which is lacking; namely, the scene whose exclusion is the condition which constitutes the painting as a field of representation. Duchamp even suggests as much when, in response to the question “is the man you?”, he admits that “of course the sad young man on the train is myself.” However, he immediately qualifies this statement by referring not to the painting but to “the occasion of a train trip I took from Paris to see my family in Rouen […] in October 1911” when the idea of the painting came to him.(62) He is here referring to the actual scene – the missing representation – which is nowhere to be seen in the work; the scene is significant because it marks the important point in Duchamp’s development: when he came upon “the idea of using the movement as one of the elements” of a painting. (63) It is in this way that the title of the work functions as a master signifier par excellence: it does not call to mind or represent the idea of the sad young man; rather, it is inscribed into the field as the element which holds the place of that which is lacking. It is the reflexive marker which constitutes the painting as a totality (as a field of representation) by holding the place of a central void.

The “Lacanian” logic of Duchamp’s titles becomes even more evident when we consider the rapid development of his work before and during his stay in Munich. During this period, his titles clearly take on an even more explicit metaqua signifierstatus: “Two Nudes, One Strong and One Swift,” “The King and the Queen Traversed by Nudes at High Speed,” “The King and the Queen Traversed by Swift Nudes,” “The King and the Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes,” “Virgin No. 1,” “Virgin No. 2,” “The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride.” In this series of works, the effect produced in “Sad Young Man” is driven to its extreme limit: the fact that the motifs are nowhere to be seen merely emphasizes the workings of the title, its status as what might be (retroactively) termed a Lacanian signifier. The procedure finds its most acute formulation in Duchamp’s final work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even: it is only when we recognize that the name “Bride” clearly does not point to any identifiable object in the picture (“Where is the ‘Bride’ designated by the title?”) our attachment to the “painting’s” content is disrupted and our attention is drawn to the title itself, to the act of inscription as a signifying operation. It becomes immediately clear that the word “Bride,” rather than pointing to the opaque forms in the picture, functions instead as the element holding the place of a missing representation, the central emptiness around which the picture is constructed.

The problem, however, is that this Žižekian (Lacanian) dimension of Duchamp’s work remains obscured by the fact that the current misunderstanding of the precise role and status of Duchamp’s titles is supported by a fundamental error in perspective. The viewer continues to see the title The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even as a sign designating the Large Glass, despite the fact that Duchamp constantly drew a division between the two.(64) Due to an excessive investment in the work’s representational content, a belief that the signified-content produced by the workings of the title somehow persists as the intrinsic or immutable essence of the object, the true logic of the title is obscured. It is this excessive movement beyond the purely phenomenal qualities of the Large Glass, which accounts for the work’s magical aura, the power of fascination which, to this day, it continues to exert. By aesthetically fetishizing the object, we miss Duchamp’s basic point that “afterward there is no mystery – it’s a pure logical conclusion.” (65)

Once again, de Duve appears to fall into this trap when, in reflexively acknowledging the role of the title, he reveals the underlying assumption supporting his argument that, rather than taking the place of what is clearly absent from the painting, the title represents a certain signified-idea. What comes to the fore in his insistence that “the woman is so obvious in Duchamp’s works, openly announced in their titles: Virgin, Bride, Stripped Bare, and so on” is, I maintain, a fundamentally post-structuralist conceptualization of language which is completely opposed to the Lacanian position he purports to adopt. Despite claiming to read Duchamp’s work on the basis of Lacan’s notion of the signifier, it is clear that de Duve, to use Žižek’s terminology, still finds reason to retain the mask of the Saussurean sign: he sees content as that which is “announced” by the title; the title designates a “real referent”; it “expresses” and “proclaims” its signified.(66)

It could be argued that Duchamp, in his efforts to foreground the status and role of his titles, was actively taking this perspectival error into account in advance. Indeed, if we focus on the evolution of the visual plane of his work, we can see how he may have been attempting to break the viewer’s excessive attachment to the object-referent (the painting): his progressive reduction of the image to no more than compositional arrangement of lines on a flat, opaque surface, is aimed at reinforcing an obstacle blocking the viewer’s engagement with representational content. However, it is also important to note how the increased distortion of the motif in Duchamp’s work runs directly parallel to an increased emphasis on the literary (metaphorical) nature of his titles. By reducing the motif to a set of opaque forms forming part of a specific point-to-point configuration, Duchamp breaks the viewer’s misplaced investment in the painting’s content; the crucial point is that he does so in order to underline the fact that the painting is a fundamentally symbolic mechanism. By staging a distortion in the field of visual representation – an obstacle between the viewer-subject and the painting-object – he draws attention to the signifying structure which supports the field itself: how, in effect, it is the workings of the title which provoke the viewer’s frantic search for an identifiable motif. It is only when we read the sentence “sad-young-man-on-a-train” that we attempt to move beyond the opacity of the work’s appearance towards what Erwin Panofksy called the world of “artistic motifs.” (67)

The development of Duchamp’s style could thus be viewed as a repeated effort to reinforce this effect by reducing the operation to its fundamental structure: “reduce, reduce, reduce was my thought – but at the same time my aim was turning inward, rather than toward externals.”(68) The point of culmination is, of course, the Large Glass where the effect is driven to its most extreme point: “And later, following this view, I came to feel that an artist might use anything – a dot, a line, the most conventional or unconventional symbol– to say what he wanted to say. The “Nude,” in this way, was a direct step to the Large Glass.” (69) In front of the Glass we are left with no option but to subtract all excessive investment in the object’s representational content, all fascination with the work’s magical “it.” In doing so, we make the crucial step toward “regions more verbal”: we shift our perspective away from the object and towards the symbolic (“conceptual”) inscription that supports the visual (“retinal”) field.

Such a perspectival shift allows for a radical definition of Duchamp’s notion of “movement.” Consider, for instance, his strange insistence that, in “Sad Young Man,” there are “two parallel movements corresponding to each other”: “first, there is idea of the movement of the train, and then that of the sad young man.” (70) The question which must be asked is this: why, if Duchamp is referring to the painting’s representational content, does he say that the movement of the train comes before that of the man when, normally, the identification of the motif (“man”) would logically come before that of the idea (“train”)? It is only by subtracting our fascination with the painting’s content – by giving up all attempts to identify the “man” and the “train” – that the answer becomes evident: the only conditions under which the movement of the “train” can come before that of the “man” is if Duchamp, rather than referring to the object-motif, is actually speaking about the effects of signification created by the title, the fact that, in the chain of signifiers [“sad-young-man-on-a-train”], “train” is the last element.

From our Lacanian-Žižekian viewpoint, it is the “movement” triggered by the title – the viewer’s movement beyond the surface of the painting, his efforts to overcome the obstacle posed by the image of a figure broken into a series of converging lines – which concerns Duchamp. In other words, he is not referring to the movement of the man or the train but that of the viewer: he or she who falls into the trap (illusion) of reaching beyond the work’s physical appearance in an attempt to grasp some identifiable motif. It can thus be argued that the title generates the viewer’s movement beyond the realm of the painting’s purely formal co-ordinates, a frantic search for “movement” in the painting. (71)

Based on this revised understanding of Duchamp’s notion of “movement,” one might argue that his work gives physical form to the what Lacan termed the retroactive production of meaning: the way the signified (the meaning created by the title) “stays behind” in the object (the painting) because it is produced retroactively, created “après-coup”; that is, when the chain of (signifying) elements in the title has been supplemented, supported, and “quilted” by the intervention of an empty name. This operation becomes explicit if we focus closely on the precise working of the title in “Sad Young Man”. Note how it is only with the last word in the title (train) that the relations between the words which precede it become fixed, and meaning is retroactively produced. “Train,” in other words, plays the role of the pure signifier: the reflexive marker which supplements and unifies the series [“sad-young-man-on-a”] chain thereby constituting it as a field within which metonymical relations between words begin to operate. In other words, it is only with the last word that the relations between the words in the chain are fixed and meaning is created; it is only with the last word that the “movement” of the viewer on the visual plane is generated.

Duchamp himself suggests as much with the curious remark that “the young man is sad because there is a train that comes afterward.(72) The choice of the term “afterward” draws our attention to the fact that the word “train” comes after the series “sad-young-man.” This, in turn, underlines the position of the word “train” within the chain of signifiers and emphasizes the fact that meaning is produced after the sentence is unified by the last element. Similarly, in the Large Glass it is clear that meaning is produced retroactively; that is, when one reaches the end of the sentence. This is why it is Lacan who offers a perfect description of the work’s title through what he called “the diachronic function of this button tie” at the level of the sentence: “insofar as a sentence closes the signification with its last term, each term being anticipated in the construction by the other terms and, inversely, sealing their meaning by its retroactive effect.” (73) In short, it is the last term – the addition of the adverb “même” – which seals the sentence and totalizes the chain which precedes it by grounding the metonymical relations between the words in the chain. As with the word “train,” “même” functions as a Lacanian signifier par excellence, the purest form of the “the dogmatic stupidity proper to the signifier as such.”(74) As Duchamp explains:

Words interested me; and the bringing together of words to which I added a comma and “even,” an adverb which makes no sense, since it relates to nothing in the picture or title. Thus it was an adverb in the most beautiful demonstration of adverbness. It has no meaning. This “antisense” interested me a lot on the poetic level, from the point of view of the sentence….In English, too, “even” is an absolute adverb; it has no sense. All the more possibility of stripping bare. It’s a “non-sense.” (75)

It is important here to note Duchamp’s insistence that Sad Young Man on a Train “already showed my intention of introducing humour into painting, or, in any case, the humour of word play: triste, train…‘Tr’ is very important.”(76)

In Žižekian terms, the “tr” is the crucial feature which grounds the empty, self-reflexive nature of the title, the status of the title as a pure signifier. This operation reaches its most extreme point when the “tr” of train is replaced by the word “même” and the performative, tautological dimension of the signifier, is exposed. This effort to openly stage the performative (metaphorical) and, ultimately, tautological dimension of language also gives new meaning to what Duchamp refers to as the “literary” use of the title, or the poetic use of words: “titles in general interest me a lot […] at the time, I was becoming literary. Words interested me […].”(77) However, he maintains that, while his work might be called “literary,” his use of words is “not entirely literary”: it was “much deeper than literary” because “it’s using words, but then everything that uses words is not necessarily literary, as you know.” (78) Duchamp was referring here to “the poetic aspect” of the words, the way in which the common assumption that a word simply pointed to an object was fundamentally challenged: “I wanted to give ‘delay’ a poetic sense that I couldn’t even explain. It was to avoid saying ‘a Glass painting,’ ‘a Glass drawing,’ ‘a thing drawn on Glass,’ you understand?”(79) For Duchamp, “poetic words” are the opposite of words which have an “essential concept”; they are, he explains, “words distorted by their sense” (80) which create “an explosion in the meaning of certain words” so that “they have a greater value than their meaning in the dictionary.”(81) What this explosion ultimately calls attention to is “the intellectual side of things,” to the symbolic-conceptual dimension of the object, to “regions more verbal.” (82)

It is at this point that the full weight of the parallel between Lacan and Duchamp is felt. What is significant is the way Duchamp’s statements on poetry have very close resonances with Lacan’s and Žižek’s claim that the poetic act of naming ultimately displays what can, retroactively, be termed a psychoanalytic understanding of language: an attempt to name the “unnameable X” in the object through “tautological pseudo-explanations”(83) which themselves ground the tautological nature of the naming process itself. Indeed, is it not a “certain systematic and deliberate use of the signifier as such”(84) that becomes apparent in Duchamp’s series of puns? By reducing language to the zero-level of a tautology, does a pun not openly stage the “poetic” dimension of language, the dogmatic stupidity of the signifier?

While the answers to these questions are beyond the scope of this paper it is worth repeating that, for Lacan, the act of staging the logic of the signifier finds its purest form in the poetic act of naming. This is his point in Seminar VII when he discusses the importance of the technique adopted in the phenomenon of courtly love within the context of the psychoanalytic process. It is thus significant that Duchamp consistently relates his approach to the use of titles to the poetic tradition: “it was the poetic aspect of the words that I like […] it was really poetic, in the most Mallarméan sense of the word, so to speak.” (85) The Duchampian notion of “humour” – as with the term “movement” – can thus be fundamentally redefined along Lacanian lines. Directly echoing Lacan’s description of the “amusing side” of courtly love – which “has perhaps no other cause than the semantic confusion produced’ by the use of metaphor” (86) – Duchamp continuously refers to his use of titles in terms of humour: it was, he notes, “amusing to try.”(87)

The crucial concluding point is that, while the encounter between Duchamp and Lacan in front of Courbet’s L’Origine du monde remains the only corroborating evidence to support the direct influence of Lacan over Duchamp and vice versa, the fact remains that Lacan developed his theory of the signifier through an analysis of the very source from which Duchamp’s radical use of titles emerged – that is, a particular poetic understanding of language that can, after the fact, be understood through a psychoanalytic lens. From this departure point Duchamp’s oeuvre and Lacan’s theoretical apparatus open themselves up to the possibility of radical transformation whereby, to cite the mediator of the message, both thinkers “may simultaneously redeem themselves, shedding their old skins and emerging in a new unexpected shape.”(88)


1. Benjamin Buchloh, introduction to The Duchamp Effect: Essays, Interviews, Round Table, ed. Martha Buskirk and Mignon Nixon (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 4

2. Rosalind Krauss, “Notes on the Index,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984), 197.

3. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde, 202.

4. Krauss leaves the reader with little doubt as to the extent of her debt to Lacan when, in the opening chapter of The Optical Unconscious, she outlines the specifics of her theoretical position. Her argument begins with the thesis that modernism is a fundamentally visual field in which the “the fundamentals of perception,” the opposition between figure/ground and not-figure/not-ground, are constantly maintained (Ibid., 14). To demonstrate this point she maps the topology of modernism onto the structuralist graph developed by the Klein Group and asks: how does one trace an “alternative history, one that had developed against the grain of modernist opticality” (Ibid., 20), one that rose out of modernism to “defy its logic”? (Ibid., 21). The task Krauss sets herself, in other words, is to trace an opposing trend in modernism, one which instead of being “contained by the terms of visual perception” (Ibid., 14) functions as a “statement of this containment” (Ibid., 15). What Krauss attempts to identify is a shift in which the opposition figure/ground is both preserved and cancelled, an inversion in the fundamentals of perception which unveils “the structure of the visual field as such” (Ibid., 15), what she calls “vision as a form of cognition” (Ibid., 16). In order to map the logic of this counterhistory, Krauss locates what she sees as its practical and theoretical poles: it is Duchamp’s decision to give up work on the Large Glass, she ventures, which indicates a possible starting point; and it is Lacanian psychoanalysis which marks a conceptual foundation. She writes: “The theorists of this refusal were Bataille and Breton, Caillois and Leiris, with in the background, Freud. And in the foreground, Dali linked through one arm and Caillois through the other, there was Lacan. Lacan, it struck me, provided the key to this refusal, a way of giving it a name(Ibid., 22; my emphasis).

5. Ibid., 112.

6. Ibid., 112. Krauss’s arrives at this statement by way of supplementing the semiotic graph used by the “structuralists” with Lacan’s L schema: a model which shows the subject “as an effect of the unconscious” (Ibid., 23). This move allows Krauss to map the figure/ground axis in the visual logic of modernism onto Lacan’s conceptual categories (the ego, the object, the subject and the Other) thus providing theoretical justification for the counterhistory which frames her analysis of Duchamp’s late work. It is Lacan’s shema, she writes, which “displays the diagnol, mirroring relationships” lacking from the structuralist graph, the co-ordinates which “map the way the ego identifies with its object.” There is, she definitively declares, “no mistaking it” (Ibid., 23).

7. Thierry De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 4.

8. De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, 31. In the book’s opening chapter, which is entitled ‘Art and Psychoanalysis, Again?’ and is framed by a quotation from Lacan, de Duve presents an overview of the long tradition in psychoanalytic readings of art and asks: “of what use can psychoanalytic interpretation be in the constitution of a historical ‘narrative’ récit of art?” His response, much like that of Krauss, is clear and definite: “the time at which the question is being asked must be explicit: that time is today” (Ibid., 1). He is equally unambiguous when he explains that his attempt to bring the two “incommensurable historicites” (Ibid., 5) of art and psychoanalysis into a parallel relation – a method which, he claims, is unlike “applied psychoanalysis” and “psychoanalytic aesthetics” in that it neither presupposes a strict adherence to Freudian doctrine nor burdens itself “with any equally a priori critical suspicion” (Ibid., 7) – is made on the basis of a simple hypothesis: that the “truth-function that Duchamp’s work […] brings to light” resonates with the fundamental premises of Lacanian theory. He writes: “And behind these artistic and theoretical resonances one hears the voice of Lacan, who, more than anyone, authorized this sort of reading and established it, epistemologically. This is what interests me here. One will soon see the important place I reserve for Lacan in the exercise of parallelism that follows” (Ibid., 8-9; my emphasis).

9. De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, 78-9. He arrives at this analysis through his heuristic parallelism: an “explicit point-by-point comparison” (Ibid., 67) between Duchamp’s Munich painting The Passage from Virgin to Bride and Freud’s famous “injection dream”. The crucial point worth emphasizing here is that this comparison relies on Lacan’s specific reading of the dream in question, such that de Duve’s interpretation of Duchamp’s work is ultimately vectored through the lens of Lacan’s conceptual categories, the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary (Ibid., 69).

10. Paola Magi, Treasure Hunt with Marcel Duchamp (Milan: Edizioni Archivio Dedalus, 2011), 11.

11. Indeed, it is to Lyotard’s topological analysis of the specular “dispositif” at work in Étant Donnés that Krauss refers in her own Lacanian reading of the work. Similarly, de Duve cites Lyotard’s 1969 essay on the “Principal Trends in the psychoanalytic Study of Artistic and Literary Expression” as the most recent moment of “breaching” in the history of post-Freudian aesthetics, to which de Duve responds by asking “what use can we make today of the relation of psychoanalysis to art?” Situating his own contribution within this tradition and in relation to Lyotard’s work he writes: “the method that I propose here has bully broken with an attitude of reciprocal deconstruction that characterizes the second-to-last moment of the double breaching of art and psychoanalysis, as narrated in Lyotard’s 1969 essay. If my method produces any results, they should remain valued even if a later breaching of the Freudian corpus carries the relation of art to psychoanalysis to yet unsuspected shores.” De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, 2-3, 7.

12. Joan Copjec, editorial for “Aesthetics & Sublimation”, Unbr(a): A Journal of the Unconscious 1 (1999): 4.

13. Alain Badiou, “Some Remarks Concerning Marcel Duchamp,” The Symptom 9, (2008)

14. Marcel Duchamp: Étant Donnés, ed. Michael R. Taylor (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009), 112.

15. Thierry Savatier, L’Origine du monde: Histoire d’un tableau de Gustave Courbet (Paris: Bartillat, 2006), in Taylor (ed.), Marcel Duchamp, 127.

16. Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1996), 460

17. Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, 108.

18. Anne d’Harnoncourt and Walter Hopps, “Etant Donnés: 1. La chute d’eau; 2. Le gaze d’éclairage: Reflections on a New Work by Marcel Duchamp,” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 64, nos. 299-300 (April-September 1969): 6-41.

19. Marcel Duchamp, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (London: Da Capo Press, 1979), 25.

20. Duchamp, Dialogues, 38.

21. Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 2008), xxx.

22. Hal Foster, “What’s New About the Neo Avant Garde,” The Duchamp Effect: Essays, Interviews, Round Table,, ed. Martha Buskirk and Mignon (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 5-32. For a full elaboration of this thesis see Robert Kilroy, Marcel Duchamp: Resolving the Word/Image Problematic, Afterthought, unpublished doctoral thesis, Department of French, School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, Trinity College Dublin, 2014.

23. Žižek, The Sublime Object, xxx.

24. Badiou, “Some Remarks Concerning Marcel Duchamp,” 2008.

25. For a full elaboration of this point see Robert Kilroy, “Re-Framing the Real: Duchamp’s Readymade as a Lacanian Object,” in Preservation, Radicalism and the Avant-Garde Canon, ed. Rebecca Ferreboeuf, Fiona Noble, and Tara Plunkett (London: Palgrave Macmillon, 2016), 133-152. See also Robert Kilroy, “Facebook: The Central Place of the Lacanian Clinic,” Lacunae: APPI International Journal for Lacanian Psychoanalysis Vol. 3, no. 11 (2015): 1–22.

26. Žižek, The Sublime Object, vii.

27. This assertion is based on the following statement made by Žižek in the updated preface to his seminal 1989 work The Sublime Object of Ideology: “When a discipline is in crisis, attempts are made to change or supplement its theses within the terms of its basic framework – a procedure one might call ‘Ptolemization’ […] But the true ‘Copernican’ revolution takes place when, instead of just adding complications and changing minor premises, the basic framework itself undergoes a transformation […] the question to ask is always: is this truly a Copernican revolution, or merely a Ptolemization of the old paradigm?” Žižek, The Sublime Object, vii.

28. Marcel Duchamp in interview with Richard Hamilton and George Heard Hamilton, “Marcel Duchamp Speaks,” BBC – Third Program (series: Art, Anti-Art, ca. October 1959); issued as an audio tape by William Furlong (ed.), Audio Arts Magazine, Vol. 2, no. 4 (1976). For full audio see http://www.tate.org.uk/audio-arts/volume-2/number-4.

29. Charles Cramer, “Duchamp from Syntax to Bride: Sa Langue dans sa Joue,” Word & Image 13, no. 3 (July-September 1997): 279-303.

30. Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan (London: Granta, 2006), 18.

31. Marcel Duchamp, “The Creative Act,” Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michael Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (New York: Da Capo Press, 1973), 139.

32. Calvin Tomkins, Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews (New York: Badlands Unlimited, 2013), 62.

33. Ibid., 62.

34. Marcel Duchamp in Francis Steegmuller, “Duchamp: Fifty Years Later,” Show 3, no. 1 (February 1963): 2,. in Thierry De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade, trans. Dana Polan, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 191.

35. Duchamp, Dialogues, 83.

36. Ibid., 44.

37. Žižek, The Sublime Object, 106.

38. I have elsewhere discussed how this particular aspect of Žižekian theory relates to Duchamp’s work in “The Sublime Object of Iconology: Duchampian Appellation as Žižekian Interpellation,” Seachange: Art, Communication, Technology, International Online Journal (Montreal: McGill University, 2016). I argue that a Žižekian reading of Duchamp’s titles allows us to rethink Duchamp’s oeuvre as a radical form of ideology critique. For the purposes of this paper, however, my intention is to elaborate a Lacanian/Žižekian reading of Duchamp’s titles in more detail, by examining them outside their broader relation to the ideological parameters of the aesthetic field. In the bibliography I have included some works by Žižek which, although not directly cited, are included because they are germane to my brother arguments concerning Duchamp’s project. It is in The Fragile Absolute or Why is the Christian Legacy worth fighting for? (London: Verso, 2008), for example, that Žižek makes direct reference to Duchamp in the context of a distinctly Lacanian reading of the avant-garde tradition. It is the curious nature of his assessment of Duchamp – the fact that he overlooks what, according to his own theoretical framework, he should have been able to see – which I take as a departure point for my re-reading of Duchamp. It is in this way that my Žižekian reading of Duchamp functions primarily as a Duchampian reading of Žižek, an interrogation – via the Duchampian lens – of the aesthetic-iconological foundations of Lacanian thought, the very co-ordinates lacking from Zizek’s apparatus. A substantial elaboration of this argument is the subject of my forthcoming book entitled Duchamp with Zizek: Towards a Word/Image Parallax.

39. Slavoj Žižek, Interrogating the Real, ed. Rex Butler and Scott Stephens (London: Continuum, 2006), 186.

40. Žižek, The Sublime Object, 178.

41. Ibid., 113.

42. Ibid., 113. For a full elaboration of how, through Duchamp, the act of naming functions as a critique of the ideological structure of the aesthetic field see Kilroy, “The Sublime Object of Iconology” (2016).

43. Ibid., 177.

44. Ibid., 177, 172.

45. Ibid., 174, 172.

46. Krauss, Modernist Myths, 200.

47. De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, 78-9.

48. Žižek, The Sublime Object, 5.

49. De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, 125. While beyond the scope of this paper, it is worth noting here how this inherent limitation in de Duve’s reading of Lacan comes to manifest itself as an obvious contradiction in his ‘parallel’ approach: the fact that his efforts to escape the ideological pitfalls of the psychoanalytic position – its status as “an indecisive and even highly troubling epistemology” (Ibid., 3) – are undermined by the indecisive and highly troubling nature of the parallel method itself. De Duve maintains his approach affords him a critical distance towards the ideological tendencies inherent in a psychoanalytic study of art: “To put the problem this way is to ask what role ideology plays in art and in psychoanalysis and to imagine that ideology varies in an inverse relation to the truth function of art and analysis” (De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, 3). In other words, the “heuristic parallelism” provides a model which ensures that one remains “attentive to the truth-function that is at work in the two fields” (Ibid., 4). However, the very admission that “of course, as ‘parallel’ as my reading will be, I cannot help applying to Duchamp Freudian concepts (or others, Lacanian in particular)” (Ibid., 7) testifies to an obvious discrepancy between theory and practice, between what he claims to be doing and what he is actually doing. In the face of all rigorous attempts to avoid psychoanalytic essentialism, there is no getting away from the fact that he falls into the very position he seeks to escape. What this contradiction ultimately underlines is the significance of Žižek’s thesis regarding ideology, arrived at on the basis of his re-reading of Lacanian theory: that ideology functions not at the level of concepts (what people think they are doing) but in the form – or “socio-synthetic dimension” – of their activity (what they are actually doing). One might argue it is this paradox – what Žižek terms the “enlightened false consciousness” of postmodern scepticism – which governs the current paradigm in Duchamp Studies: that is to say, despite all efforts on the part of scholars to take into account “the distance between the ideological mask and the reality,” at the level of what one is doing one “still finds reason to retain the mask.” Žižek, The Sublime Object, 173-4, 15, 26, 28.

50. Ibid., 127.

51. Žižek, The Sublime Object, 177.

52. See Tomkins, Marcel Duchamp, 6, 4, 3.

53. Žižek, The Sublime Object, 173-174.

54. Here I will provide a more nuanced version of the analysis of the “Nude” which appears in “The Sublime Object of Iconology” by focusing on the work that precedes it, Sad Young Man on a Train (1911).

55. Duchamp, Dialogues, 29.

56. Duchamp in Tomkins, Duchamp, 76.

57. I can claim to have had personal experience of this phenomenon when, as an intern at the museum where Duchamp’s painting is held, I was repeatedly asked the same question by perplexed visitors: “where is the man on the train?” This question serves as the departure point in the aforementioned paper, “The Sublime Object of Iconology,” when it is discussed in relation to a curious joke made by Žižek in which he demonstrates the Lacanian logic of the signifier through reference to a viewer’s experience of a painting in a gallery.

58. Angelica Zander Rudenstine, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985).

59. Tomkins, Duchamp, 51.

60. Žižek, The Sublime Object, 179.

61. This thesis is expanded in Kilroy, “The Sublime Object of Iconology” where it serves as the basis for a re-reading of Duchamp’s readymade in terms of Žižek’s revised notion of ideology.

62. Tomkins, Marcel Duchamp, 76.

63. Duchamp, Dialogues, 130.

64. Is this not his aim when splitting the work into visual and verbal poles? He writes: “I wanted the album to go with the ‘Glass,’ and to be consulted when seeing the ‘Glass’, as I see it, it must not be ‘looked at’ in the aesthetic sense of the word. One must consult the book, and see the two together. The conjunction of the two things entirely removes the retinal aspect that I don’t like. It is very logical.” Duchamp, Dialogues., 42-3. By continuously grounding the text-image disjunction Duchamp calls attention to the fact that the visual (“retinal”) is governed by a symbolic (“conceptual”) structure, a point which is further underlined by the distinctive way he chooses to name each work: The Large Glass and The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.

65. Duchamp in Tomkins Duchamp, 211.

66. De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, 31-32.

67. Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York and London: Harper and Row, 1972), 5.

68. Duchamp, Writings, 124-5.

69. Duchamp, Writings, 124-5.

70. Duchamp, Dialogues, 29.

71. This the central claim in “The Sublime Object of Iconology”: that the “Nude” can be understood as the point where this movement becomes eroticized, when the frantic search for content becomes sexualized through the transformation of the motif from man to female object. Thus, when de Duve asserts that, with Duchamp’s Munich works, “erotic themes enter his work and never leave,” he misses the basic point that the themes in question are not “in the work” but are an effect of the title; thus, one could say that the eroticism in question is present at the very level of de Duve’s own activity: his own (mis-)recognition of erotic themes; his own movement beyond the opaque surface of the painting to the realm of representational content. See de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, 31.

72. Duchamp, Dialogues, 29.

73. Jacques Lacan, Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York and London: Norton & Company, 2006), 682.

74. Žižek, The Sublime Object, 103.

75. Duchamp, Dialogues, 40.

76. Ibid., 29.

77. Ibid., 40.

78. Duchamp with Hamilton, Audio Arts Magazine. Op. cit. note 28 above.

79. Duchamp, Dialogues, 40.

80. Ibid., 88-9.

81. Ibid., 16.

82. Duchamp, Writings, 141.

83. Slavoj Žižek, Less Then Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (London: Verso.
2012), 943.

84. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Dennis Porter (New York and London: Norton & Company), 148.

85. Duchamp, Dialogues, 40.

86. Lacan, Seminar VII, 150.

87. Duchamp, Dialogues, 29.

88. Žižek, The Sublime Object, viii.


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On “The Creative Act”

On “The Creative Act”

Julian Jason Haladyn

With art … the finitude of the sensible material becomes a support for the production of affects and precepts which tend to become more and more eccentred with respect to preformed structures and coordinates. Marcel Duchamp declared: “art is a road which leads towards regions which are not governed by time and space.” – Felix Guattari (1)

In his polemic text “The Creative Act,” Marcel Duchamp describes the act of creating art as consisting of a dialogue between the two poles (as he terms them) of the artist – the creator of the work – and the spectator, or more generally the posterity – the person or people who experience the work. For Duchamp, both of these subject positions are necessary in order to create a work of art, which must be seen to involve not just the making of the work but also its reception. This relationship is described most clearly in the concluding paragraph of the text, where he states: “the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act” (2). This understanding of art undermines the privileged position typically accorded the artist within modernity, who is most often perceived as the singular creator or “genius” behind great works of art. By suggesting that artists actively depend on the contributions of viewers in order for their work to be completed, Duchamp directly challenges the authority of artists over their art – and, by extension, the modern conception of art based upon this vision of the “genius” artist.

At the heart of Duchamp’s short text is, I propose, a fundamental questioning of the accepted parameters of the artist-viewer relationship that emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century with the modern conception of art and the museum. Whereas prevailing modernist theories assume the artist to be a position of privilege, marking a distinct perspective on the world that is the basic expression of their uniqueness or “genius” – a perspective that defines everything the artist produces precisely because it is produced by the artist – Duchamp’s vision of art is fundamentally based upon the relational interactions or dialogues of viewer and artwork, with the artist’s participation being mediumistic. “If we give the attributes of a medium to the artist,” he tells us, “we must then deny him the state of consciousness on the esthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is doing it” (3). Duchamp clarifies this position in an interview with Pierre Cabanne, where he states:

I believe very strongly in the “medium” aspect of the artist. The artist makes something, then one day, he is recognized by the intervention of the public, of the spectator; so later he goes on to posterity. You can’t stop that, because, in brief, it’s a product of two poles – there’s the pole of the one who makes the work, and the pole of the one who looks at it. I give the latter as much importance as the one who makes it. (4)

Rather than creating an artwork that is experienced by a spectator after it is completed, in Duchamp’s description the artist is positioned as a medium that produces works of art only with the participation of the spectator and, more important, the posterity (multiple spectators in multiple contexts) that historically recognizes the work as art. What Duchamp proposes is a dialogic artist-viewer relationship that is predicated on a psychological and affective transference, an important term he uses to describe the interaction between artist and spectator – and, in the more historical interpretation, between the past and present – through the material presence of the art object.

The purpose of my present text is two-fold. First, to argue for the significance of “The Creative Act” within modern artistic and cultural discourse, specifically examining Duchamp’s act of defining the relational subject positions of the artist and spectator that form the basis for his theory of art – which, I propose, can be applied to a more general consideration of the psychology of modern subjectivity. Second, to analyze Duchamp’s use of the word “transference” when he defines the workings of the creative act and to situate this Duchampian transference, a psychological notion based on subjective dialogue, in relation to the psychoanalytic understanding of the term. In this way my analysis approaches “The Creative Act” psychologically, considering the text primarily as a statement on art, not as an esoteric practice or discipline but rather as the basis of and material for a continuing artistic dialogue that takes place through the artist-artwork-viewer relationship.

Creating the Creative Act

It may be helpful to begin by outlining the circumstances in which Duchamp wrote and presented “The Creative Act,” an aspect of the text that is often overlooked. As one of only a few documents in which Duchamp clearly describes his understanding of the process of creating art – one might even say his philosophy of art – it is important that we consider the (practical) development of this text especially as it relates to and even reflects his practice as an artist.

In 1957, Duchamp was invited to give a talk at the American Federation of the Arts Convention in Houston, Texas. His acceptance of this invitation was likely motivated at least in part by the fact that the exhibition Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Marcel Duchamp was on view at The Museum of Fine Arts of Houston during this convention. Organized by James Johnson Sweeney, director of the Guggenheim, where the show was first presented, this exhibition brought together works by Duchamp and his two brothers – hence, it is often referred to as the “Three Brothers” exhibition. As Calvin Tomkins suggests, Duchamp was no doubt encouraged by Sweeney and “may have felt under some obligation to help promote” the exhibition (5). The show was of considerable importance to Duchamp, who actively participated in its planning as well as the design of the catalogue. His talk would in this way greatly aid in promoting the “Three Brothers,” the opening of which (on the evening of April 3) was included on the schedule of activities for the convention (6). Duchamp presented his paper on the morning of April 5 as part of a panel discussion that included Professor William Seitz (Art History, Princeton University), Professor Rudolf Arnheim (Psychology, Sarah Lawrence College), and Gregory Bateson (anthropologist). The topic for this panel was the creative act, with the title being directly adapted by Duchamp as the title of his paper – which was published in Art News the same year.

The approach that Duchamp takes in “The Creative Act” builds upon and extends his earlier theories of the role of the artist in society that he discussed at the Western Round Table on Modern Art, which took place at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1949 (7). Duchamp proposes two key ideas during the four sessions of the roundtable.

The first is the concept of what he terms the esthetic echo, which he compares to the notion of aesthetic taste:

Taste gives a sensuous feeling, not an esthetic emotion. Taste presupposes a domineering onlooker who dictates what he likes and dislikes, and translates it into beautiful and ugly when he is sensuously pleased or displeased. Quite differently, the “victim” of an esthetic echo is in a position comparable to that of a man in love or of a believer, who dismisses automatically his demanding ego and helplessly submits to a pleasurable and mysterious constraint. While exercising his taste, he adopts a commanding attitude, when touched by the esthetic revelation, the same man, almost in an ecstatic mood, becomes receptive and humble.… the man of taste trusts his pre-established likes and dislikes. The man who gets the esthetic shock – it’s a shock – is not master of himself. He submits and becomes humble (8).

The distinction Duchamp is suggesting between taste and the esthetic echo hinges on a question of the spectator’s subjective will, specifically whether or not an artwork is viewed passively or actively. Most people, according to Duchamp, respond to an artwork in a manner that generally conforms to preconceived interpretations, which often consist of culturally accepted opinions or shared perspectives (uncritically) reproduced by the viewer; this is what is meant by taste – which for Kant allows people a common means of judging and making communicable their subjective responses within a larger community. With taste, therefore, will is not a necessary component since one’s initial response of like or dislike is trusted. To experience the esthetic echo, however, the spectator must give up any commanding attitude over the artwork and actively be willing to engage in a dialogue with it, creating receptiveness beyond the mere apprehension of the work. Here Duchamp envisions the act of viewing as the possibility of using one’s will to create meanings that are not given.

The second major idea that Duchamp introduces at the 1949 roundtable is his belief that the artist and artwork must be treated as separate, a notion that – even after the Poststructuralist critique of the author – remains challenging to this day. Responding to a discussion about the artist’s recognition of when a work is complete, Duchamp adds: “We don’t emphasize enough that the work of art is independent of the artist. The work of art lives by itself and the artist who happened to make it is like an irresponsible medium. No artist can say at any time ‘I am a genius. I am going to paint a masterpiece.’ That is not done” (9). In this articulation of the artist as an irresponsible medium we can see the starting point for the main themes of “The Creative Act,” in which Duchamp presents a more focused argument for the mediumistic (as he terms it) quality of the artist and, by extension, his conception of the artwork as a creative experience that is distinct from the person who created it – a distinction that he leaves for the spectator to reconcile. For Duchamp, the artist cannot be responsible for what becomes of the artwork – how it may be interpreted or understood, whether it is appreciated or not – once it is sent out into the world, not unlike the idea that a medium such as paint or marble is not responsible for a painting or sculpture produced out of its materials.

It is important to note that Duchamp’s proposed view of the artist as an irresponsible medium is not simply an abstract theory but instead emerged directly out of his own experience as an artist. As Tomkins points out, there existed for Duchamp a “notable gap between his own intentions and the end results” of his various artistic projects, the eventual significance of which, from an art historical perspective, has little to nothing to do with Duchamp’s intentions – what W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley characterize as “the intentional fallacy” (10). This gap can be seen in the events surrounding his painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), which, after its scandalous success in the 1913 “International Exhibition of Modern Art” or (as it is better known) the “Armory Show” in New York City, represented a key turning point in his career. When this same painting was submitted a year before to the 1912 Salon des Indépendants it was regarded so poorly that his brothers, on behalf of the organizers, asked him to change the painting, which he instead withdrew from the exhibit – the entire demoralizing event precipitated his trip to Munich from June to October. Even after the work’s subsequent inclusion that same year in an exhibition of Cubist work at Galerie Dalmau in Barcelona and the “Section d’Or” exhibition in Paris, the painting was still not considered to be of much artistic importance in comparison to the innovativeness of his contemporaries. The American response to Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was a surprise to Duchamp, who would not realize his own success as an artist until his visit to New York in 1915 – a status he did not experience in France until much later and arguably never to the extent as in the United States (11). What was the difference between the painting that was “refused by the Indépendants” and “didn’t cause a stir” at Galerie Dalmau or in Section d’Or and the painting that became the succès de scandale of the Armory Show (12)? Through this discrepancy, Duchamp experienced first-hand how irresponsible his intentions as the work’s creator were in its reception.

On its most basic level, “The Creative Act” is Duchamp’s recognition and articulation of this gap between the artist’s intentions and the end result of the work as experienced by the spectator (and posterity). He defines the experiential discrepancy between these positions as the personal art coefficient, which can be seen “in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act” in which we can witness “the relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.” He continues: “To avoid a misunderstanding, we must remember that this ‘art coefficient’ is a personal expression of art ‘à l’état brut,’ that is, still in a raw state, which must be ‘refined’ as pure sugar from molasses, by the spectator” (13). The emphasis on the spectator’s role as refiner of the raw artistic product of the artist serves to clarify the distinction Duchamp is highlighting, particularly in terms of understanding different receptions of a work of art by different groups of people – and, as was the case with Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, to radically different ends. (No one interpretation is correct or incorrect, according to Duchamp, although he makes it clear that posterity provides what he calls the final verdict.) From his own experience as an artist Duchamp recognized that judging works of art is ultimately and almost exclusively the responsibility of the spectator, with the artist becoming a type of medium out of or through which the work is created (14). The different and even contradictory responses elicited by an artwork represent the overdetermined nature of the creative act, which, as Duchamp came to see it, necessarily involved a dialogic relationship between the artist (as medium) and spectator through the work of art.

The significance of Duchamp’s conception of the artist as mediumistic cannot in my opinion be overemphasized, especially when considered not just a theory of art but also a theoretical critique of modern notions of authorship – and the modern subject more generally. In fact, with “The Creative Act” Duchamp anticipates the Poststructuralist interrogation of the author performed most powerfully in Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” and Michel Foucault’s “What Is an Author?” (published in 1967 and 1969 respectively). Let us therefore examine “The Creative Act” in relation to two key areas of overlap: first, Barthes’ and Duchamp’s critical shifts in focus from the authority of the author to that of the reader-spectator; second, the manner in which Foucault and Duchamp divide or split the role of the “author” and “artist” (respectively) to challenge the perceived unity given to the author-artist position in modernity. In addition to explicitly connecting Duchamp’s analysis of the artist with the examinations of the author performed by Bathes and Foucault, an important goal of this comparison is to locate Duchamp’s ideas within the larger critical investigation of the author question that pervades twentieth century discourse, a category of inquiry in which (surprisingly) “The Creative Act” is not typically examined.

The Birth of the Reader-Spectator

In “The Death of the Author,” Barthes questions the significance of the author’s role in understanding or approaching a text. His critique focuses on the manner in which the author is used as a given in the reading of a text, treated as the natural origin or source that the reader is supposed to uncover in order to experience the “true” meaning of the work. “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing,” Barthes tells us (15). Earlier in the essay he notes that this overt focus on the author as a key interpretive position is a distinctly modern way of examining texts, pointing to (but not explicating) the history of interpretation that pre-dates the nineteenth century. M. H. Abrams describes this development in his influential
The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition:

The pragmatic orientation, ordering the aim of the artist and the character of the work to the nature, the needs, and the springs of pleasure in the audience, characterized by far the greatest part of criticism from the time of Horace through the eighteenth century…. Gradually, however, the stress was shifted more and more to the poet’s [author’s] natural genius, creative imagination, and emotional spontaneity, at the expense of the opposing attributes of judgment, learning, and artful restraints. As a result the audience gradually receded into the background, giving place to the poet himself, and his mental powers and emotional need, as the predominant cause and even the end and test of art. (16)

It is this shift of orientation from audience to author that Barthes objects to, proposing a form of reversal in which it is the author who is required to recede into the background of a text, giving place to the audience or reader as the predominant cause and even the end and test of art. Or, as Barthes dramatically proclaims in the final statement of his essay, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author” (17).

In spite of the forcefulness of his title, the main target of Barthes’ critique is not strictly speaking the role of the “author” (as writer or creator of a text) – a role that he necessarily participates in and even celebrates and enjoys throughout his writing – but rather with the excessive privileging of the author’s authority over the text. At no point is this “death” equated with the elimination or disappearance of the author position, in theory or practice; what disappears is the privileged autonomy associated with the role of the author in modernity. Barthes replaces the designation “author” with what he terms the scriptor, which, although it excludes the “passions, humours, feelings, impressions” – that is, the personal or subjective qualities of the writer – typically associated with the Romantic vision of the author (as genius or author-god), still maintains a similar position in relation to the text (18). Even a cursory examination of his substitution of “scriptor” for “author” demonstrates this overlap since, quite literally, scriptor is the Latin word for a writer, scribe, or author; beginning in his 1953 Writing Degree Zero, Barthes uses this alternative categorization to describe the act of writing in which the writer can no longer claim presence within what is written. He is therefore not removing or killing the author, as commentators often claim (19), but instead is proposing an understanding of authorship that is again more akin to a pre-nineteenth century orientation that privileges the reader’s relation to the text. In the most extreme interpretation, Barthes’ scriptor is an author reduced to the function of a scribe or copyist that merely re-produces texts by drawing upon an immense dictionary of existing or ready-made cultural material, as a result of which there is no claim to personal expression or originality.

Here we can see a direct parallel between Barthes’ conception of the author as scriptor and Duchamp’s description of the artist as medium. In both cases there is an active de-privileging of the modernist authorial relation between the author-artist and their work, which is replaced by a renewed focus on the reader-spectator’s authority in disentangling, making sense of and even completing the text. This is made clear by Duchamp’s assertion that the spectator contributes to the creation of a work of art by interpreting its inner qualifications; and by Barthes, who in S/Z states: “What is at stake in literary work (in literature as work) is making the reader no longer a consumer but a producer of a text” (20). For Duchamp and Barthes the role of the reader-spectator is vital to addressing the author question, the critical evaluation of which depends upon understanding a text not just as the product of an author-artist but also, and more important, as a social space or language (textual or visual) that invites engagement (present and future).

The specific position granted the reader-spectator in relation to the text, however, is quite different in each of their two accounts. On the one hand, Duchamp argues that the spectator (or posterity) is responsible for the final evaluation and interpretation of what an artist creates, locating spectators within the creative process by making them the determining factors – particularly through the shared experience of multiple spectators – in the social and historical constitution of a work of art. As he states: “The creative act takes another aspect when the spectator experiences the phenomenon of transmutation; through the change from inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubstantiation has taken place, and the role of the spectator is to determine the weight of the work on the asthetic scale” (21). The power of the Duchampian spectator is in this way directly based upon an aesthetics of subjective judgment, with individual spectators being called upon to interpret and share what they experience. On the other hand, Barthes clearly disavows the manifestly subjective aspects of the reader (as person) and instead proposes the birth of a position that quite literally structures the received text, which is experienced most fully by readers who deny their own (as well as the author’s) pathological interest in order to engage with the text in-itself. According to Barthes:

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. (22)

Barthes’ reader occupies the fundamental position in which the multi-dimensional aspects of a text are given unity, the result not of an individual reader’s subjective experience but rather the act of being the text’s destination. The distinction between “The Death of the Author” and “The Creative Act” can in this way be summed up as follows. While Barthes depersonalizes the role of the reader-spectator, which he declares is without history, biography and most significantly psychology, Duchamp celebrates the subjective abilities of reader-spectators to engage in a personal dialogue with a text, deciphering it through acts of individual judgment.

On an historical level, it is important to acknowledge the fact that “The Death of the Author” was first published in the 1967 double issue of the American journal Aspen, no. 5/6, designed and edited by Brian O’Doherty. In place of a traditional bound publication, O’Doherty produced a white box containing a series of loose texts (in the most general sense of the term), a format that, as he – or, more accurately, his pseudonym Sigmund Bode – writes, “constitutes a test for the reader” (23). Translated into English by Richard Howard, Barthes’ text was printed as an eight-inch square pamphlet that also included essays by George Kubler and Susan Sontag. While planning Aspen, no. 5/6, O’Doherty contacted Barthes about contributing to the project:

Barthes was in Philadelphia at that time and he came to New York to talk about the project. He got it immediately. My notion that art, writing etc., was produced by a kind of anti-self that had nothing to do with whoever “me” was, an excellent preparation for our conversation. He said “I think I may have something for you.” When “The Death of the Author” arrived, I knew it was revolutionary. (24)

Written (at least in part) for Aspen, no. 5/6 – with the more often cited French version appearing the following year in the journal Mantéia – Barthes’ text reflects the critical issues of authorship that are enacted through the dialogic interplay of materials in this box. The significance of Barthes writing “The Death of the Author” for this project is heightened when we consider that it appears alongside an audio recording of Duchamp reading “The Creative Act” (presented on one of several records found in the box). Given O’Doherty’s overall interest in Duchamp and his work, as well as the obvious parallels between Aspen, no. 5/6 and Duchamp’s Box-in-a-Valise (1935-41), it is more than likely that Barthes was (or became) aware of “The Creative Act” when he wrote “The Death of the Author.”

Questioning the Author-Artist

Following in the wake of Barthes’ text is the presentation of Foucault’s influential lecture “What Is an Author?” at the Collège de France in 1969, which he published as an essay the same year in Bulletin de la Société Français de Philosophie. Similar to “The Death of the Author,” Foucault’s essay confronts the overt privileging of the author’s authority over the text within modernity. But where Barthes focuses on articulating a death or disappearance of the author in order to refocus discussion on the significance of the reader – formulating a type of either/or – Foucault actively draws attention back to the (admittedly) problematized authorial position or function, examining what he terms the author-function:

It is obviously insufficient to repeat empty slogans: the author has disappeared; God and man died a common death. Rather, we should re-examine the empty space left by the author’s disappearance; we should attentively observe, along its gaps and fault lines, its new demarcations, and the reapportionment of this void; we should await the fluid functions released by this disappearance. (25)

Here we see a subtle acknowledgement of Barthes’ text, which Foucault critiques by inferring that the “death of the author” is an empty slogan. While accepting the basic premise that the author (in the modernist sense) is no longer at the center of a given text or group of texts, this disappearance for Foucault is not the end of the author question but instead represents his point of departure for examining a simple yet vital problem: what is it that occupies the position once reserved for the author? No longer the end and test of art (to borrow Abrams’ description), the term “author” has become an open question in relation to the text that is understood at one and the same time as the author’s and not the author’s – a contradiction that Foucault makes clear from the outset he recognizes in his own writing, grounding his analysis in a subjective framework.

This problematic can be described quite simply as a splitting of the author into two distinct roles: the individual who is responsible for the actual creation of a specific text and the authorial identity that, typically associated with a name, is used to designate the role of the text’s creator. In the first case we are talking about an individual who makes (physically and/or conceptually) a text, the author as person – for example, the “Michel Foucault” who wrote “What Is an Author?” among other texts, who was born in 1926 and died in 1984. In the second case we are referring to the functioning persona associated with the text, the “figure who is outside and precedes” the text and yet the “text apparently points to” – the “Michel Foucault” whose name, no longer tied to the life of the individual, historically authenticates “What Is an Author?” (26). Foucault’s concept of the author-function critically references this historical persona, what in Lacanian terms can be called the real author that gives authority and unity to a text on the level of history, a position that must be regarded as separate from the reality of the author who happens to have written the text. It is the often assumed correlation between these two roles, if not the outright and unquestioned belief in their similitude, that Foucault challenges through his examination of “the ‘author’ as a function of discourse,” a rational entity constructed around the (judicial) need for authority within modernity (27).

The division of the authorial position into personal and functional roles serves to highlight the inherent contradiction in the modern conception of the author-artist. If a person – and here we need to remember the consistent modernist claims (including Duchamp’s) that everyone can be or is an artist – were to actually embody and enact all of the qualities associated with the designation “author” or “artist,” this combination of (psychological) demands would foster what can only be described as a schizophrenic subjectivity. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari articulate a vision of this (irrational) entity in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia: “The schizophrenic is the universal producer. There is no need to distinguish here between producing and its product” (28). Interestingly enough, the framework of the book reflects this approach, which Foucault in his preface notes is informed “by seemingly abstract notions of multiplicities, flows, arrangements, and connections” that are best read and understood as an “art” (29). Such a play with language, in which contradictions are embraced rather than avoided or resolved, raises serious questions about the authority of the author-artist and by extension the authenticity or autonomy of the text as a source of (intrinsic) meaning.

In different but complimentary ways, Foucault and Duchamp each enact this playfulness by approaching language – which we will consider for now in the restricted sense of written language – not as a transparent medium of expression but rather as an open discursive space that is, as Foucault poetically writes, “an attempt to exhaust language” (30). We see this particularly in the authors Foucault chooses to focus on, which prominently include Friedrich Hölderlin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Raymond Roussel – Duchamp notably sharing an interest in Roussel – as well as in the development of his archaeological method of analysis that, stated simply, treats language as a stratified space into which we can dig. Duchamp’s use of language similarly serves not to clarify or describe but rather to carry the mind “towards other regions more verbal”; while specifically addressing the short texts he often inscribed on his readymades, this statement also speaks to his propensity for giving works complex or (to use Guillaume Apollinaire’s term) intellectual titles as well as his general interest in notes and puns (31). In both Foucault’s writing and Duchamp’s artistic practice, language – and here I propose we can extend its parameters to include not just written or spoken but also visual language – is an opportunity to make visible the contradictory functioning of the author-artist, a conflicted position that remains defined by its pathological need to exceed or even transcend itself (as seen throughout avant-garde practices).

For Duchamp, the schizophrenic quality of the modern author-artist is, as stated earlier, not just a theory but rather represents a philosophy of art developed directly out of his first-hand experience as a practicing artist. While the catalyst for Duchamp’s critique of the (privileged) role of the artist is likely the radically different responses to Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, it is the invention of the readymade that most powerfully manifests his critical perspective. To begin with, the term “readymade” should not be treated as a rigid artistic categorization that is seen as unifying all artworks under its banner but instead must, I propose, be understood as describing a (particularly modern) theoretical or philosophical artistic discourse (32). This is precisely why, as Thierry de Duve tells us, Duchamp’s “readymades are easily annexed by the deconstructionists as a proof of irrelevance or obsolescence with regards to the notion of authorship” – and why the art historical treatment of the readymade as an artistic (rather than philosophical) gesture ironically serves to strengthen the authorial role of the artist, of Duchamp’s in particular (33). The challenge posed by Fountain (1917), for example, is not simply the fact that it questions the categorical space of “art” but rather that, by taking the authority of the author-artist – and the institutionalization of this authority – too seriously, it makes visible inherent contradictions in the modernist discourse of art. Through the artist’s act of choosing an already-made and undifferentiated object, the readymade functions as “art” because it is, in Foucaultian terms, strategically situated in the breach separating the two roles of the author-artist, within the space opened by art historical discourse – the object, in this case a urinal, being experienced at one and the same time as a priori and a posteriori. (Or, following Deleuze and Guattari, as a lack of distinction between producing and its product .) We can even go so far as to call the readymade a schizophrenic form of art that is consistently involved with its own conflicted and contradictory character, a condition inaugurated through an exaggerated split between the psychology of the artist as (absent) person and the artist as a functioning discursive presence (as medium).

Here the overlap between Foucault’s conception of the author-function and Duchamp’s arguments for the mediumistic qualities of the artist can be seen most notably in their shared critique of the assumed singular or immediate unity attributed to the position of the modernist author-artist. “The author,” according to Foucault,

constitutes a principle of unity in writing where any unevenness of production is ascribed to changes caused by evolution, maturation, or outside influence. In addition, the author serves to neutralize the contradictions that are found in a series of texts. Governing this function is the belief that there must be – at a particular level of an author’s thought, of his conscious or unconscious desire – a point where contradictions are resolved, where the incompatible elements can be shown to relate to one another or to cohere around a fundamental and originating contradiction. (34)

This forced unity, which results from a failure to distinguish between the author as person or individual and the author as author-function, is a means of establishing the vision of a complete and autonomous discourse that is at one and the same time supported by and serves to demonstrate a stable site of subjectivity within modern culture. By arguing that the author is a function of discourse – rather than the other way around – Foucault undermines the perceived unity and authority of the “author” (or “artist”), which, rather than referring to a real individual, becomes a space that “simultaneously gives rise to a variety of egos and to a series of subjective positions that individuals of any class may come to occupy” (35). Without its unifying principle, however, the author-artist becomes little more then a mediumistic being that, as Duchamp notes, is not conscious of what is being created or why – a task that is instead entrusted to the reader-spectator, whose role is to accept or judge the “social value” of an artist-author’s work (36). This is a key consequence of giving the attributes of a medium to the author-artist: recognizing that the person who creates a text cannot occupy the author-function and therefore should be treated as separate from their work.

Duchampian Transference

The question becomes: if the artist is not wholly responsible for the creation of art, but is dependent upon the spectator’s engagement with the work, what is the means by which these two positions are able to fulfill the creative process? Duchamp similarly asks, if the artist “plays no role at all in the judgment of his own work, how can one describe the phenomenon which prompts the spectator to react critically to the work of art? In other words, how does this reaction come about?” His answer is quite significant: “This phenomenon is comparable to a transference from the artist to the spectator in the form of an esthetic osmosis taking place through the inert matter, such as pigment, piano or marble” (37). Of particular interest is his use of the term “transference” to describe the process of exchange between artist and spectator through the object of the artwork. This word choice can be read in two different but not mutually exclusive ways: first, the common usage in which one is referring to the act of transferring something and, second, the psychoanalytic understanding that describes the psychological process by which feelings, emotions, and even memories are unconsciously transferred or projected from one person onto another, typically an analyst in the clinical setting. (And, given his propensity for puns and other playful forms of using language, it is likely that both meanings are being employed simultaneously.) The aim of this final section is to consider the implications of Duchamp’s notion of transference within the process of the creative act, specifically as it relates to and extends the psychological and affective territories of psychoanalytic thought. Before considering this Duchampian transference – as I describe his particular approach – it is important that we first establish a basic understanding of transference as a concept.

“What are transferences?” Sigmund Freud writes in Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, “They are new editions or facsimiles of the tendencies and phantasies which are aroused and made conscious during the process of the analysis; but they have this peculiarity, which is characteristic of their species, that they replace some earlier person by the person of the physician” (38). Published in 1905, this early formulation proposes transference as a form of resistance to the analytic process on the part of the person being analyzed (the analysand), with the working through of the transference – by making oneself conscious of feelings or emotions rather than projecting them – representing a (potential) breakthrough in the analysis. An often-cited example is when patients transfer feelings of love onto their analyst, thereby stopping the analytic process until such time that this love can be recognized as belonging to a different object; this moment of conscious realization is for Freud a (if not the) cornerstone of psychoanalytic practice. Since its introduction, the concept of transference has continued to explore and extend as a tool of analysis and, more significantly for our purposes, as a more general operation that Melanie Klein suggests is evident “throughout life and influences all human relations” (39). It is through this expanded understanding of transference as a relational phenomenon applicable to everyday human relations that the concept, no longer restricted to the clinical setting, is able to be used as a vital concept for addressing the intersubjective exchanges that take place throughout modern life – with the relation of the author-artist and reader-spectator being a particular subset of this form of cultural analysis.

In the fourth chapter of Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp, Amelia Jones discusses Duchamp’s work through a psychoanalytic consideration of his (uncertain and chaotically eroticized) author-function, emphasizing the way his work plays out the relational qualities of transference through the creative exchange between artist and spectator via the artwork – which she treats as analogous to the clinical relationship of the analyst and analysand. Her (admittedly Lacanian) description of “transference” provides a valuable perspective on how we can approach Duchamp’s use of the term: “transference – this site where the struggle for meaning takes place via the spoken or written text that ‘represents’ the subject under analysis – is also the psychic site where both the analyst and analysand are constituted, in relation to each other, as meaningful subjects” (40). This definition characterizes transference as an enunciative space, both representational and psychic, in which the subjective struggle for meaning is articulated through two interconnected relationships. The first is the relation of the reader-spectator to the text being examined, with the reader-spectator performing a role similar to that of an analyst and the text being the subject under analysis. The second is the relation of the reader-spectator to the author-artist, with the author-artist in this case playing the role of analyst to the reader-spectator that is now in the position of the analysand.

Jones clarifies the workings of these two relationships by discussing, in a notably psychoanalytic tone, how she (as a spectator) personally functions within these relational positions when viewing the work of Duchamp. As the interpreter of his artworks, Jones notes that she is “the analyst and Duchamp is the narrative I produce from his enunciative ‘symptoms’ as meaningful.” Yet, as she continues:

I am also his analysand, subject to his texts, and he is my ego ideal. I transfer my desires and unconscious wishes onto him as authority – identifying with him so as to produce myself as full. The fantasy “Duchamp” promises to take the place of the lack for me, even as I “master” him through analysis. I interpret his works, yet they are always already interpreted by his own selections, the “secondary revisions” of enunciative production…. I make the attempt to master him so I can submit myself to his mastery: We are, so to speak, in a reciprocal dialectic of analytic transference. (41)

In this manner Jones reads her encounter with his work as a dual act of relational subjection in which she at one and the same time is constituted by and constitutes Duchamp’s work, a process that she directly compares to analytic transference. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that Jones re-frames the parameters of the transference relationship using Duchamp’s notion of the creative act. As she reveals through her analysis, the creative transference enacted in the artist-artwork-spectator relation is based within a series of interdependencies that are analogous to those found in the analyst-analysand relation of psychoanalytic transference; this correlation, far from drawing a mere parallel between discourses, actively demonstrates a fundamental discursive overlap on the inter-subjective or relational level.

This overlap may also account for Duchamp’s subtle but significant presence in the writings of Guattari, where the readymade serves (schizophrenically) as both exemplar and foil to his aesthetic theories. We see this particularly in his aesthetic paradigm, a re-envisioned form of analysis in which the psychology of modern subjectivity is examined through an aesthetic (rather than scientific) lens, a methodology that for Guattari, as Stephen Zepke observes, begins with the readymade – making “Duchamp the harbinger of a re-vitalized creative act” (42). Treated as both aesthetic and political, the readymade is seen as a language of creative enunciation that functions through an authorial and psychological refrain, privileging not the “origin” of a particular act, event or object but rather the complex subjective affects and emotions – what Guattari describes as a constellation of universes – that result from the relational interactions that the readymade facilitates. Here again we see evidence of the shared territory between clinical and cultural transferences, with art representing a key modern form of subjective creativity that Guattari actively incorporates into the realm of psychology on both theoretical – through his critical re-thinking of psychoanalysis – and practical – through his work as an analyst – means. For this reason his conception of transference is quite telling: no longer conceived as a dual relation between two subjects, Guattari views transference as (at minimum) a triangular relation that also includes a mediating object that functions as an ambiguous medium (43). Is not the readymade the ultimate (creative) expression of a mediating object?

Jones also employs the readymade as a major instance of transference within Duchamp’s work, although for her it is the artist’s signature (in whatever form it takes) that is the ultimate site of the transferential relation. The urinal that Duchamp used in Fountain, for example, was part of a series of mass-produced objects that, at the time, could be found in commercial lavatory supply stores, meaning that it could be (and was) easily replaced by another of its kind with little to no difference in the overall experience of the work. The presence of a signature is therefore at odds with the inherent repeatability of a machine-made urinal, with the contradictory result of producing an individualized object that is multiple or manifold. By signing a urinal (one of many) with the pseudonym R. Mutt Duchamp makes the spectator’s relationship with the work a blatantly self-conscious and problematic one by destabilizing, on the one hand, the assumed unity of the work of “art” and, on the other hand, the perceived singularity of the artist’s act of creation – with the artist, in Foucault’s terms, functioning as simultaneously the internal function of the work’s creation that precedes the urinal and the external figure to which Fountain points. It is the ability of the readymade, as a literal new edition or facsimile of an already-existing object, to call attention to the arbitrariness of the author-artist’s discursive authority over the artwork that is its most challenging and dangerous quality. The instability of Duchamp’s authorial “I,” which the indexical signature of the “artist” stands in for, is in this way transferred via the art object to the spectator so that, as Jones states, his “shifting ‘I’ enforces an unstable intersubjective exchange, an ongoing process of transference” (44). Rather than a singular event, the creative act is here seen as the product of a recurrent and ongoing repetition – another key aspect of psychoanalytic transference (45) – with the readymade making obvious the continual transferential process, active but not recognized in all works of art, by which an object is constituted and reconstituted as “art” by each consecutive spectator who (with the help of the artist’s author-function) recognizes it as such.

For Duchamp the artist’s role in the creation of an artwork is a means rather than an end, the last analysis being reserved for the evaluative and interpretive acts of the spectator and, more generally, the posterity (of art history). To understand Duchamp’s conception of transference therefore requires us to appreciate his vision of art as a psychological process of dialogue, one that does not stop when the artist has completed the artwork or even when it is placed within an institution of display, but continues on to include the reception and interpretation of the work on the social level. “Don’t say that the artist is a great thinker because he produces it,” Duchamp tells Calvin Tomkins. “The artist produces nothing until the onlooker has said, ‘You have produced something marvellous.’ The onlooker has the last word on it” (46). What we see in Duchamp’s proposed creative act is therefore not just a relation of artist and spectator or spectator and artwork, but rather involves a networking of the three. To return to Jones’ description of “transference,” it is the dialogue among the permutations of the two relationships she outlines – the manner in which the reader-spectator’s analysis of the text (and by extension the author-function) is also the site where the reader-spectator and author-artist connection is constituted or made (historically) real – that most closely articulate the dynamics of Duchampian transference as described in “The Creative Act.”

Within the text we find an invaluable clue to help us contextualize, both personally and historically, Duchamp’s approach to the artist-artwork-spectator relation. Following his introduction of the two poles and his proposed attribution of the ontological status of “medium” onto the position of the artist, he calls upon T. S. Eliot’s words from “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (written in 1919) to describe what he sees as the split roles of the artist: “The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material” (47). Eric Cameron points to the fact that this is Duchamp’s only direct quotation of a critic, making it imperative that we take this reference seriously – particularly since, in spite of the perceived polarity between his vision of art and Eliot’s, Duchamp was obviously able to see in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” something of the conflicted character of the modern position of the “artist” that spoke to him, positively or negatively, about the (most often) unacknowledged realities of creating works of art (48). In addition to the above quoted characterization of the artist, we also find in Eliot’s essay two key ideas that parallel aspects of the creative act as Duchamp describes the process.

The first concerns the depersonalization of the artist, a process of “continual self-sacrifice” or “extinction of personality” that Eliot suggests is a necessary progression by which the mind of a mature artist becomes “a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations” (49). His use of the word “medium” is especially significant given the importance of the term in Duchamp’s text. For Eliot, the expression of a (great) artist is based not on personality but rather the ability to escape one’s self, to function as a medium – with much of the term’s religious connotations – through which (great) works of art are created. We can see in this depersonalized vision many of the qualities that characterize Duchamp’s notion of the artist as a mediumistic being, with one overriding distinction. Whereas Eliot clearly believes in the artist’s privileged position, which the role of medium as a genius-like state beyond the individual serves to maintain, Duchamp’s proposal of giving the artist the attributes of a medium directly undermines the artist’s authority over the work precisely because of the disconnect between the person (who suffers) and the mind (that creates). In other words, while Eliot uses the term “medium” to describe a condition of higher (objective) authority that the author-artist achieves through the sacrifice of the personal – which, as he suggests, turns art towards a condition of science – for Duchamp the role of “medium” defines – through a (playfully) pseudo-scientific description – the unawareness or, as he worded it in the 1949 roundtable, irresponsibility of the author-artist in terms what is created and why. “The artist doesn’t count. He does not count. Society takes what it wants,” Duchamp tells Tomkins in no uncertain terms (50).

The second idea in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that is of interest to us is Eliot’s suggestive scientific analogy in which he describes the functioning of the author-artist as catalyst, specifically comparing the process of creating art to a chemical reaction. We are invited to consider the action that takes place when oxygen and sulphur dioxide “are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nonetheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged” (51). The filament of platinum, necessarily active without either being depleted or leaving a trace of itself in the final product, represents for Eliot the ideal mind of the author-artist in the creative act. As he makes clear in the lines following this analogy – those quoted by Duchamp – the ideal or perfect author-artist results from the separation of the affects of personality from the (de-personalized) expression of the mind that, like the platinum, creates without leaving a trace of its self. We can easily apply the basic parameters of Eliot’s use of this analogy to Duchamp’s arguments for a creative act that is no longer defined by the authorizing presence of the artist (as the end and test of art), although, unlike Eliot, Duchamp would never claim that the work possesses no trace of the artist. For Duchamp, the artist’s personal intentions and desires (the “series of efforts, pains, satisfactions, refusals, decisions”) are irrelevant to the artwork’s final realization, which, like the created sulphurous acid, must be understood and judged as distinct from the artist (as person) that created it. The reason for this is because “the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions” that, especially in terms of aesthetic choices, cannot be considered fully self-conscious and therefore must not be treated as the singular source of and for the work’s meaning (52). In this manner, while the artist (as author-function) is the catalyst for the artwork, the actual realization of a work of art can be accomplished only through the transferential process of the creative act.

This last point brings up an important distinction that should be made between Eliot’s use of this analogy and our present consideration of it in relation to Duchamp’s text. By focusing exclusively on the filament of platinum and what its function has to say about the mind of the author-artist Eliot overlooks the remaining elements involved in this chemical reaction, thereby leaving out most of the relational interactions beyond the central figure of the author-artist. In this respect, Duchamp can be seen as taking this analogy more seriously than Eliot by considering not just the catalyst, which is only the first pole in Duchamp’s equation, but also the two gasses – the oxygen and sulphur dioxide roughly coinciding with the spectator and the artwork in its raw state – that combine to form a new acid – sulphurous acid again roughly standing in for the final realization, accomplished by the second pole of the spectator, of a work as “art.” The complex relational process that we see in the formation of this new acid can in this way be used to help describe or illustrate, in quasi-scientific terms, the transmutation that takes place when inert matter becomes a work of art – a process that is for Duchamp determined through an (aesthetic) act of transference.

Let us now examine the functioning of Duchampian transference through an (imagined) encounter with the readymade, in this case Bicycle Wheel (1913). To begin with, we know from Duchamp’s numerous accounts that this object began not out of an active intention to make an “artwork” but rather for the personal curiosity and pleasure of attaching the wheel from a bicycle to the top of a wooden stool, in order to have something to play with in his studio. The truthfulness of his claims – in a manner that strangely reflects Freudian psychoanalysis – are irrelevant, since what is important is not his real actions or intentions but rather his framing and interpreting of himself through what he chooses (consciously or unconsciously) to say or not say. In fact, his conception of the personal art coefficient is based within this type of discrepancy, noting the psychological and affective differences between what an artist intends to create (the unexpressed but intended) and what is actually created (the unintentionally expressed). Thierry de Duve’s describes the art coefficient as “Duchamp’s Freudian (even Lacanian) witty and ironic redefinition of the romantic self,” which presents as a “measurable ratio between repressed or failed intentions, idiosyncrasies and preferences on the one hand, and the return of the repressed, Freudian slips and failed acts on the other – in other words, the ratio between (disgusted) ‘taste’ and (ridiculous) ‘genius’” (53). Therefore, it is not Duchamp’s intentions when creating Bicycle Wheel that are of interest to us but rather his conceptual and material act(s) of creating this (aesthetic) object that, regardless of whether it is “good” or “bad,” exists as art in a raw state. The following illustration – which I have loosely based on the visual language of Coffee Mill (1911) – describes the basic subjective mechanism of Duchamp’s relation to the readymade.

What exists at the completion of this first pole, which is the end of the artist’s personal contribution to the creative act, is the work of art in a raw state that Duchamp proposes is the “inert matter” through which the (creative) transference occurs. The second pole of the creative process begins when the spectator encounters this raw artwork – in our current example, when we stand in front of the artistic construct that is Bicycle Wheel. It is the role of the spectator to (aesthetically) refine the work by, on the one hand, reacting critically to what the artist presents – experienced as what Duchamp calls an aesthetic osmosis from artist to spectator through the artwork – and, on the other hand, (actively) judging the work as perceived and interpreted from the position of the spectator that is notably disconnected from the work’s creator. Here we can recognize the shift in the role of the artist’s relation to their work. While Duchamp initially created Bicycle Wheel, once this work entered the outside world its connection to the person “Marcel Duchamp” is replaced by an association with the “Marcel Duchamp” that exists strictly as a function of art historical discourse – a contradictory existence as that is at once a presence and absence, which I have illustrated by (following Derrida) putting the term “artist” under erasure.

It is the author-function of Duchamp (and not the real person) that we in fact engage with when viewing Bicycle Wheel, a reality of the artist’s position – as a mediumistic being that is denied a state of consciousness on the aesthetic plane – that consequently leads to the realization that the artist-artwork-spectator relation is not unidirectional (emanating from artist). Rather, the functioning of the transference as Duchamp describes it necessarily involves two interdependent and dialogic creative actions. In the first we see a linear transfer from the artist through the artwork to the spectator and on to posterity, whereas in the second the critical (and answerable) response of the spectator is transferred onto the work of art, which in turn impacts the cultural understanding of the artist’s author-function and therefore the posterity of both the artist and the work (54).

This dynamic vision of the act of artistic creation therefore hinges on an artwork’s capacity to affect the spectator, who emerges – or, in Barthes term, is born – through an active participation in the transference process. Since it is the spectator who is tasked with completing the work that the artist begins, with actually making the historical work of art, we must acknowledge the (subjective) authority of the spectator’s look as a catalyst for these relational interactions. As Duchamp tells Tomkins: “The onlooker is part of the making of the painting but also exerts a diabolical influence by looking alone,” which he stresses is a “transcendental” action through which spectator’s “change the physical image without knowing it” (55). Here we can recognize the full extent of Duchamp’s theory, which aims not only to fundamentally question the assumed authority of the author-artist but also to establish a vision of art that has no definitive beginning or end. The creative act exists in and through the dialogic relations of Duchampian transference, as the spectator gets caught up in the repeated and repeatable relations that the artwork engenders.


    1. Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis, An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, trans. Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 100-101.


    1. Marcel Duchamp, “The Creative Act,” The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (New York: Da Capo, 1973), 140.


    1. Duchamp, “The Creative Act,” 138.


    1. Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1987), 70.


    1. Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography (New York: Owl Books, 1996), 396.
    2. In her Masters thesis on “The Creative Act,” Lauri Nelson reproduces several key documents related to Duchamp’s text including the schedule for the A.F.A. convention (appendix 6), the January 1957 draft of “The Creative Act” (appendix 5), and the “Biographical Sheet” that Duchamp filled out for the convention, in which he refers to himself as a “freelance artist” (appendix 3). See Lauri G. Nelson, “This Kind of Circus, all in Cordiality”: Marcel Duchamp’s Speech “The Creative Act,” M.A. Thesis (Houston: Rice University, 1994), 1104-120. This document is available online at: http://scholarship.rice.edu/bitstream/handle/1911/13872/1360084.PDF?sequence=1


    1. This roundtable was organized as a means of confronting the question of the state of art in the mid-twentieth century, bringing together a number of prominent individuals in fields related to art. In addition to Duchamp, the participants were George Boas, Gregory Bateson (who would also be on the panel with Duchamp at the American Federation of the Arts Convention in 1957), Kenneth Burke, Alfred Frankenstein, Robert Goldwater, Darius Milhaud, Andrew C. Richie, Arnold Schoenburg (who could not attend but instead provided a statement), and Frank Lloyd Wright. The roundtable consisted of three official sessions, with an unofficial session added at the end.


    1. Marcel Duchamp, et al., The Western Round Table on Modern Art [Transcript of Proceedings], ed. Douglas MacAgy (San Francisco: San Francisco Art Association, 1949), 44c. This transcript is available online on UbuWeb at: http://www.ubu.com/historical/wrtma/transcript.htm. It should be noted that Duchamp starts off the roundtable discussion with a statement markedly similar this the one I have quoted, although his wording is a bit less concise. In this first version he connects the esthetic echo to the lack of an adequate definition of art, stating: “We also imply that art cannot be understood through the intellect, but is felt through an emotion presenting some analogy with a religious faith or a sexual attraction – an esthetic echo.” Duchamp, et al., The Western Round Table on Modern Art>, 5a.


    1. Duchamp, et al., The Western Round Table on Modern Art, 30a.


    1. Tomkins, Duchamp, 397. For a discussion of “the intentional fallacy,” see W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954).


    1. This discrepancy between the reception of his work in America and France is, Miriam Jordan and I argue, a key motivating factor in Duchamp’s decision to establish the major collection of his artwork at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. See Miriam Jordan and Julian Jason Haladyn, “The Posthumous Exile of Marcel Duchamp” [Errata Series pamphlet] (London: Blue Medium Press, 2013).


    1. Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 31; 45.


    1. Duchamp, “The Creative Act,” 139.


    1. In a particularly compelling exchange at the 1949 roundtable, Gregory Bateson and Frank Lloyd Wright respond to Duchamp’s statement that the artwork is independent of the artist: Bateson: Now, Mr. Duchamp, what you are saying is that the artist is the picture’s way of getting itself painted. That is a very serious and reasonable thing to say, but that implies that in some sense, the work of art exists before it is there on canvas. Duchamp: Yes; it has to be pulled out. Bateson: Which is on its way out. Wright: All right, gentlemen you can put it at that end too, if you want to, but no work of art is ever going to rise higher than the artist. Duchamp: Who is great, the work or the man? Duchamp, et al., The Western Round Table on Modern Art, 31a.


    1. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Image – Music – Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 147.


    1. M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 20-21.


    1. Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 148.


    1. Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 147.


    1. See, most notably, Harvey Hix, “Morte D’Author: An Autopsy,” Iowa Review 17.1 (Winter, 1987): 131-150 and Sean Burke, The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992). There are two key exceptions to this reading: William Gass, “The Death of the Author,” Salmagundi 65 (Fall 1984): 3-26 and Molly Nesbit, “What Was an Author?” Yale French Studies 73 (Everyday Life, 1987): 229-257.


    1. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 4.
    2. Duchamp, “The Creative Act,” 139-140.


    1. Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 148.


    1. This quotation is taken from the contents page of Aspen, no. 5/6, where O’Doherty presents a lengthy quote from his pseudonym Sigmund Bode’s 1928 (fictitious) book Placement as Language. Andrew Stafford has adapted Aspen, no. 5/6 for the web, presenting the box as a series of twenty-eight numbered items that include, in addition to the box itself, printed material, records, a reel of super-8 film and several (small) artworks. See: http://www.ubu.com/aspen/aspen5and6/index.html


    1. Phong Bui and Brian O’Doherty, “In Conversation: Brian O’Doherty with Phong Bui,” Brooklyn Rail (June, 2007): http://www.brooklynrail.org/2007/06/art/doughtery (accessed April 26, 2013). It is interested to note that, in a letter to Brian O’Doherty dated October 29, 1967, Barthes apologizes for the brevity of the text and expresses “his hopes that it would be acceptable and ‘in sufficient harmony with the issue.’” Quoted in Gwen Allen, Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), 57.


    1. Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980), 121.


    1. Foucault, “What Is an Author?” 115.


    1. Foucault, “What Is an Author?” 124. Foucault briefly describes the emergence of this form of authorship “when a system of ownership and strict copyright rules were established (towards the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century) that the transgressive properties always intrinsic to the act of writing became the forceful imperative of literature.” Foucault, “What Is an Author?” 124-125. For an extensive discussion of the legal aspects of the author question see Nesbit, “What Was an Author?” For a more general analysis of “What Is an Author?” see Adrian Wilson, “Foucault on the ‘Question of the Author’: A Critical Exegesis,” Modern Language Review 99.2 (2004): 339-363


    1. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 7.


    1. Michel Foucault, “Preface,” in Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, xii.


    1. Michel Foucault, “The Father’s ‘No’,” Language, Counter-memory, Practice, 86.


    1. Marcel Duchamp, “Apropos of ‘Readymades,’” The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, 141. This text is of a talk he gave in 1961 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


    1. Such an approach, while not explicitly argued for, is at least intimated by Octavio Paz in his essay “The Castle of Purity.” When discussing the readymade, he notes that the “wealth of commentaries on their significance … shows that their interest is not plastic but critical or philosophical,” with Paz later in the text referring to Duchamp’s gesture as “a philosophical … game more than an artistic operation.” Octavio Paz, Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare, trans. Rachel Phillips and Donald Gardner (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990), 22; 28.


    1. Thierry de Duve, “Authorship Stripped Bare, Even,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 19/20 (1990/1991): 235.


    1. Foucault, “What Is an Author?” 128. Foucault explores this issue in The Archaeology of Knowledge; see, most notably, chapter 1, “The Unity of Discourse,” 23-33. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Routledge, 2003).


    1. Foucault, “What Is an Author?” 131.


    1. Duchamp, “The Creative Act,” 138.


    1. Duchamp, “The Creative Act,” 139.


    1. Sigmund Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 107.


    1. Melanie Klein, “The Origins of Transference,” Melanie Klein: Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963 (London: Vintage, 1997), 48. In a more recent iteration, Jean Laplanche proposes that “maybe transference is already, ‘in itself’, outside the clinic” and that “perhaps the principle site of transference, ‘ordinary’ transference, before, beyond or after analysis, would be the multiple relation to the cultural, to creation or, more precisely, to the cultural message.” Jean Laplanche, “Transference: Its Provocation by the Analyst,” Essays on Otherness (New York: Routledge, 2005), 222.


    1. Amelia Jones, Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), 113.


    1. Jones, Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp, 114.


    1. Stephen Zepke, “The Readymade: Art as the Refrain of Life,” in Deleuze, Guattari and the Production of the New ed. Simon O’Sullivan and Stephen Zepke (New York: Continuum, 2008), 33. While Zepke’s treatment of the readymade is admirable, his dialectic distinction between a Duchampian “conceptual” version and a Guattarian “affectual” version, particularly in relation to his claim that the readymade is re-made by Guattari (and Deleuze) “against Duchamp,” does not hold up – and, I would add, is not supported by Guattari’s treatment of Duchamp – since the readymade as Duchamp conceived it is already a ground for a modern form of art based within an (affective) act of becoming for the spectator. Zepke, “The Readymade,” 35.


    1. Félix Guattari, “The Transference,” The Guattari Reader, ed. Gary Genosko (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 63.


    1. Jones, Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp, 133.
    2. Jacques Lacan’s discussion of transference is particularly helpful here, since it can also be applied to a reading of the readymade. As he states: “If transference is only repetition, it will always be repetition of the same missed experience.” Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 143. Considered in relation to Lacan’s statement, the readymade can be seen as repeated and repeatable moments of transference that, as Duchamp makes clear, are constituted within and through the relational gap between artist and spectator. “What art is in reality is this missing link, not the links which exist,” Duchamp tells Arturo Schwarz, noting that art is no what we see: “art is the gap.” Quoted in Dalia Judovitz, Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 135.


    1. Calvin Tomkins, Marcel Duchamp: Afternoon Interviews (New York: Badlands Unlimited, 2013), 31.


    1. T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921), 48. Lawrence Steefel informs us that in a 1961 personal discussion Duchamp said he “feels that Eliot’s essay presents his own feelings as well or better than he himself has ever done in writing.” Lawrence D. Steefel Jr., “Dimension and Development in The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride,” in Marcel Duchamp in Perspective, ed. Joseph Masheck (New York: Da Capo Press, 2002), 97 n15.


    1. Eric Cameron, “Given,” in The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp, ed. Thierry de Duve (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 1. In the discussion that follows this text (see pages 31-39) Rosalind Krauss takes particular issue with the connection being made between Duchamp and Eliot, which not only betrays her understanding of Duchamp but also cannot be supported by anything in his practice. Marjorie Perloff explores this topic in her essay “Duchamp’s Eliot: The Detours of Tradition and the Persistence of Individual Talent” – originally published in T. S. Eliot and the Concept of Tradition, ed. Giovanni Cianci and Jason Harding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) – available online at: http://marjorieperloff.com/stein-duchamp-picasso/duchamps-eliot/


    1. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 47; 48.


    1. Tomkins, Marcel Duchamp: Afternoon Interviews, 30.


    1. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 48.


    1. Duchamp, “The Creative Act,” 139.


    1. Thierry de Duve, Kant After Duchamp (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 319-320.


    1. In psychoanalytic terms, this back-and-forth relation of artist and spectator involves not just transference but also a countertransference, which in the clinical setting describes the analyst’s act of projecting (unconscious) feelings or emotions onto – and most often in response to – the analysand. I have intentionally avoided bring up this second term because, following the logic of Guattari’s view of transference, I believe the act of counter-transference is already contained within the transference dynamic. Particularly for our present discussion, although I do believe this holds true generally, distinguishing between these two forms of transferential relations denies the necessarily dialogic nature of the psychological interactions being described.


  1. Tomkins, Marcel Duchamp: Afternoon Interviews, 60-61. Duchamp uses Nude Descending a Staircase as an example of what he means, noting that it went from a scandalous painting to a boring one “by being looked at too much.”

Five Small Things about L.H.O.O.Q.


click to enlarge
Figure 1
Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q.

Attempting to recall exactly when in 1919 the L.H.O.O.Q. had been made, Marcel Duchamp himself offered two different dates: in conversations with Sidney, Harriet and Carroll Janis in early 1953, he mentioned December;(1) in conversations with Pierre Cabanne in June 1966, October.(2)
Either date—October 1919 or December 1919—may be the right one.
From early August to December 27, 1919, Duchamp resided at avenue Charles-Floquet (Paris 7e), in the home of Francis Picabia and Gabrielle Buffet (the latter pregnant with Picabia’s fourth child, who was born on September 15). Picabia had been living for some time (days or weeks) in rue Émile-Augier (Paris 16e) with Germaine Everling, his mistress, who was also pregnant by him (their child was born January 5, 1920).(3) This particular situation (two places of residence, two pregnant women, etc.) would indicate that during this nearly five-month stay there were few, and perhaps no contacts between Duchamp and Picabia (except, in all likelihood, towards the end of the stay), and may explain why L.H.O.O.Q. was not published in issues 9 (November 1919), 10 (December 1919), or 11 (February 1920) of 391, Picabia’s journal, but rather as a Picabia version entitled Tableau dada par Marcel Duchamp in issue 12 (March 1920).(4) Michel Sanouillet argues that “Picabia wrote to ask him [Duchamp] for authorization to ‘redo’ a Mona Lisa for 391, and the authorization was naturally granted. But Picabia, who had only a vague memory of Duchamp’s work, contented himself with drawing the moustache.”(5) In fact, Picabia simply redid “L.H.O.O.Q.,” the inscription that would become the title of the readymade.(6) He also wrote these initials vertically and without periods on one of his own canvases, Le double monde, dated [December] 1919, which was exhibited on stage by André Breton during the First Friday of (the journal) Littérature, January 23, 1920, the first Dada manifestation in Paris.(7)


Owing to its title (Tableau dada par Marcel Duchamp), for many years the Picabia version passed for the original. Along with an enlarged replica (done in late January or early February 1930),(8) the original was not displayed until March 1930 in Paris in an exhibition titled La peinture au défi and with an important preface by Louis Aragon.
For a poet, novelist and critic like Aragon, a readymade was not, from that time on, merely an industrial object removed from its context and divorced from its utilitarian function.


It must be pointed out that the colour reproduction which is the basis of the work was not a postcard, despite what so many people have stated verbally or in writing.(9) A glance at the back of the reproduction, published by Arturo Schwarz in 1969 in the 1st edition of his catalogue, shows that it is not arranged in the usual way, with one space for the address and stamp (at right), and another for the “message” and the caption of the illustration (at left). The reproduction has been inscribed by Duchamp with a technical indication (in pencil) on how to photograph the picture on the front and, later, above this indication, with an official declaration in the presence of a notary (in ink) stating that it is indeed the original.(10) The only trait shared by the small palimpsest— writing on writing —on the back and the picture on the front is the lead [in French: mine] pencil markings (additions of the moustache and goatee)(11) on the Mona Lisa’s face [in French: mine].
But where did Duchamp obtain this colour reproduction? The most likely explanation, as he mentioned to the Janises in 1953, is that he purchased it in a boutique near the Louvre, in the rue de Rivoli, which sold inexpensive copies of reproductions of the museum’s masterpieces, a popular practice in all large cities with major museums. It should also be recalled that in April 1911 Leonardo’s highly celebrated work, painted in the early sixteenth century, had been stolen from the Louvre (and not recovered until December 1913). Since it was believed to have disappeared or been destroyed, massive quantities of colour reproductions were distributed during these years or immediately afterwards, including photographs both intact or touched up, some in postcard format.(12) As well, there was undoubtedly an awareness that 1919 was the 400th anniversary of the painter’s death. These two events (the perhaps irremediable loss and the anniversary) come into play in Duchamp’s choice.
When Duchamp sent a letter (New York, May 9, 1949) to his friend Henri-Pierre Roché asking him to purchase a vial of serum—become the vial of Air de Paris—to replace the one, currently broken, he had brought back from Paris in late December 1919 for his friends Louise and Walter Arensberg, he wrote:

Could you go into the pharmacy on the corner of rue Blomet and the rue de Vaugirard (if it’s still there, that’s where I bought the first ampoule) and buy an ampoule like this one: 125 c.c. and of the same measurements as the drawing […]

—If not rue Blomet, somewhere else—but, as far as possible, the same shape and size, thanks.(13)

A glance at a map of Paris shows that there is no corner of Blomet-Vaugirard, since these streets (15e) run parallel to each other! I use this example to demonstrate that a specific indication, even on the part of the author, may quite simply be inaccurate, even erroneous. And so it was for L.H.O.O.Q., postcard.
And when Duchamp, in “Apropos of Myself” (1962-1964), describes this colour reproduction as “a cheap chromo,” it must be pointed out that in French as in English, chromo is the abbreviation of chromolithographie, “image lithographique en couleur” (Petit Robert I), and chromolithograph “a color print produced by chromolithography” (The American Heritage of the English Language). In French, however, chromo, now a masculine (and no longer feminine) form, has a pejorative sense: “toute image en couleur de mauvais goût” [any colour print in bad taste]. This added meaning, which highlights the notion of taste, introduces an aesthetic, even artistic, note; such is not the case in English, where cheap, in this example, signifies “of poor quality,” but particularly “inexpensive.”(14)


When, during his 1966 conversations with Cabanne, Duchamp spoke of Picabia and L.H.O.O.Q., he used the opportunity, if I may say so, to add:

Another time, Picabia did a cover for 391 with the portrait of Georges Carpentier, the boxer; he and I were as much alike as two drops of water, which is why it was amusing. It was a composite portrait of Georges Carpentier and me.(15)

During the summer of 1923, Georges Carpentier went to Picabia’s home in Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, the little village where the artist had been living since 1922. Picabia did a profile of the boxer, who even signed the portrait. When Picabia, over a year later, decided to put this portrait on the first page of the last issue of 391 (issue 19, October 1924), he crossed out Carpentier’s signature incompletely (it can still be seen under the cross-out markings) and added “Rrose Sélavy / by Picabia”.(16)
Accordingly, if, by contiguity, this “composite portrait” likewise designates L.H.O.O.Q., Duchamp’s 1961 statement makes sense:

The curious thing about that moustache and goatee is that when you look at it the Mona Lisa becomes a man. It is not a woman disguised as a man; it is a real man, and that was my discovery, without realizing it at the time.

In 1919, a woman (Mona Lisa in L.H.O.O.Q.) is also a man, just as in 1920-1921, a man (Marcel Duchamp as Rose, then Rrose, Sélavy) is also a woman.


Without actually entering into an interpretation of the famous readymade, one notes, nonetheless, that the 400th anniversary of Leonardo’s death may have been not only a trigger (as an anniversary), but also a constraint (as a set of numbers), with the 4 indicating that only four letters could be used, and the 00 suggesting that one of them—which must be an O—be reduplicated.(18) As can be seen afterwards as well, these four letters (as Duchamp states in “Apropos of Myself”) are in alphabetical order—H, L, O, Q—in the name of the street (cHarLes-flOQuet) where he lived at the time. But they are also in the name of the process at the basis of this reproduction, which is cHromoLithOgraphiQue.
And I note that in New York the name of the notary chosen by Duchamp, whose signature on December 22, 1944 certified that the work was the original (“This is to certify that this is the original ‘ready made’ L H O O Q Paris 1919”),(19) was Elsie Jenriche.(20) How can we fail to see that she was there because of her name as well (which, by this fact, is a metatextual reference to one of the issues in the work), a mix of I in English or Ich in German and of else, and that the issue of “gender” (jenre, another way of spelling genre) comes into play, since else rhymes with the feminine (elle: La Joconde, La Gioconda), which in turn rhymes with the masculine (L: Leonardo, Louvre), she having become a he!
Finally, if we trace a vertical line at a right angle to the top of the work and passes it through the centre of the moustache, it becomes clear that, owing to the angle of the face, the line runs alongside the nose, at left, of the female—and now also male—figure and arrives “down below” (as Duchamp would say in 1961), exactly between “L.H.” and “O.O.Q.” This reduplication of the O is indicated once again.


Footnote Return 1. Still unedited, the conversations with the Janis family (Sidney, the father, Harriet, the mother, and Carroll, the son) occurred on the occasion of Duchamp’s preparation of the catalogue and hanging of the exhibition Dada 1916-1923 at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, April 15 – May 9, 1953. In the integrated chronology of the catalogue Joseph Cornell / Marcel Duchamp… in resonance, catalogue of the exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, October 8, 1998 – January 3, 1999, and at the Menil Collection, Houston, January 22 – May 16, 1999 (Ostfildern-Ruit: Cantz Verlag, 1998), 277, Susan Davidson, without mentioning her information source, gives the month of December 1919.

Footnote Return 2. Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, translated by Ron Padgett, introduction by Robert Motherwell, preface by Salvador Dali, appreciation by Jasper Johns (New York: Da Capo, 1971), 62.

Footnote Return 3. It was a day after the meeting of André Breton, who had been invited there, and twelve days before Tristan Tzara arrived there to live on January 17, his stay coinciding with the start of what Michel Sanouillet called “Dada à Paris”; see his general survey, Dada à Paris (Paris: Pauvert, 1965). The seat of the “MoUvEmEnT DADA, Berlin, Genève, Madrid, New York, Zurich,” according to the letter paper with this heading, was now in Paris. Furthermore, I notice the following coincidence (which was perhaps not a coincidence in 1919, considering the state of knowledge on Leonardo’s work): when Duchamp was in Paris that year, Picabia’s two women (his wife and mistress) were pregnant with sons; when, in the spring of 1503, Francesco del Giocondo commissioned Leonardo to paint a portrait of his wife, she had already given him two sons (in May 1496 and December 1502). See Daniel Arasse, Léonard de Vinci. Le rythme du monde (1997; Paris: Hazan, 2003), 388-89. The rhyme, here, is in between Mona Lisa [Joconde] and fertile [féconde].

Footnote Return 4. To Cabanne, Duchamp says Tableau dada de [sic] Marcel Duchamp.

Footnote Return 5. Michel Sanouillet, Francis Picabia et «391» (Paris: Losfeld, 1966), II: 113. Volume I is a facsimile edition of 391 [1917-1924] expanded with various unedited documents (Paris: Losfeld, 1960). Since Duchamp had been in New York since January 6 and no 12 of 391 did not appear (Sanouillet specifies) until the end of March, one might assume that Duchamp, interviewed by Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Abrams, 2nd edition, 1970), 476, only dimly recalled the circumstance: “My original did not arrive in time, and to delay the printing of 391 no further, Picabia himself drew the moustache on the Mona Lisa but forgot the goatee.”

Footnote Return 6. I say “the inscription that would become the title of the readymade” since, in the poster-catalogue of the exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery, Duchamp wrote:”La Joconde, postcard with pencil.” In Marcel Duchamp (London: Trianon Press, and New York: Grove Press, 1959), Robert Lebel first uses the inscription as the title. In The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Abrams, 1st edition, 1969), Arturo Schwarz first indicates the exact dimensions of the readymade: 19.7 x 12.4 cm. (7 ¾ x 4 7/8 in.).

Footnote Return 7. The two O’s in “L H O O Q,” themselves in the centre of two other O’s shaped like strings forming 8’s, or propeller blades, but without an axis, soft and bent by the wind, are equally—and doubly—the O’s of “dOuble” and “wOrld” [mOnde]. The small gap at the top left in one of these other O’s is matched only by the small gap in the À of “À DOMICILE” [at home], another inscription, and by the small addition—the tail—of the Q in “L H O O Q.” One way of creating an ironic coincidence between mathematical speculations (topOLOGY) and commercial speculations (delivery “à domicile“, that is, at home [AU LOGIS]).

Footnote Return 8. “I made, just before leaving Paris, a Mona Lisa, for Aragon […] / Man Ray has the 1st Mona Lisa”, letter from Duchamp to Jean Crotti, Villefranche-sur-mer, February 6, 1930, in Affectionately, Marcel : The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, edition by Francis Naumann and Hector Obalk, translation by Jill Taylor (Ghent and Amsterdam : Ludion Press, 2000), 171.

Footnote Return 9. Three examples: Duchamp himself in 1953 (see note 6); Ecke Bonk, Marcel Duchamp: The Box in a Valise. Inventory of an Edition (New York: Rizzoli, 1989), 241; Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 221.

Footnote Return 10. I note that Duchamp never used a postcard in subsequent replicas.

Footnote Return 11. In the original French version of this article I use the plural, as did Duchamp in April 1942, when he indicated in ink at the bottom of the model of one of Picabia’s two versions (that reproduced in 391): Moustaches par Picabia / barbiche par Marcel Duchamp.” In French, the singular and plural are used indifferently for certain words, for example: ciseau and ciseaux (two blades), pantalon and pantalons(two legs), moustache and moustaches (two cheeks or, simply, two sides of the face). Furthermore, I note that the indication, inscribed by Picabia on two lines pencilled vertically to the right of the reproduction, begins with two liaisons—the one starting the 1 of “1 cliché” on the first line, and the other starting the s of “sans” on the second line—which are matched only by the tips of the moustache! For a reproduction with commentary, see Francis Naumann, The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, catalogue of the exhibition at Achim Moeller Fine Art, New York, October 2, 1999 – January 15, 2000. If, in fact, Arp came into possession of these two versions during his trip to Paris in April 1942, his meeting with Duchamp (they had known each other since 1926) could only have taken place in the non-occupied zone of southern France (in Grasse where Arp lived or in Sanary where Duchamp was living before his departure for the United States on May 14th).

Footnote Return 12. See the two postcards dated 1914, reproduced in Roy McMullen, Mona Lisa: The Picture & the Myth (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1975).

Footnote Return 13. Affectionately, Marcel, 272.

Footnote Return 14. This is, moreover, Michel Sanouillet’s translation of this passage: “un chromo […] bon marché“, in “À propos de moi-même,” Duchamp du signe (Paris : Flammarion, 1975), 227. Naumann follows exactly the same train of thought: “an inexpensive chromo-lithographic color reproduction”, The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 10.

Footnote Return 15. Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 63.

Footnote Return 16. See Michel Sanouillet, Francis Picabia et “391,” 166. One can see (391, 127) Carpentier’s signature and Picabia’s addition under some of the typewritten lines printed at the bottom of the page.

Footnote Return 17. Herbert Crehan, “Dada,” Evidence (Toronto), no. 3 (autumn 1961).

Footnote Return 18. These two O’s also evoke, by means of the rhyme “O.” / water [eau], the mountain lake and the plains lake in the Mona Lisa, respectively at the top right and a little farther down left of the landscape dominated by the loggia where Lisa, the model, is. And what about the winding road that leaves the plains lake, and which is echoed in the tail of the “Q” (calligraphied by Duchamp)?

Footnote Return 19. A presentative sentence in another, the referent of “This” (This, as in “This is my Body” or in “This is a work of art”) being cataphoric (that is, it follows the pronoun): in the first case, it is “the original ‘ready made’;” in the second, it is the entire proposition that shapes the first case.

Footnote Return 20. In a short article titled “Desperately Seeking Elsie: Authenticating the Authenticity of L.H.O.O.Q.‘s Back” (Tout-Fait, New York, vol. I, no. 1, December 1999), Thomas Girst informs us that this lady was a public stenographer at the Hotel St. Regis, New York, from 1943 to 1945.

An exit
Marcel Duchamp and Jules Laforgue

An exit Marcel Duchamp and Jules Laforgue
Pieter de Nijs

In 1887, the then famous actor Coquelin Cadet published an illustrated book called Le Rire. The illustrations were made by Eugène Bataille. One of these, showing Leonardo’s Mona Lisa smoking a pipe, can be regarded as a direct predecessor of Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q (1919).
Bataille, better known as Sapeck, was an important member of the Incohérents, a group of artists who from 1882 on organized several exhibitions as alternatives for the official Salon. Parodies of famous pieces of art, political and social satire, and graphical puns were at the root of these exhibitions. Like their literary counterparts, who adorned themselves with such fantastic names as Hydropathes, Hirsutes, Zutistes, and Jemenfoutistes, the activities of the Incohérents were mainly aimed at ridiculing the official art world.The painters, writers, journalists, and cartoonists who participated in the activities of these artistic groups generally convened in the cabarets artistiques that sprang up in Paris in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, first on the rive gauche, in the Quartier Latin, later in Montmartre. Most of them published their work in the illustrated newspapers and magazines that appeared after the abolition of press censorship in 1881 and the emergence of new and faster (photomechanical) printing. These newspapers offered many writers and artists new opportunities to provide for their livelihood and to bring their work to the attention of a wider audience.

The activities of groups like the Hydropathes and the Incohérents have long been seen solely as a means to “shock the bourgeois” (épater le bourgeois), as joking-for-joking’s-sake. The attitude pervading much of their work was being described as fumisme: a mocking of official values and societal norms through biting satire, puerile humor, and practical joking. In recent years though, this view has made way for a more serious approach, in which their work is being linked to that of the avant-garde movements of the 1920s and 1930s. (1)

Apart from that, it is easy to overlook the links that existed between the groups of artists and writers that gathered in the so-called cabarets artistiques of Montmartre, and the artists and writers who are nowadays considered as the founders of modern art and literature. Cabarets such as the Chat Noir attracted Hydropathes-poets and -novelists such as Charles Cros, Alphonse Allais, and Jules Lévy, along-side with singers like Jules Jouy and Maurice Mac-Nab and actors like Coquelin Cadet. But more established poets such as Jean Moréas, Léon Bloy, and Paul Verlaine were also regular visitors, and the same goes for Gustave Kahn and Jules Laforgue. Moréas is considered to be the “founder” of symbolism. Novelist Léon Bloy, an ardent catholic (though he detested the catholic church and its institutions), was one of the sharpest polemicists of his time, mixing his high-pitched sentences with sneers and curses. Verlaine, of course, was the exemplary poète maudit . Kahn allegedly was the inventor of “free verse,” in which the tight rules, rhythm, and end rhyme of romantic poetry was abandoned to give way to assonance and internal rhyme. And Jules Laforgue made his first literary friends amongst the Hydropathes around 1880. He too has a claim to the invention of “free verse.”

The poems, songs, and monologues that were performed or recited in the cabarets combined social criticism with irony and self-mockery; the language used was a mix of popular or vulgar words and sentences, full of argot and newly formed words, paired-off with unconventional rhyme and poetical structures.
In the poems of – nowadays generally acknowledged – writers such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, Gustave Kahn, and Jules Laforgue (to name a few) – experimental innovations can be found that are similar to the nouvéautés in the poems and songs that were performed in the cabarets. (2) The ideas of these poetic innovators mixed more or less perfectly with those of the poets and singer-performers of the Montmartre cabarets.

In this article, I want to point to a link that can be established between the work of the artists who lived and worked in Montmartre at the end of the nineteenth century and that of Marcel Duchamp. The work of Jules Laforgue can be seen as a part of that link. I will try, on the one hand, to show what Jules Laforgue owed to the Hydropathes and other “proto-Dada” groups in his attempts to renew poetry and, on the other hand, to discuss the way he influenced Duchamp, who around 1911-1912 was looking for a way out of the artistic deadlock he felt he was trapped in. I will also try to show that Duchamp translated parts of what Laforgue did on a poetic level to the visual arts.

Duchamp has stressed the importance of several writers for the development of his ideas. He never concealed his admiration for Raymond Roussel and Jean-Pierre Brisset. He loved the humorous stories of Alphonse Allais and looked upon Alfred Jarry as a sympathetic soul. And he also positively referred to Jules Laforgue: “I liked Laforgue a lot, and I like him even more now,” he told Pierre Cabanne in 1967. (3)
Duchamp never really explained what it was that made him like the work of Laforgue. In my opinion though, Laforgue’s work was of more importance for the development of Duchamp’s ideas than he himself acknowledged.

Jules Laforgue

Laforgue is generally seen as a representative of the decadent movement within Symbolism, which by 1880 had adherents among many young authors. The Decadents combined pessimism with black humor, self-mockery with irony. Their poems and novels clearly demonstrate a tendency towards literary innovation.
Jules Laforgue (Montevideo 1860 – Paris 1887) was the second of eleven children. In 1877 his mother died of a miscarriage. When his father decided to return to his hometown of Tarbes, Jules remained behind in Paris. He tried to write in order to earn a living. In 1881, he got a job as the personal reader of Empress Augusta of Prussia, and he moved to Berlin. There he worked on a series of poems called Les Complaintes. In the first months of 1885 Laforgue completed the stories that would later appear under the title Moralités légendaires . In 1886, he meets a young English woman, Leah Lee, and in December of that same year they marry. The couple settled in Paris. There Laforgue is forced to stay in bed because of his neglected health. While still looking for a publisher for a new book of poems and for his Moralités Légendaires on 20 August 1887 he dies of tuberculosis. (4)

Melancholy and celibacy

In his poems Laforgue again and again turns to the same motifs, melancholy and celibacy being the leading themes. Autumn is the blackest season, the moon is to be preferred to the sun and the sound of a distant piano brings about melancholic reflections on the sad future of young girls who will end up in the bourgeois trap of marriage. Marriage itself is often the theme of a poem (“Complainte des formalités nuptials,” “Complainte des bons ménages”), as is the life of the bachelor (“Célibat, célibat, tout n’est que célibate,” “Complaintes des crépuscules célibataires”). And looking at the score of poems in which Sundays are being described as days of boredom, Laforgue seems to have seen Sunday as the day par excellence for thoughts of spleen and melancholy (5).
Though he constantly emphasizes the loneliness and melancholy of the bachelor – the “pauvre jeune homme” – Laforgue’s poems and prose clearly speak of a preference for celibacy and for the bachelor state. He also proclaims rather peculiar ideas about women, love, or a relationship. His ideal seems to have been “love at a distance,” an unfulfilled or sterile love. In Saison, one of his unfinished novels, the protagonist is dreaming about his ideal woman: “The type of the adorable, the only beloved, for me is the English woman (…) she is the only kind of woman that I cannot undress (…) My imagination remains sterile, frozen, has never existed, and has never brought me down. She has no sexual organs for me, I cannot think of it, could never have thought of it (…). All the others are bitches (…).” (6) In his wife Leah Lee, Laforgue apparently found the representative of his ideal woman, or the ideal of what he named “the third sex”: Lee was very skinny and very English, with her red hair, dark eyes, her baby figure, her timid nature and sophisticated, delicate mannerisms.

Moralités Légendaires

Besides poems Laforgue also produced some “prose poems.” These Moralités légendaires are rather humoristic. Their humoristic effects rest for the greater part on the ironic way Laforgue deals with his literary examples and with the symbolist stereotypes they contain. A good example is the “moral tale” Laforgue devotes to Salome. In symbolist literature this supposed daughter of the Jewish king Herod is often depicted as the epitome of the staggeringly beautiful, mysterious, sensual, and perfidious Goddess-Demon, who seduces men, only to plunge them into misery. As such she was portrayed by painters like Moreau, Redon, Regnault, and Beardsley, and described by Flaubert (in Herodias, 1877), Oscar Wilde (Salome, 1891-1893), and Mallarmé (Hérodiade, 1898).
Laforgue’s Salomé leans firmly on Flaubert’s Herodiade. But although he remains close to Flaubert’s text, which he sometimes paraphrases literally, Laforgue scoffs at Flaubert, for example with his preoccupation with historical accuracy (Flaubert relied on earlier historical sources, such as those of Flavius Josephus). The same goes for Flaubert’s style – so often praised. Laforgue sprinkles his story with ironic and anachronistic details. Herod Antipas is called Emeraude-Archetypas (Hérode = E(me)raude). (7) Iaokanaan (John the Baptist) – a strong personality in Flaubert’s story – is nothing more than a unsuccessful writer (a “malheureux publiciste” or “écrivassier” , i.e., a potboiler or hack writer).
Laforgue’s story is not set in Biblical Palestine, but on one of the White Esoteric Iles (“Iles Blanches Esoteriques”), where even the noise of an express train is heard. In the palace Herod’s guests, “sur la scène de l´Alcazar” (i.e., a music hall), are being entertained by circus and vaudeville performers, including musical clowns with a street organ, an ice skater, and trapeze artists.
Laforgue’s Salome, with her exaggerated manner of dress and childish acts, is almost a caricature, a mockery of the symbolist femme fatale. At the same time she seems to embody Laforgue’s female ideal: she hardly has any hips and breasts (“deux soupçons de seins”) and is more shy than tempting, indeed almost innocent (a “petite Immaculée-Conception”) – and much less a sex object than the Herodias (i.e. Salomé) of Flaubert.
One of the other Moralités légendaires, Hamlet ou les suites de la piété filiale, deals rather effectively with another “hero” of Western literature. Hamlet obviously is one of Laforgue’s favorite plays and Hamlet one of his most beloved characters. (8) In literature, Hamlet is often portrayed as the prototype of the moon-sick melancholic, always hesitating and not able to act when he is called upon. Laforgue’s Hamlet though has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s melancholic dreamer. Although the sentences and statements of Laforgue’s Hamlet are reminiscent of Shakespeare (“Stabilité! Ton nom est femme”; “Mais ne plus être, ne plus y être, et ne plus être”), they remain an echo. Laforgue’s Hamlet hardly suffers from the fact that his father was murdered; instead he dreams of becoming a celebrated playwright. He is nothing more than a downright fool, who is proud of his clumsy choruses, as is demonstrated by the verse he recites: “Il était un corsage/et ron ron et petit pa ta pon/il était un corsage/qu’avait tous ses boutons.” (9)


Laforgue was one of the first poets who, at the end of the nineteenth century, felt that the existing modes of expression for the poet were obsolete and that there was a need for new ways of poetic expression. Parody for him was an important means to break away from existing literary conventions and poetical registers, and to introduce a new poetic language and innovative literary structures. Parody was an important instrument of fumisme and formed a significant part of the language of the cabarets artistiques. As Mary Shaw underlines in her essay on the literature of Montmartre, parody served a dual purpose: “Parodical markers generally signify breaks (…) with literary traditions at the same time that they forge links for initiated readers with a network or other contemporary, subversive, avant-garde texts.” (10) Using parody Laforgue rewrote and overwrote the “legendary stories” that served him as models. The distorted quotations from, and allusions to, classic writers (Shakespeare, Flaubert) contribute heavily to the parodical character of Laforgue’s stories.

Popular language

Laforgue’s poems and prose show the same characteristics as the songs, poems, and monologues that were presented in the cabarets artistiques. They are an often absurd blend of classical poetic language, nonsense rhymes and colloquial patches, peppered with exclamations, shouts and quotations from street and cabaret songs. (11) “Complainte du pauvre jeune homme” for instance sets off with the caption “Sur l’air populaire: Quand le bonhomm’ revint du bois” (a song also known as “Le Bucheron de Bresse”). In the poem Laforgue reverts to practices used by singers and poets in the cabarets artistiques: a repetition of words or lines (the line “Quand ce jeune homm’ rentra chez lui” is used twice), elision (homm’ instead of homme) and the use of nonsense or nursery rhyme (“Digue dondaine, digue dondon”). (12)
The rhyme in Laforgue’s poetry and prose often rests on comparable sound effects. Typical is his frequent use of assonance and alliteration – which especially in free verse are important forms of rhyme. A few examples from Moralités légendaires. In the first b and s are repeated: “Dans un coin obscur d’une tribune, Hamlet dont nul jamais ne s’ inquiète, assis sur un coussin, observe la salle et la scène par les baies de la balustrade” (Hamlet). The second example centres on the repetition of the f/v-sound, the c and the l, with the “o” as a resounding vowel: and: “Et sur cette folle petite ville et son cercle de collines, le ciel infini dont on fait son deuil, ces éphémères féminines ne sortant jamais, en effet, sans mettre une frivole ombrelle entre elles et Dieu” (Miracles des roses). Sound for Laforgue is seemingly more important than significance: “Que je vous baisotte les mains, ô Kate, pour cette etiquette’ (Hamlet); “unique titre de Tétraque”; “une salle jonchée de joncs jaune jonquille” (Salomé). (13)As was the habit in the cabarets, Laforgue frequently reverts to popular expressions and exclamations, to argot and vulgar words (s’en ficher, s’engueuler). He invents new words or verbs (angeluser or ventriloquer, voluptuer, massacrileger) and uses mots-valises or port-manteau words to intensify the sense of the emotions he wants to convey (crucifiger as a speaking combination of crucifier and figer; éternullite as an – again very expressive – combination of éternité and nullité; violuptés as a combination of volupté and viol; ennuiverselles from ennui and universelles). In addition to “modern” words or (often incongruous) combinations (thermomètre, rails, capitaliste, laminé, transatlantiques bercails, spleens or ennuis kilométriques) he sprinkles his poems with non-poetical, technical, biological or medical expressions (polype, apoplectique, spectroscope, télescope, plasma or chlorose, to denote the pallor of unhealthy adolescent girls). (14)

Duchamp and Laforgue

For Duchamp getting acquainted with the work of Laforgue was of special importance for the development of his ideas. To Cabanne he stated that he especially liked Laforgue’s short stories, not just because of their humor, but also because they were something completely new: “I’m not acquainted with Laforgue’s life. […] That didn’t interest me enormously. But the prose poems in Moralités légendaires, which were as poetic as his poems, had really interested me very much. It was like an exit from Symbolism.” (15)
Without any doubt it was especially the parodical character of the Moralités légendaires that appealed to Duchamp. Besides that he must also have picked up some of the innovative aspects of Laforgue’s poetry that were linked to the artistic climate in Montmartre.

Duchamp in Montmartre

Duchamp came to live in Montmartre in 1904, with his brother Raymond in the rue Caulaincourt. Their elder brother Jacques Villon lived in the same street. Even though the Duchamp brothers associated themselves with other painters, e.g. in the Société Normande de Peinture Moderne, and showed their work on “alternative” exhibitions like the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne, in Montmartre they spent most of their time in quite different circles, in the company of illustrators and cartoonists. Like them, the brothers of Duchamp earned their money primarily by producing cartoons for Parisian humoristic journals. According to Duchamp there was little or no contact between them and the artistic avant-garde: “Remember that I wasn’t living among painters, but rather among cartoonists. In Montmartre, where I was living, rue Caulaincourt, next door to Villon, we associated with Willette, Léandre, Abel Faivre, Georges Huard etc., this was completely different; I wasn’t in contact with the painters at that time.” (16)
Although they were working as commercial artists, Duchamp’s brothers had not given up hope to be recognized as serious artists. Duchamp on the other hand had no clear goal. He tried his luck at the exam for admittance to the École des Beaux Arts and failed, attended some of the classes at the Académie Julian, but confessed later he preferred to play billiards at a local café, and evaded a three year conscription in the army, posing as an ouvrier d’art and learning the art of print-making in an atelier in Rouen. Duchamp had been drawing domestic scenes, portraits of family members or friends and everyday scenes of passers-by or street strollers from early on. After his return to Montmartre and following the example of his brothers, he produced another series of drawings and cartoons, often with the relations between men and women as a theme. A good example is Sundays (Dimanches, 1909): a fairly common scene of a young man, pushing a baby carriage, with next to him his wife, again heavy with child. The plural in the title not only refers to the endless repetition of dreary Sundays with their common family scenes, but also to the cycle of the seemingly joyless repetition this marriage is subject to. Dimanches could very well echo Laforgue’s melancholic poems about dreary Sundays.
Some of the cartoons Duchamp produced were published in humoristic magazines such as Le Rire and the Courrier français and were shown at the Salons des Humoristes that were organized from 1907 on. The captions of these cartoons are full of sexual innuendo and show that Duchamp had a keen eye for puns and double entendres. (17)

An “intellectual” artist

Though he picked up painting again around 1907, Duchamp’s ideas, in no way, fitted in with the usual pattern of a “serious” artist. He went rapidly through successive stages of the new movements in painting – Fauvism, “Cézannism” – as if he couldn’t decide what style suited him. In 1911, he painted the first works that show the influence of Cubism. He also participated in discussions about Cubism with his brothers and other painters of a cubist group that had formed around the painters Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger. But he did not stick to Cubism, either. He was searching for an art that differed fundamentally from what had been produced up to the 1910s. As he stated later, painters until then had exclusively focused on “retinal” effects. In the course of the nineteenth century the “physical” side of painting had increasingly been emphasized, which had resulted in a one-sided production of “pleasant” or “attractive” images of art, solely appealing to the senses. According to Duchamp, art had thus lost its “intellectual” (religious, historical, or literary) content. Even new movements such as (Neo)Impressionism, Futurism, or Cubism were mainly producing “physical” paintings. Duchamp deliberately searched for other ways: “I wanted to get away from the physical aspect of painting. […] I was interested in ideas – not merely in visual products. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind.”(18)
The decisive breaking point is well-known. In March 1912, Duchamp planned to show his freshly painted Nu descendant un escalier at the Salon des Indépendants, together with other members of the cubist group. Gleizes and Metzinger disapproved of the direction Duchamp had taken with his Nu and asked Duchamp’s brothers if they could persuade Duchamp to remove his “moving” nude. (19) This incident proved to Duchamp that the painters milieu, even that of the avant-garde, had little to offer to him. He therefore sought his inspiration elsewhere. Duchamp had a clear mind for innovation, both in the field of the visual arts and in the fields of science, language, and literature. The cartoons he produced were proof of his interest in language, in the possibilities of wordplay and puns, corresponding with the products of cartoonists and writers who moved around in the artistic circles of Montmartre. (20). And although he did not read a lot, his literary favorites were the more experimental symbolist authors such as Mallarmé . Duchamp’s attitude was quickly assessed as “intellectual” and “literary,” but that did not bother him. “I felt that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter,” he stated. (21)

Although his literary favorites were to be found among the more “difficult” symbolist writers, Duchamp (as he stated to Pierre Cabanne) preferred authors who offered an exit from symbolism. Like Raymond Roussel and Jean Paul Brisset (two authors Duchamp admired because of their “insane imagination”). Laforgue evaded the prevailing taste: he offered Duchamp the exit he was searching for. Duchamp must have been receptive to Laforgue’s ironic tone and the way this “decadent-symbolist” author exploited and ridiculed symbolist stereotypes. And more than Laforgue’s obvious themes (melancholy about human existence in the light of eternity, celibacy, unattainable love, and – almost consequently – sterility), Duchamp recognized the irony in the way Laforgue turned melancholy and self-pity into (black) humor. Besides that he must have felt attracted to the way Laforgue transformed common language into poetry, to his frequent use of dissonant words or expressions in a poetic context and to his extravagant titles: “But perhaps I was less attracted by Laforgue’s poetry than by his titles. ‘Comice agricole,’ when written by Laforgue, becomes poetry.” (22)

The full title of the poem Duchamp refers to reads “Complainte du soir des comices agricoles” (“Complaint of the Evening of the Agricultural show”). (23) Laforgue’s poem describes the depressing behavior of farmers and their ladies, who have great difficulty giving themselves over to dancing and fun. The poet therefore dresses up in melancholic thoughts about the human race and the planet it is living on: “Oh Terre, ô terre, ô race humaine, / vous me faites bien de la peine.” (O Earth, o human race, it is quite a pain you give me.”) Apart from the poetic effects of assonance and alliteration (co-co-co) the title of the poem is rather unusual. Nobody normally associates a farmers fair (“comice agricole”) with melancholy or other poetic feelings. Laforgue reverts quite happily to the use of such dissonances. Apparently, this use of dissonance attracted Duchamp too.

Motion instead of emotion

In 1911 Duchamp decided to illustrate some of Laforgue’s poems. The drawings bear the same titles as the poems, all from Laforgue’s first bundle Le Sanglot de la Terre (published posthumously in 1901): Médiocrité, Sieste éternelle, and Encore à cet astre (though the drawings bear the indication “12” and “13” they all date from 1911).(24)
Remarkably enough, the content of Laforgue’s poems seem to have little or no direct connection with the subject Duchamp chose to depict in his drawings. Sieste éternelle shows a section of a piano keyboard, possibly referring to the verse: “Et comme un piano voisin rève en mesure/je tournoie au concert rythmé des encensoirs.” (“And like a piano close by that dreams in scales / so I move around on the rhythmic concert of the incense burners”). In Laforgue’s Complaintes the piano is often used as a signal of wistful longing. In “Complainte des pianos qu’on entend dans les quartiers aisés,” for example, the poet is strolling through a rich residential area. Through the windows of the houses he hears the sound of endless rows of scales that are being practiced by young girls. The gray and boring life of these girls, who are all eagerly looking forward to a future lover, leaps to his mind, and he imagines how the monotonous life of these young girls eventually and inevitably will pass into the meager routine of married life. Duchamp’s drawing, however, doesn’t convey anything of these melancholic thoughts. It leaves the viewer in the dark as far as its meaning is concerned.
Médiocrité shows something that looks like a steam locomotive with wagons trailing behind. In Laforgue’s sonnet such a machine is nowhere to be found. Laforgue deplores the mediocrity of most people, who toil and slave endlessly and without joy, and suspect nothing of the nullity (the éternullité) of the planet Earth in light of eternity. The only possible connection between poem and drawing is the last line of the poem (“Combien même s’en vont/Sans avoir seulement visité leur planète”; “How many take their leave/without even having visited their planet”).This line could have brought Duchamp the idea of a train – and possibly the idea of motion, instead of emotion. Encore à cet astre (“Once more to this star”; to be understood as an address to the sun) gave Duchamp the idea for Nu descendant un escalier (Nude Descending a Staircase, 1911):

The idea of the Nude came from a drawing which I had made in 1911 to illustrate Jules Laforgue’s poem Encore à cet astre. I had planned a series of illustrations of Laforgue’s poems, but I only completed three of them. […] In the drawing Encore à cet astre the figure is, of course, mounting the stairs. But while working on it, the idea of the Nude, or the title – I do not recall which – first came to my mind. (25)

Duchamp’s drawing again doesn’t contain much of which Laforgue is speaking. The poem reads as an imaginary dialogue between the sun and the people on earth. The sun (for Laforgue often a symbol of a dying force) expresses its contempt with those damned animated puppets (“pantins morphines”) down there on Earth. The earthlings, however, challenge the sun and point to its damned fate: it is at the end of its strength, its beams will inevitably grow cold, and it will be the laughing stock of the other stars. They, however, even if they are young, “die of health.”

In Duchamp’s drawing we see a floating head, as a sort of reference to Odilon Redon, between two figures. On the left a (apparently) female figure, naked from the waist down, surmounted by a cylindrical shape; on the right another (male? female?) figure, climbing a flight of stairs. (26) The pronounced teeth of the floating head could be taken as a reference to one of the lines in the poem (“Toi seul claques des dents”; “Only you clack your teeth”). Graphically, there is a connection with two earlier (realistic) nudes Duchamp drew, rather unusually sitting or resting on a ladder. (27) Maybe Duchamp got the idea of setting a (rudimentary or puppet-like) nude in motion, walking on a flight of stairs, from Laforgue’s description of the sun high up in the sky, talking to human puppets down below. Be that as it may, Duchamp probably drew more inspiration from the idea of movement (up-down) in Laforgue’s poem, than from its actual (emotional, i.e. melancholic) content.

Duchamp´s drawings after the poetry of Laforgue signify an important turning point in his work and thinking. As indicated, around 1911 Duchamp was searching to break free from the art of tradition, but also from the work of Cézanne and the Fauves, which until then had served him as an example. He experimented with techniques he had taken from Cubism, but was also inspired by the art of Symbolism – a symbolism embodied in paintings such as Buisson (The Bush, 1910-1911). When asked about the title of this painting, Duchamp stated he added the title (Buisson) “as an invisible color.” (28) He felt he needed “ a raison d’être in a painting that was different from the visual experience,” as a means of “giving a work that contained no anecdote an anecdotal element.” (29) “A poetic title for a painting was an anathema in the Fauves period, and was dismissed as literature,” he stated later. (30) In symbolist art such a “suggestive” title was not unusual. (31)
By giving paintings such as Buisson symbolic titles, Duchamp tried to lend these rather traditional nudes (they are more or less Fauvist nudes) a meta-realistic touch, purely because he felt the need to step away from their being too realistic.
The next step would even lead him away from the idea of giving his paintings “symbolist” titles. He started experimenting with setting his subjects in motion. Encore à cet astre must have played a central part in this development. About the genesis of this drawing Duchamp explained to Cabanne: “(the origin is) in the nude itself. To do a different nude from the classic reclining or standing nude, and to put it in motion.” (32) Motion (or the suggestion of motion) as a subject thus was becoming more and more important, and certainly more important than emotion.


In December 1911, Duchamp painted Jeune homme triste dans un train (Sad Young Man in a Train) and, in the same month, the first study for Nu descendant un escalier . Michel Sanouillet has suggested that Jeune homme triste dans un train was based on a lost sketch, belonging to the series of illustrations to poems of Laforgue that Duchamp had planned to do. According to Sanouillet the original title of Jeune homme triste dans un train would have read Pauvre jeune homme M: “precisely the name of one of Laforgue’s Complaintes.” The Laforgue poem Sanouillet refers to tells the sad but hilarious story of a young man who finds out his wife has left him for another, laments his fate, and in despair finally cuts his throat. (33). If Sanouillet is right about Duchamp’s first idea for a title, the M would have given his painting a personal touch (M being an indication for ‘Marcel’). Unfortunately, there is no M in the title of the Laforgue poem. (34)
Several interpreters (Arturo Schwarz, Lawrence D. Steefel, Jerrold B. Seigel, John Golding) have tried to link Jeune homme triste dans un train to Duchamp’s melancholic mood at the end of 1911 and have suggested that this painting could point to an influence from Laforgue’s poems. (35) John Golding for instance sees something of the “bleak, quizzical despair” in Duchamp’s painting which characterizes the Laforgue poem. Duchamp’s painting is what he calls a “mood painting”: “The Nude Descending is in no way a tragic painting (…). Yet the debt to Laforgue exists in the sensation or pervasive melancholy which the canvas transmits.” (36). According to Golding the relationship between Jeune homme triste dans un train and Nu descendant un escalier is reinforced by the fact that Duchamp painted black borders in both paintings. Duchamp himself, however, always rejected a “melancholic” interpretation of Jeune homme triste dans un train. He acknowledged that the painting was a self-portrait (a pipe, hardly visible, should be an indication), but when Robert Lebel asked him if the black borders are to be seen as an atmospheric sketch of his mood at that moment, Duchamp with his usual aplomb stated that “the black frames in Jeune homme triste only served to bring the painting back to the right dimensions.” (37)
It is rather unlikely that Duchamp intended Jeune homme triste dans un train to be “a mood painting.” If he had wanted the title to be read as a reference to an autobiographical fact and as an indication of a melancholy mood he could indeed have added the “M” Sanouillet is referring to. Duchamp himself particularly stressed the role of the train-triste alliteration in the title: “The Sad Young Man on a Train already showed my intention of introducing humor into painting or, in this case, the humor of word play: triste, train. […] The young man is sad because there is a train that comes afterward. ‘Tr’ is very important.” (38)
In other words, Duchamp chose the word “triste” (sad) because it worked beautifully with “train,” or better because the word “train” trails after, entraînes the word “triste.”


As his early drawings and cartoons show, and as is evident in his work after 1911, Duchamp was very aware of the possible use of “literary” (or poetic) effects in his search for an art that differed from traditional art. Duchamp had always been interested in word games and was trained in the use of calembours and words with double meanings. It could not have escaped him that Laforgue regularly made use of the humorous and ironic effects of dissonant words and expressions in his poems. The irony and humor in Laforgue’s poems mainly resides in the collision of two traditionally opposing verbal registers: on the one hand, the (traditional) poetical register, and on the other, the register of spoken language and language used in new areas of communication. His poetry takes its ironic character primarily from the dissonances between these two different linguistic sources. And Duchamp must have noticed that he could do something similar in the visual arts.
In the titles of his work after 1911, Duchamp sometimes falls back on the same effects as Laforgue. When asked about the word “vite” in the title of Le roi et la reine traversés par des nus vites (The King and Queen Traversed by Swift Nudes, 1912), Duchamp stated that this word amused him, because at that time it was new and modern, and was only used in sports, e.g. as an indication for a cyclist, a racing driver or an athlete: “if a man was ‘swift,’ he ran well.” (39) Titles like Jeune homme triste dans un train , Deux personnages et une auto (Two Characters and a Car, 1912), Le roi et la reine entourés des nus vites (The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes, 1912), Le roi et la reine traversés par des nus en vitesse (The King and Queen Traversed by Nudes at High Speed, 1912), or Le roi et la reine traversés par des nus vites (The King and Queen Traversed by Swift Nudes, 1912) with their unusual dissonances (a combination of a word deriving from the world of mechanics or sports and from more traditional registers), definitely have Laforgian traces. And the title of Duchamp’s 1914 drawing Avoir l’apprenti dans le soleil (To Have the Apprentice in the Sun), in which we see a bicyclist frantically working his way up a slope, would not have seemed out of place amongst the titles of Laforgue’s poems.

Assonance and alliteration

In addition, Duchamp must have noted that in his (free) verse and his prose Laforgue frequently made use of alliteration and assonance as a remplaçant for more conventional rhyme. As is obvious from his statement about the word play “triste/train” Duchamp was sensitive to such literary effects. He was without any doubt amused by the tonal qualities of the work of Laforgue, for instance, by the (alliterative and assonant) effects of choruses such as “digue dondaine, digue dondon” or the use of assonance and elision (bonhomm’) in poems like “Complainte du pauvre jeune homme” – lines and words that referred to the popular song the poem is based upon, echoing the practices used in the cabarets artistiques. Talking about the poetry of Mallarmé, Duchamp stated that it wasn’t so much the content or the construction of the verses that attracted him, but the “sonorité” – the sound. For Duchamp Mallarmé’s poetry was primarily a “poésie audible” (poetry to be listened at): “Since I don’t completely understand him [Mallarmé], I find him very pleasurable to read for sound, as poetry that you hear,” he said to Cabanne. (40)
In his works after 1911, Duchamp frequently fell back on the poetical effects of alliteration and assonance. A title such as Le roi et la reine traversés par des nus vites derives its poetic effect from the repeating of the “r” and the “a”; in La Mariee mise à nu par ses célibataires, même , the “m” is repeated, as it is in Neuf Moules Mâlic ( mâlic being a neologism). (41)
In naming the different parts of The Large Glass , Duchamp made use of similar effects. Témoins oculistes is another example of a neologism, and assonance is present in titles such as Glissière contenant un moulin à eau en métaux voisins (“eau” rhyming on “métaux” and “o”), and alliteration in Dynamo désir or in L’Enfant-phare. Moreover, Duchamp, especially in later ready-mades, frequently fell back on the humoristic power of mots-valises or port-manteau words (Fresh Widow, La Bagarre d’Austerlitz).

The influence of Laforgue

In Nu descendant un escalier Duchamp united a principle he borrowed from Laforgue: to bring together two elements (nude – staircase) that in traditional terms do not mutually “rhyme.” He added a novelty of his own, namely the liberation of the nude from her traditional frameworks: he painted a moving nude instead of a stationary nude, a nude that “descends,” instead of reclining or standing. It is this idea of motion or movement – not in an emotional sense, but in an intellectual sense – that he developed in several works after 1911, culminating in La Mariee mise à nu par ses célibataires, meme (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915-23) and in his ready-mades. In these works, he concentrated not on a pictorial (static) scene, but on a mental idea, using the artwork as a means to convey the idea of a world in motion, a constant flux or a coming-and-going of appearances.
Duchamp picked up another idea from Laforgue. In his poems, Laforgue often attributes life to lifeless objects or abstractions, thereby augmenting the ironic quality of his poems (See, for example,“Complainte du foetus de poète,” “Complainte du vent qui s’ennuie la nuit,” and “Complainte des débats mélancoliques et littéraires”).
Similar (Laforgian) irony speaks from phrases and titles for parts of La Mariee mise à nu par ses célibataires, meme, such as Handler of gravity (Manieur de gravité, also named Tender of Gravity – Soigneur de gravité – or Juggler of gravityJongleur de gravité ). Here Duchamp plays on the double meaning of the word gravity: weight or gravitation on the one hand, and seriousness on the other. The irony is of course present in the idea that you can “juggle” with gravity – an idea Duchamp illustrated in his concept of objects “made of a substance of oscillating density,” such as the Hook or the Chariot in the Big Glass (42) – or that you can tend to (“take care of,” or “look out for”) gravity. The same goes for the attribution of human emotions to some of the mechanical devises in The Large Glass (a chariot with a “slow” or “celibate life,” a motor with “a desire center”).When it comes to the intrinsic themes that Duchamp might have found in the work of Laforgue, it is not so much the theme of melancholy but another theme that jumps out. Laforgue frequently refers to his dislike of bourgeois marriage, especially where sex is concerned as a mere means to acquire offspring. Instead of “love in the service of reproduction” as the above quotation about his perfect English girl illustrates, Laforgue finds the ultimate ideal in selfless, sterile love.
Duchamp in his turn repeatedly and emphatically manifested his aversion to marriage as a social institution and his preference for the status of the bachelor. Duchamp’s early drawings are not only interesting because of the combination of text and image and the use of calembours or sexual innuendo in the captions, but also because of their themes. Many of these early drawings provide an ironic view on the concerns of courtship, the period of engagement, and the routine of married life. (43) They can thus be seen as an early ruling against (civil) marriage and as a celebration of the state of bachelor (or – for that matter – of unmarried cohabitation). His drawing Dimanches can be seen as an early manifestation of this conviction. The theme of his La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même seems to be partly based on the same idea of (sterile) love; on the idea of the fundamental impossibility of the union of bachelor and bride, even though they mutually undergo the effects of desire for the other. Where Duchamp speaks of the Large Glass as a “negation of the woman,” it was the negation of the woman as a wife/mother he focused upon, as the person who assists in the continuation of social life and the (mechanical) producing of social individuals over and over again. (44)
That is not to say that Duchamp’s work can be interpreted as an expression of the “eternal” opposition between the masculine and the feminine, which is the theme of many symbolist works of art. Duchamp does not tackle the (eternal) male-female opposition, but his work does challenge the opposition husband vs. wife/mother.

It could well have been the introduction of popular material in a poetic context, the use of newly formed words and the playing on their incongruity (this diversion from traditional poetical standards) that put Duchamp on the trail of comparable methods to undermine existing codes and registers in the visual arts. Laforgue was one of the first modern poets who used words that stem from such non-poetical arsenals as trade, (natural) science, traffic, slang and popular songs. With his introduction of neologisms and non-poetical words and phrases he gave an example of increased lexical and linguistic choices for the poet.
Laforgue’s idea of using dissonances in order to pervert the traditional poetic language has a clear counterpart in the work of Duchamp, both in his early work and in his ready-mades. As is the case with Laforgue, Duchamp reverted to a process of dissociation: he isolated words (or sounds) and objects from their habitual (grammatical, logical) context and presented them in another context. By painting simple and everyday objects, such as Coffee Mill or Chocolate Grinder, he introduced mechanical devices as legitimate subjects for art works. This practice eventually gave way to simply “choosing” ordinary objects and, by giving them a poetic (often ambiguous) title, elevating them to genuine art works (In Advance of the Broken Arm, Trébuchet/Trap). With his genuine ready-mades – Fountain being the most famous – he went one step further. By isolating an ordinary object – a urinal – from its normal context (the public restroom) and by introducing it in a surrounding where it is definitely out of place (the gallery or museum) he expanded the artistic methods and materials and took them to until then uncharted realms.


Laforgue was one of the first modern poets who demonstrated an ambivalent-melancholic attitude towards language and poetry. Thus, in “Complainte des Blackboulés” it is said that “she” (a “coeur rose”) has spat on the Arts and the poet. In the poem a poet complains about the fact that art is mocked and attacked – while Laforgue himself is doing nothing different, by mocking all that has been seen as sacred in poetry. It is a melancholic attitude, because the poet realizes that there is little else to do, that writing has become a ridiculous, pointless activity – “Ah! Qu’est-ce que je fais, ici, dans cette chambre!/Des vers. Et puis, après?”(“Ah, what am I doing sticking around indoors! Verse. And then, what after that?”, Complainte d’une autre dimanche) – but that he can do nothing else. Laforgue hides behind the ironic nonchalance with which he ridicules poetry, rhetoric, literary themes or motifs – but he still writes poetry! In that sense he distinguishes himself from the pranksters, who were also to be found amongst the Hydropathes and other Fumistes. Where some of these poet-singers were aiming to ridicule Literature – as an example of what was called “the established order” – Laforgue was looking for an answer to the question which way poetry could go, while rejecting the path of traditional rhetoric or of legendary themes. The work of Laforgue may in many respects be similar to that of the Fumistes, the difference is in what Laforgue aimed at. He was not aiming at the joke “for the joke’s sake.” Or, in the words of Grojnowski: “Se voutant à la quête d’une manière ‘clownesque’, il inaugure une esthétique de la disparate où, selon ses propres termes, les dictionnaires ‘se brouillent’.” (45). Duchamp recognized and appreciated the irony of Laforgue, which is akin to his “ironie d’affirmation,” with a slight but important difference; unlike Laforgue there is, in the case of Duchamp, no question of black vision or melancholy. He approaches his subjects in a “dry” and “neutral” way.
Instead of a well-established, traditional style, Laforgue sought a new style of his own, an idiolect, a language offering space to the everyday, spoken word – a style that is not only related to the style of the authors who frequented the Parisian cabarets artistiques and that of innovative authors such as Mallarmé, but can be regarded as a harbinger of the style of modern writers such as Céline and Queneau.
It is this ambivalent attitude – rejecting the (old) poetry but simultaneously seeking a way to save poetry by looking for new ways – that Duchamp has in common with Laforgue. Duchamp is not so much the Dadaist, who only rejects. He is much more like Laforgue, someone who is “looking for a way out” – looking for new ways for the arts to go in a changing society. That is what is behind Duchamp’s judgment about the work of Laforgue: “It was like an exit from symbolism.” Laforgue helped Duchamp to find his way out in his “ironisme d’affirmation,” in his Large Glass, and in his readymades.


    1. Daniel Grojnowski, talking about the Incohérents, has pointed out that their activities can be interpreted as being a sort of proto-Dada. ‘Une trentaine d’années avant que n’éclatent les scandales provoqués par la jeunesse de l’après-guerre, qui, vers 1920, a transformé de manière sans doute irréversible notre perception de l’œuvre, les Incohérents ont, pour une bonne part, inventé ‘dada’ avant la lettre, sans avoir trouvé […] la reconnaissance qui aurait consacré leurs recherches. En somme, ils ont formé une avant-garde sans avancée, une provocation artistique sans prise qui, faute de s’être imposée, demeure un simple objet de curiosité.’ Daniel Grojnowski, Aux commencements du rire moderne. L’esprit fumiste (Paris: Corti, 1997), 255-256.


    1. It is impossible to discuss the “literature of Montmarte” here in full. For a more extensive view see: Mary Shaw, “All of nothing? The Literature of Montmartre,” in Philip Dennis Cate and Mary Shaw, eds., The Spirit of Montmartre. Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905 (Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 1996. See also: Charles Rearick, Pleasures of the Belle Epoque. Entertainment and Festivity in Turn-of-the-Century France (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985); Harrold B. Segel, Turn-of-the-century cabaret. Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Cracow, Moscow, St.Petersburg, Zurich (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987). In French: Daniel Grojnowski, Aux commencements du rire moderne. L’esprit fumiste (Paris: Corti, 1997) ; and André Velter, Les Poètes du Chat Noir (Paris: Gallimard, 1996).


    1. Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1979), 29-30.


    1. For a brief biography of Laforgue in English see: Jules Laforgue, Poems , Trans. Peter Dale (London: Anvil Press Poetry, 2001 [1986]).


    1. Des fleurs de bonne volonté, for instance, contains thirteen poems with “Dimanche” in their title, for a total of 56 poems.


    1. “Le type de l’adorable, de l’aimée unique, pour moi est par exemple l’anglaise […]. Elle est la seule race de femme que je ne parvienne pas à déshabiller. […] Mon imagination reste stérile, gelée, n’a jamais existé, ne m’a pas dégradé […] Elle n’a pas pour moi d’organes sexuels, je n’y songe pas, il me serait impossible d’y songer. [ …] Toutes les autres sont des chiennes.” Feuilles volantes , in: Jules Laforgue, Oeuvres Complètes , Vol. 3 (Lausanne: L’Age des Hommes, 2000), 960-961.


    1. A typical Laforgian play-on-words. The first part of the name refers to the preference Flaubert puts on sparkling gems, the second part is an ironic reference to the – supposedly – “archetypal” character of Herod.


    1. Laforgue often reverts to quotes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet , using them as a motto for his poems. In Des Fleurs de bonne volonté , eleven out of 56 poems have a motto taken from Hamlet . He uses these quotes regularly in connection with other recurring themes that for him represent melancholy: Sundays, moonlight, sterility, autumn.


    1. This refrain, echoing the practices of the cabaret artistique, is taken from a French nursery song: “Il était un’ bergère’/Et ron et ron, petit patapon/Il était un’ bergère/Qui gardait ses moutons/Ron, ron/Qui gardait ses moutons.


    1. Cate and Shaw, 128. Laforgue´s “L’Hiver qui vient” is a good example of this dual objective. “What is often overlooked, however, is that this poem, far from emerging as a work of solitary genius, exemplifies a general context of innovation,” says Shaw (Cate and Shaw 1996, 129). The title of the poem echoes the beginning of a poem by Raoul Ponchon from the Album zutique (1871): “V’la l’hiver et ses guenilles/Un’saison qu’est emmerdant!”, (with the characteristic elision “V’la” instead of “Voila”) and the opening lines of Jehan Rictus’ “L’Hiver” (from Les Soliloques du Pauvre, first performed in cabaret Les Quat’z’Arts in 1895): “Merd’! V ’là l’Hiver et ses dur’tés/V’là l’moment de n’plus s’mettre à poils.” And the first word of Rictus’ poem again raises an echo: of the first word of Jarry’s Ubu Roi namely, the play that knew its premiere a year after Rictus first performed his poem.


    1. Two other examples. “Complainte de cette bonne lune” sets off with a variant on the popular song “Sur le pont d’Avignon” and “Complainte de Lord Pierrot” with an adaptation of the more well-known “Au clair de la lune”: “Au clair de la lune/Mon ami Pierrot/Filons en costume/Présider là-haut!/Ma cervelle est morte/Que le Christ l’emporte/Béons à la Lune/La bouche en zéro (…).”Typical in this last poem is the combination of the moon (lune) with Pierrot. Pierrot is, next to Hamlet, the character who for Laforgue embodies the theme of melancholy. In late nineteenth century literature, Pierrot served as the epitome of the melancholic: he is the enemy of the sun, and – consequently – a lunatic.In 1882 Laforgue borrowed the title of one of Adolphe Willette’s famous Pierrot cartoons, Pierrot fumiste, for a play of his own. The Pierrot of Laforgue mocks marriage and wedding nights and proclaims a love that must remain sterile. Notwithstanding he marries. On his wedding night he smothers his bride with kisses, but otherwise doesn’t touch her, and goes to sleep. The next day she is still a virgin. The same thing happens every night. As the months pass, what the family mistook for delicacy becomes cause for concern. The doctor who is finally brought in warns Pierrot that others could rob him of what he despises in his wife. Pierrot then brutally assails her and sets off immediately afterwards – not as someone who has failed, but as someone who punishes his wife: she has spurned true love and exchanged it for the profane sexual act.

      For Pierrot fumiste see:

    2. The lines “digue dondaine, digue dondon” refer to a popular song from the operetta Les Cloches De Corneville by Robert Planquette, that is supposed to suggest the ringing of church bells: “Digue, digue, digue, digue, digue dong/Sonne, sonne, sonne, sonne, sonne dong/Digue, digue, digue, digue, digue donc/Sonne, sonne, sonne donc, joyeux carillon.” The singer Jules Jouy referred to the same song in his “Le Reveillon des Gueux.” See: Segel, 37-38 and http://kropot.free.fr/JJouy.htm#GUEUX
      To give an example of a Chat Noir poem with similar characteristics, some lines from “Faculté des sciences du Chat Noir” by Alphonse Allais: “(Air connu): L’azote est un gaz bien malain/Dans l’quel on n’peut pas vivre/Il se trouv’ dans l’air le plus sain/C’est pas lui qui enivre,/Il n’a pas le moindre action,/La faridondaine, la faridondon,/Il empêche la vie/Biribi/A la façon de Barbari, mon ami. ” See: André Velter, Les Poètes du Chat Noir (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 124-125.


    1. More examples in: Daniel Grojnowski, Jules Laforgue et l’originalité (Neuchatel: Edition de la Baconnière, 1988), 230-234. Duchamp uses similar phonetic principles in his puns: “Abominables fourrures abdominales”; “Nous livrons à domicile: moustiques domestiques (demi-stock)”; “Daily lady cherche démêlés avec Daily Mail”; “Paroi parée de paresse de paroisse.” See: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1973), 105-119.


    1. For an extensive review of the lexical and linguistic aspects of Laforgue’s prose and poetry see: Jacques-Philippe Saint-Gérand, “Jules Laforgue: Les Complaintes, ‘où Saint-Malo rime avec Sanglots et Bocks avec Coq.’ Éléments de mise en perspective grammaticale et stylistique.” On: http://projects.chass.utoronto.ca/langueXIX/laforgue/etude.htm


    1. Cabanne, 30.


    1. Cabanne, 22.


    1. E.g., Femme Cocher (Woman Hack Driver, 1907), At the Palais the Glace (1909), Future Mother-in-law (1909), Nuit Blanche (Sleepless Night, 1909), Vice sans fin (Endless Vice, 1909) and Chamber Music (1910). See: Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 1997), volume 2: no’s 102, 144, 146, 150, 155 and 173). The pun in Femme cocher rests on the (homophonic) ambiguity of the title: femme cocher/femme couché (woman coach driver/woman who is making love); the running meter of the coach in front of an hotel and the indication 6969 on the lantern on the coach are allusions to the activities the coach driver and her client are involved in.
    2. The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, 125.


    1. The question remains what Gleizes and Metzinger may have incited to reject Duchamp’s Nude. For the Cubists the painted object functioned as an ‘anchor’ for the sum of (sensory ) experiences. Duchamp had reduced the object – in this case the nude – to a transient flux. But perhaps there was still another reason for their refusal. Gleizes and Metzinger seem to have thought that Duchamp’s Nude wore a too literary title for a cubist painting. The title would have reduced the painting to a caricature. Funny enough Duchamp’s brothers suggested him to at least change the title of his painting, but that was utterly impossible: Duchamp had painted the title directly on the canvas. The title was, in other words, an integral part of the work.


    1. Michel Sanouillet has rightly pointed out the importance of what he calls the ‘popular tradition’ for a good understanding of Duchamp’s ideas: “What sets Duchamp apart [from contemporary avant-garde artists] (…) is the fact that he was led to move in a particular milieu, among the journalists, cartoonists, and artisans of Paris, more than among the fashionable painters and men of letters. Thus he kept close to a French oral tradition that manifests itself in a thousand different ways in the life of the average Parisian: argot, vulgar words, “in” jokes, puns, the language of pamphlets, ads, almanacs etc.” Michel Sanouillet, “Marcel Duchamp and the French Intellectual Tradition”: Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, eds., Marcel Duchamp (New York: Museum of Modern Art, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1989 [1973], 53.


    1. The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, 126.


    1. The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, 124.


    1. In his notes Duchamp refers to the Large Glas as a “machine agricole” or “instrument aratoire” (an “agricultural machine”). See: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, 44.


    1. Apparently, Duchamp wasn’t very precise when it came down to signing and dating the drawings. In the case of Encore à cet astre, for instance, he only the added the indication ‘13’ with the caption ‘très cordialement´ when he offered the drawing to F.C. Torrey.


    1. The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, 124. In his conversations with Cabanne Duchamp states that he made about ten drawings, but he suggests to ignore where even the three that are known have gone to. See The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, 30.


    1. As has been suggested, the relation between drawing and poem could be found in the similarity between the French word astre (star) and the English stare/stair . See for instance: B. Bailey, “Once More to this Staircase: Another Look at Encore à cet Astre,” Tout Fait, The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, 2, No. 4. For me, it seams unlikely that Duchamp intended such a relation, considering that he mastered the English language only after 1915, during his stay in the United States.


    1. See Schwarz, vol. 2: no’s 109 and 110.


    1. “The presence of a non-descriptive title is shown here for the first time. In fact, from then on, I always gave an important role to the title which I added and treated like an invisible color.” Duchamp, in: d’Harnoncourt and McShine, 249.
    2. In a letter of 1951 to Mary Ann Adler, quoted in d’Harnoncourt and McShine, 249.


    1. In a letter to Bill Camfield, quoted in Jennifer Gough-Cooper and Jacques Caumont, Ephemerides on and about Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy , 1887-1968 , Palazzo Grassi, Venice (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993), entry for 25-4-1961.
    2. Compare for instance Odilon Redon’s works with titles such as Les origins, Esprit de la fôret or La folie, Gustave Moreau’s Les Voix or Félicien Rops’ Parodie humaine .


    1. Cabanne, 30.


    1. The first stanza of the poem reads: “Quand ce jeune homm’ rentra chez lui (2x)/Il prit à deux mains son vieux crâne/Que de science était un puits!/Crâne/Riche crane/Entends tu la Folie qui plane/Et qui demande le cordon/Digue dondaine, digue dondon.” (this last line 2x).


    1. Michel Sanouillet, “Marcel Duchamp and the French intellectual tradition,” d’Harnoncourt and McShine, 50. It is interesting to note that this misreading of Laforgue’s title pops up almost everywhere in the Duchamp-literature. Even Calvin Tomkins, who sacrifices two pages of his Duchamp 1996 biography to Duchamp’s interest in Laforgue (he rightly stresses the point that Duchamp “had a particular liking for the prose narratives that Laforgue calles Moralités legendaires” , amongst which Hamlet was Duchamp’s favorite), fails to see that the title of Laforgue’s poem reads simply ‘Complainte du pauvre jeune homme’. See: Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp (London: Chatto & Windus, 1997), 89-90.


    1. See Schwarz, 109-111; Lawrence D. Steefel, Jr. ” Marcel Duchamp’s Encore à cet Astre : A New Look,” Art Journal 36, no. 1 (1976): 23-30; Jerrold Seigel, The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp: Desire, Liberation, and the Self in Modern Culture (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), 59-60. Schwarz suggested that Duchamp’s melancholy was afflicted by the marriage of his favorite sister Suzanne. His suggestion that Duchamp was in love with his sister is more funny than probable.


    1. John Golding, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (New York: Viking Press, 1973) [London, Penguin Books, 1972], 25.


    1. “en réalité, la bordure noire du Jeune homme triste, m’a surtout servi à cadrer le tableau pour la mettre à son échelle (…).” Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp (Paris: Belfont, 1985 [1959], 122-123. Duchamp moreover added black borders to his first version of The Chess Players too.


    1. Cabanne, 29.


    1. Cabanne, 36.


    1. Cabanne, 105. In French this statement is more heavily emphasized: “[…] j’ai beaucoup de plaisir à le lire au point de vue de la sonorité, de la poésie audible.” See : Pierre Cabanne, Marcel Duchamp, ingénieur du temps perdu (Paris: Belfond, 1977 [1967]), 183-184.


    1. The addition of the adverb même in the title La Mariee mise à nu par ses célibataires, même has given rise to a lot of explanations: did Duchamp aim at the – homophonic – “m’aime”, did he want to refer to himself (through a double M [M M or (e)m(e)-(e)m(e)]? Or did he just like the alliterating effect of the “m” in the title, as an echo of Laforgue’s “bonhomm’ “? In answering Otto Hahn about the meaning of “même” Duchamp explained: “Même doesn’t refer to anything. It has a sense of poetic affirmation. As Breton says, humour of affirmation. Neither denigration nor a joke, but humour which amplifies. Somewhat the ‘Ha, ha’ of Jarry.” Marcel Duchamp, interview with Otto Hahn, L’Express , 23 juli 1964. Cited in: Jennifer Gough-Cooper en Jacques Caumont, Ephemerides on and about Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy , 1887-1968 (Exhibition catalogue Palazzo Grassi, Venice: april-july 1993) (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993), entry for 23 juli 1964.


    1. “the Hook (…) is made of a substance of oscillating density. This hook therefore has an indeterminate, variable and uncontrollable weight” and: “The chariot is emancipated horizontally. It is free, of all gravity in the horizontal plane.” The Writings of Marcel Duchamp , 61 and 57.


    1. One is reminded of the “jeu de massacre”, the fairground game Duchamp referred to in an interview with Richard Hamilton and George Heard Hamilton: “The idea came probably from the fairs, the country fairs in France at least, were you have a wedding scene. And you have big balls that you throw at the heads of the bride and the bridegroom and the guests (…).” Quoted from: Marcel Duchamp: An Interview by Richard Hamilton in London and George Heard Hamilton in New York (London: Audio Arts, 1975); also on: http://ubumexico.centro.org.mx/sound/duchamp/interviews/Duchamp-Marcel_George-Hamilton-Interview_1959.mp3


    1. When questioned by Cabanne about his marriage (his first, in 1927) and the qualification of his “Large Glass” as a “negation of woman”, Duchamp stated: ‘It’s above all a negation of woman in the social sense of the word, that is to say, the woman-wife, the mother, the children, etc. I carefully avoided that, until I was sixty-seven.. Then I married a woman who, because of her age, couldn’t have children. (…) One can have all the women one wants, one isn’t obliged to marry them.” See: Cabanne, 76
    2. Grojnowski, Aux commencements du rire modern, 94


Opposition and Sister Squares: Marcel Duchamp and Samuel Beckett.

Opposition and Sister Squares: Marcel Duchamp and Samuel Beckett.

Andrew Hugill

Bath Spa University, UK.


This article explores the personal and artistic relationship between Marcel Duchamp and Samuel Beckett. It examines the biographical evidence for a connection between the two men and in particular focuses on chess. It explores some apparent evocations of Duchamp, both as a man and as an artist, in writings such as Murphy and Eleuthéria. It suggests that some key aspects of the dramatic structure, staging, and dialogue in Endgame derives from Beckett’s awareness of the peculiar endgame position described in L’opposition et les cases conjuguées sont réconciliées (Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled) by Duchamp and Halberstadt. To reach a detailed understanding of this argument, it sets out an expository account of a typical chess position and its accompanying terminologies from the book, then applies those to the play itself.

Paris in the 1930s


 Samuel Beckett first encountered Marcel Duchamp in Paris during the 1930s. Something of the familiarity of their relationship may be deduced from this casual remark in a letter to George Reavey, written in 1938:

I am halfway through a modified version in French of Love and Lethe. I don’t know if it is better than the English version or merely as bad. I have 10 Poems in French also, mostly short, When I have a few more I shall send them to Éluard. Or get Duchamp to do it. (ed. Fehsenfeld and Overbeck, 2009, 645).

  ‘Love and Lethe’ was one of the stories in More Pricks Than Kicks (Beckett, 1934, 85-100) and the poems were later to be published as part of a set of twelve as ‘Poèmes 38-39’ (Beckett, 1946, 288-293). In 1932, Beckett had translated several of Paul Éluard’s poems for This Quarter (Éluard, 1932, 86-98). By 1935 Reavey was in the process of preparing a new collection, entitled Thorns of Thunder, in which he intended to reprint these translations, with some more besides (ed. Fehsenfeld and Overbeck, 2009, 296-297). However, since these new translations were due at a time when Beckett was struggling to complete Murphy, he was obliged to refuse to take on  Éluard’s ‘La Personnalité toujours neuve’ (A Personality Always New), declaring that he was ‘up to [his] eyes in other work’ (Ibid. 330). He lamented to Thomas MacGreevy in a letter dated 9 April [1936]: ‘Murphy wont move for me at all. I get held up over the absurdest difficulties of detail. But I sit before it most day of most days.’ (Ibid. 331).

Some relief from the pressures of writing Murphy came from playing chess. Marcel Duchamp seems to have been an occasional opponent during this period. Deirdre Bair cites Kay Boyle, Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, Josette Hayden, and an anonymous Irish writer and friend of Beckett, in recording that:

Beckett knew Duchamp throughout the 1930s in Paris, having met him at Mary Reynolds’ house. Beckett frequented the cafés where the best players congregated, as did Duchamp, and he followed the chess column that Duchamp occasionally wrote for the Paris daily newspaper Ce Soir (Bair, 1980, 393).
James Knowlson similarly recounts a conversation with Beckett in which he declared that he ‘played chess occasionally with Marcel Duchamp’ (Knowlson, 1996, 289). Although this statement is placed within a chapter covering the period 1937-39, there is little doubt that the acquaintance between the two artists preceded those dates. Mary Reynolds, who had begun her long-term relationship with Duchamp in 1926 (a love affair that only came to an end with her death, with Duchamp at her side, in 1950), welcomed both of them into her house in Montparnasse:

The 1930s marked a period of tranquillity, contentment, and artistic achievement for [Mary] Reynolds. Her relationship with Duchamp had settled into a comfortable intimacy. Her creativity and binding production were at their highest levels. She held an open house almost nightly at her home at 14, rue Hallé, with her quiet garden the favored spot after dinner for the likes of Duchamp, Brancusi, Man Ray, Breton, Barnes, Guggenheim, Éluard, Mina Loy, James Joyce, Jean Cocteau, Samuel Beckett, and others. (Godlewski, 2001, 12).

It is therefore no surprise to find Beckett writing with complete confidence in 1938 that Duchamp would pass the poems to Éluard, who in turn would be willing to assist in getting them published.


 Duchamp steered a studiously idiosyncratic course through Parisian intellectual life, continuing the line of Dada yet somewhat distant from it, actively involved in Surrealism yet managing to avoid becoming too close to Breton’s group. Nevertheless, in 1938 he designed the Second Surrealist Exhibition at the Galérie des Beaux-Arts. Beckett, similarly, ‘shared in the thrilling atmosphere of experiment and innovation that surrounded Surrealism’ but kept his distance ‘largely because, … they were distinctly cool, if not actively hostile, to Joyce’s own ‘revolution of the word’ (Knowlson, 1996, 107).

 Murphy reflects this sense of detached engagement. The celebrated chess game in which Mr Endon methodically moves his pieces out, then moves them back to their starting positions, irrespective of Murphy’s own moves, is both dadaistically absurd and surreal, while at the same time fitting neither of those descriptors exactly. The detached and remorseless logic of Mr Endon himself, whose chess-playing is described as his ‘one frivolity’, also seems somewhat Duchampian in character:

Endon was a schizophrenic of the most amiable variety, at least for the purposes of such a humble and envious outsider as Murphy. The langour in which he passed his days while deepening now and then to the extent of some charming suspension of gesture, was never so profound as to inhibit all movement. His inner voice did not harangue him, it was unobtrusive and melodious, a gentle continuo in the whole consort of his hallucinations. The bizarrerie of his attitudes never exceeded a stress laid on their grace.

There are other seeming echoes elsewhere, for example, Neary’s avowal ‘To gain the affections of Miss Dwyer even for on short hour, would benefit me no end’, which is similar in both content and cadence to the title of Duchamp’s small glass of 1918: To be looked at (from the other side of the glass) with one eye, close to, for almost an hour. Katherine S. Dreier, who was often referred to as “Miss Dreier”, owned the small glass at this time.

Chapter Six, which is devoted to the split between Murphy’s mind and his body, reminds one of Duchamp’s finding a way out of ‘retinal’ painting and into conceptual art and thence to chess. Duchamp famously sought to put art at the service of the mind and eschewed the physicality of ‘retinal’ painting, by adopting a ‘neutral’ style, by eliminating backgrounds from his work, by removing evidence of the artist’s hand, and finally by giving up the making of art altogether. His celebrated pursuit of the beauty of aesthetic indifference, expressed most strongly in the readymades, was also a quest for freedom: from taste, from the art world, from choice. He consciously worked within the concept of liberty that this afforded him, describing himself as a Cartesian whose ideal was the logic of chess:

Chess is a marvelous piece of Cartesianism, and so imaginative that it doesn’t even look Cartesian at first. The beautiful combinations that chess players invent – you don’t see them coming, but afterward there is no mystery – it’s a pure logical conclusion (Tomkins 1998, 211).


Beckett also made a link between indifference and freedom in Murphy:

The freedom of indifference, the indifference of freedom, the will dust in the dust of its object the act a handful of sand let fall – these were some of the shapes he had sighted, sunset landfall after many days.
While the indifference described here is not exactly the same as Duchamp’s aesthetic indifference, the sense of freedom that indifference brings, a resignation of the will in favour of an apparently insignificant move, leads us once again to their shared enjoyment of chess. Here the chess is metaphorical rather than literal Cartesianism, and tinged with Beckettian sadness and a sense of futility. The game culminates in Murphy’s resignation, both in the chess sense and in a ‘transcendental sense of disappointment’, as he realises that he is incapable of achieving Mr Endon’s hermetic detachment. The image of a head amidst scattered chessmen conjures up Duchamp’s various studies for his painting, Portrait of Chess Players:
Following Mr Endon’s forty-third move Murphy gazed for a long time at the board before laying his Shah on his side, and again for a long time after that act of submission. But little by little his eyes were captured by the brilliant swallowtail of Mr Endon’s arms and legs, purple, scarlet, black and glitter, till they saw nothing else, and that in a short time only as a vivid blur, Neary’s big blooming buzzing confusion or ground, mercifully free of figure. Wearying soon of this he dropped his head on his arms in the midst of the chessmen, which scattered with a terrible noise. Mr Endon’s finery persisted for a little in an after-image scarcely inferior to the original. Then this also faded and Murphy began to see nothing, that colourlessness which is such a rare postnatal treat, being the absence (to abuse a nice distinction) not of percipere but of percipi.
The final sentence is a reference to the famous maxim usually attributed to Bishop Berkeley: esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived). This is itself an immaterialist reversal of the Cartesian cogito. The absence of self-perception which Murphy achieves is an ironic ‘abuse’ of the stinction between the two. When he awakes from his trance, Murphy finds that Mr Endon has wandered off and is pressing light-switches in the corridors of the lunatic asylum in a way that seems haphazard but is in fact determined by an a mental pattern as precise as any of those that governed his chess.

All this leads to Murphy’s death. Soon after he has become a warden at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, he procures, with the help of the poet, Ticklepenny, the garret of his dreams. It is an attic with a single skylight that is isolated from the rest of the house. Its only drawback is that it lacks heating. While Murphy is out, Ticklepenny rigs up a contraption whose Duchampian characteristics are uncanny, consisting of a radiator that must be connected to the gas by glass tubing that flows from a WC on the floor below.

He described how he had turned it on in the WC and raced back to the garret. He explained how the flow could only be regulated from the WC, as there was no tap at the radiator’s seat of entry.
The linking of water and gas occurs throughout Duchamp’s work, most notably in La Mariée mise à nu par ses Célibataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, even) (1915-23), better known as the Large Glass. The Green Box of 1934, which contains all the notes that accompany the Large Glass, states: ‘Given 1. the waterfall 2. the illuminating gas’ (Sanouillet and Peterson, 1975, 27). The precise derivation of this is made clear with the ‘imitated readymade’ of 1958: a facsimile of plaques attached to certain Parisian apartment blocks, with which Beckett would have been very familiar, which read: ‘Eau et Gaz à tous les étages’ (Water and Gas on every floor). The connection between the two is continued thematically and representationally in Duchamp’s posthumous installation Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1 The Waterfall, 2 The Illuminating Gas) (1946-1966).

Thus the WC resembles the Bachelor Machine, powered by a waterfall, regulated by a ballcock (in the Glass it is a bottle of Benedictine) which rises and falls by means of a hook arrangement (just as the jet is turned on by a double chain and ring). The connecting tubes function like the capillary tubes of the lower domain of the Glass. The radiator, with its apparent defiance of ignition, suggests the cool Bride whose desire magneto (coils) has to be excited before she becomes aroused/hot. The skylight evokes the Moving Inscription, allowing Murphy to look out at the stars (i.e. the Milky Way). The Illuminating Gas, powered by the Waterfall, animates the whole and brings warmth to the garret.

And what of Murphy and his imminent doom? We are already aware of his status as confirmed bachelor. We are also aware of the intensity of his longing to achieve the Endon state. Murphy resembles one of the nine ‘shots’ drilled through the Large Glass: a foreign body in the purity of the Bride, a hole in a pane of glass, a nothingness within a nothing. As he returns to the quarters of the male nurses (who, of necessity, all live below the garret) he strips bare. He leaves behind his uniform (in Duchampian parlance, his ‘malic mould’) and becomes undiluted, uncontained Gas. This loss of form and identity is shown by his inability to conjure up any images. He has become as transparent as the Glass which surrounds him. Seated in his rocking-chair (whose motion apparently resembles that of the Glider) he perceives the radiator (the Bride) before penetrating the Glass, shot through to ‘…the freedom of that light and dark that did not clash, nor fade nor lighten except to their communion.’

The consequent fireball seems to be more orgasm than apotheosis, more petit mort than Big Bang. Murphy confirms the volatile nature of the gas of which he becomes a part in his Duchamp-like proposition that ‘Chaos’ is the etymological origin of the word ‘Gas’. Now, ironically, the WC is ‘lit by electricity’, just like the Large Glass depicted in the drawing Cols Alités of 1959. The causalité that leads from Endon to the shattered skylight is the same that leads from opening move to checkmate.

Of course, none of these parallels is supported by any corroborating evidence, either in Beckett’s correspondence, or Duchamp’s writings, or in the critical literature. Yet, it does seem curious that, at a moment when chess dominates the novel, such Duchampian resonances should appear. Perhaps it is merely a matter of a certain zeitgeist which Duchamp and Beckett both succeeded in capturing, or perhaps it goes deeper than that. What is beyond doubt, however, is that the two men were about to begin a brief but meaningful association in which chess was the driving force.

Arcachon, 1940

In June 1940, the Nazis occupied Paris. Duchamp had already decided, following the fall of the Netherlands in May, to flee to the small seaside town of Arcachon on the Bay of Biscay, southwest of Bordeaux. Beckett and his partner Suzanne Descehevaux-Dumesnil (of whom he was ‘dispassionately’ fond) also fled Paris, first to Vichy and eventually joining Duchamp in Arcachon.

Accounts vary somewhat as to the extent of the presence of Mary Reynolds in Arcachon during this period. According to James Knowlson, it was ‘thanks to her kindness and generosity’ that the couple were able to find a room and, with the help of a loan from Valéry Larbaud, then to rent a house overlooking the sea: the Villa Saint-Georges, 135 bis Boulevard de la Plage (Knowlson, 1996, 300). Susan Glover Godlewski, on the other hand, reveals that despite the best persuasive efforts of Marcel Duchamp, Reynolds stubbornly refused to leave Paris, reluctantly spending no more than perhaps a month’s vacation in Arcachon (Godlewski, 2001, 15). She certainly stayed in Paris throughout the war and was an active member of the Résistance. In a letter to her brother, dated August 7th 1941, she said that she spent much time ‘tracking down food and [giving] unorganized aid’ (Ibid. 15). This ‘aid’ was resistance work, for which she was later narrowly to avoid execution.

Whatever the truth, at some point the two couples were joined by a third, the painter Jean Crotti and his second wife, Duchamp’s sister, Suzanne. The main pastime of the three men was playing chess. Beckett was ‘delighted to find that, in one move, he had acquired two new chess partners.’ (Knowlson, 1996, 301). They played regularly in a seafront café. Crotti and Beckett seem to have been fairly well matched, but Duchamp, who was a leading chess master, was, according to Beckett, ‘always too good for him. Yet he said this with the quiet satisfaction of knowing that he had played against someone of that calibre.’ (Haynes and Knowlson, 2003, 13). Both men shared an enormous admiration for the great players, as this incident in Arcachon demonstrates:


Once when Duchamp and Beckett were playing chess together, Duchamp pointed out, to Beckett’s great excitement, that the world chess champion, Alexander Alekhine (a chess genius, according to Beckett) had just walked in. (Knowlson, 1996, 301).
It is not hard to imagine that both would have agreed with Duchamp’s assertion to the New York State Chess Association banquet in 1952 that ‘the chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chess-board, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem … I have come to the personal conclusion while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists’.

Portrait of Chess Players

So what did they talk about, these two masters of the art of silence? Unfortunately no record of their conversations exists, but we may assume that it was mostly fairly casual and probably focused on the game in hand, or perhaps current affairs, or maybe life in Paris. Chess players tend not to talk during a game, although in a non-professional setting such as this that rule may be somewhat relaxed. Perhaps Duchamp, as an advanced player, gave Beckett a little tuition, if only in the form of post-game analysis. Beckett was always keen to learn more about chess and Duchamp had already published (in 1932) his book on endgames L’opposition et les cases conjuguées sont reconciliées (Opposition and Sister Squares are reconciled), co-authored with Vitaly Halberstadt. They would certainly have enjoyed remaining quiet, but it is also rather inconceivable that they would not have discussed at least some aspects of their artistic work. Perhaps they talked about the extent to which chess was such an important force for them both.

For Duchamp, it was ‘the imagining of the movement or the gesture that makes the beauty, in [chess]. It’s completely in one’s gray matter.’ (Cabanne, 1971, 18-19). It is often stated that he gave up art for chess on his return to Paris in 1923, and it is certainly true that playing chess dominated his existence from that time (despite the secret work on the posthumously revealed installation Etant Donnés). However, it is also clear that, for Duchamp, there was little distinction between art and chess. It was ‘a logical, or if you prefer, a Cartesian constant’ that was highly important to someone who famously wished to put painting ‘at the service of the mind’ (Sanouillet and Peterson, 1975, 125).

Duchamp began playing chess as a child and its presence in family life was depicted in the 1910 painting La Partie d’échecs (The Chess Game), which shows his two older brothers at the board while their wives take tea. Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon were the subjects once again of the Portrait de joueurs d’échecs (Portrait of Chess Players) of 1911, but Duchamp’s style had already moved on from the earlier influence of Cézanne to a reinterpretation of Cubism that was to culminate later the same year in the Nu Descendant un escalier (Nude Descending a Staircase). Duchamp commented:

I painted the heads of my two brothers playing chess, not in a garden this time, but in indefinite space … This particular canvas was painted by gaslight to obtain the subdued effect, when you look at it again by daylight.’ (d’Harnoncourt and McShine, 1973, 254).
This ‘subdued effect’ reflects Duchamp’s growing concern with removing the superfluous elements from his work. In successive pieces, the background was eliminated, becoming flat black in the Broyeuse de Chocolat (Chocolate Grinder) of 1913 and transparent by the time of the Large Glass. As it moved towards the condition of the chessboard, Duchamp’s art lost anything that might be considered immaterial to the ‘game’ that was being played. (Etant Donnés finally reinstated the background, but ironically, and on a chessboard floor). Thus it acquired a certain rigour that entirely befitted his desire to achieve an aesthetic indifference that is closer to mathematics than the decorative arts.

The readymades, ‘found’ objects that most epitomised this indifference, also contained allusions to chess, most notably in Trébuchet (Trap)(1917), which consists of a coat rack nailed to the floor, its four hooks uppermost. The title is a reference to this equally spiky, yet salutary, chess position (Figure 1):


  • Figure 1: Le Trébuchet (The Trap)
    If Black is to play, he wins the opposing pawn by:

1. … f4-e3

2. b5-c5 e3-e4.

It would be wrong to play

1. … f4-e4

because of

2. b5-c5!

and White wins the pawn.

During his period in Argentina in 1918-19, Duchamp designed his own chess pieces and a set of rubber stamps that could be used for playing postal chess. It was also during this sojourn, socially isolated as he was in Buenos Aires, that he became so obsessed with the game that he decided to turn professional. In 1920 he joined the Marshall Chess Club in New York, and by 1923 he was participating in his first major tournament, in Brussels. In 1925, he designed the poster for the French Chess Championship in Nice. In 1931, following a tournament in Prague, he became a member of the committee of French Chess Federation and its delegate (until 1937) to the International Chess Federation. In 1932, in what was probably the best performance of his chess career, he won the Paris Chess Tournament.

In the same year, he saw Raymond Roussel playing chess at a nearby table in the Café de la Régence, but he did not have the courage to introduce himself. The influence of Roussel on the Large Glass has been well documented (Henderson 1998) and the presence of his poetic method (derived from plays on words) may be detected throughout Duchamp’s oeuvre, including the readymades and the alter ego Rrose Sélavy. Along with Alfred Jarry and Jean-Pierre Brisset, Roussel provided much of the literary underpinnings of Duchamp’s art. The fact that Roussel was also a leading chess player, who had published a celebrated solution to the difficult mate with a Bishop and a Knight alone, explains Duchamp’s nervousness at the encounter.

Duchamp took part in his last major international chess tournament in 1933, in Folkestone, England, but continued to play correspondence chess, serving as captain of the French team, in which role he remained undefeated.

Beckett shared Duchamp’s passion for chess, if not his playing ability. He (Beckett) was inspired by his uncle Howard, who had the rare distinction of having beaten Capablanca (later to become world champion) during an exhibition match in Dublin before the First World War (Knowlson, 1996, 9). Beckett also greatly admired Capablanca, whose extremely lucid playing style and influential books emphasized the importance of the endgame as the essence of chess. Beckett played enthusiastically during his schooldays and at university and, as we have seen, throughout his life, never losing an opportunity for a game. He had an extensive library of chess books, and explicitly based certain aspects of his writings on the game, most notably, of course, in Murphy and Endgame, although allusions to it appear as early as 1929 in the short story ‘Assumption’.

Opposition and Sister Squares are reconciled

            L’opposition et les cases conjuguées sont reconciliées was published in Paris and Brussels (Editions de l’Echiquier, 1932) in a limited edition. Few copies were sold, and Francis M. Naumann records that, late into his life, Duchamp “kept most of the edition in a closet, giving copies away to friends whenever he thought the gift appropriate” (Naumann and Bailey 2009, 22). The book’s design and its use of chess terminologies are both somewhat unusual for a chess textbook, and clearly resonate with themes in Duchamp’s artwork. So, for example, the illustrations frequently divide the chessboard across the middle using a dotted line as a ‘hinge’, self-consciously echoing the division of the Large Glass into two panels. To compound the allusion, eight of these ‘hinged pictures’, as Duchamp called the Large Glass (Sanouillet and Peterson, 1975, 27), are printed on transparent paper so that they may be folded to make the two principal domains correspond exactly. Here we see one variation of the instruction that was eventually to be included in the Green Box of 1934: ‘develop the principle of the hinge’.

The chess argument depends on two well-known properties that become highly important in the endgame, but Duchamp’s choice of terminologies may have had a wider significance than just their chess usage. His preference for the term ‘sister’ squares (in English) over the more commonly used ‘corresponding’ squares may be a nod towards Suzanne.The term ‘opposition’, while it does not figure much as a word in Duchamp’s notes, nevertheless occurs throughout his work as a theme, as is best exemplified by the relationship between Bride and Bachelors, in the two panels of the Glass, which are then ‘reconciled’ by the operations of that imaginary technology. The word ‘domain’ occurs particularly in the Green Box with reference to the two panels of the Glass. The ‘passage’ of the White King from secondary to principal domain echoes the passage of the Virgin to the Bride (as depicted in the canvas of that title of 1912). The principle of the opposition in chess is as follows:

  • Figure 2: The Opposition
            In Figure 2, with White to play, Black ‘has the opposition’ in both cases. a6 – a8 is direct opposition, whereas g2- g8 is distant. This is due to the rule which prevents Kings from occupying adjoining squares. The King which has the move is obliged to give ground.

  • Figure 3: Virtual Opposition
            Likewise, in Fig. 3, the two Kings are in ‘virtual opposition’, because they occupy two diagonally opposed squares of the same colour which are at the corners of a rectangle.

To reach a full understanding of how all this might have influenced Endgame requires a knowledge of Duchamp and Halberstadt’s book. What follows is an illustrative account of one of the positions used by the authors to illustrate their thesis. The position was composed by Emmanuel Lasker and Gustavus Charles Reichelm, and first published in the Chicago Tribune in 1901, and is still occasionally used today.

  • Figure 4: Lasker-Reichelm, 1901
            In Figure 4 it is immediately clear that the pawns are unable to move. It also becomes evident that the White King can penetrate the Black position via two (and only two) squares: b5 and g5. Should he succeed in occupying either of these two squares (with or without the move) the White King will capture a black pawn (a5 or f5), thereby enabling him to promote his own pawn to a Queen on the eighth rank to win the game. The two squares b5 and g5 are called the ‘pole’ squares (X and O, respectively).

To prevent White’s King from occupying g5, Black’s King must arrive at g6 on the move after White’s reaches h4, forcing him to retreat. White, therefore, must reach h4 whilst Black is still at e8 or e7 (i.e. he is two files ahead of Black). Likewise, to prevent White from occupying b5, Black must occupy a6 or b6 on the move after White’s to c4. However, if Black chooses a6, White will be two files ahead in a race to the other pole and so Black can only prevent penetration on b6.

  • Figure 5: Routes
            Figure 5 shows that there is not a single minimum route between the two threats for either King. One square of White’s minimum route has a unique correspondent on Black’s minimum route, namely d3 (to c7). Thus, if White moves c4-d3, Black replies ….b6-c7, and will arrive at g6 in time to prevent White from occupying O (g5). The related squares d3 and c7 are the ‘sister squares’. The pairings b6 and c4, and g6 and h4 are also sister squares.

  • Figure 6: Sister Squares
            Once these sister squares have been observed, corresponding blocks may be built up: the ‘principal domains’. In Figure 6, the squares C only touch on A and B. Likewise D to A and C, and so on. The two rectangles formed by the squares B thru G are the principal domains of the White and Black Kings. The squares A are the decisive positions of the Kings at pole X, and are therefore not strictly part of the principal domains.

The two domains have the property of ‘superposition by folding’ along the hinge a5-h5. For the coincidence to be perfect, one must move the Black domain one square to the right. This fact enables us to establish a law of heterodox opposition for this position: a7 and b3 (squares D) are in heterodox opposition because the two squares are equidistant from the hinge and on right hand neighbour files. Thus the general formula for heterodox opposition in the principal domains is as follows: without the move, the White King has the heterodox opposition when he occupies, on a right hand adjacent file to the file occupied by the Black King, a square of opposite colour to that occupied by the latter.

Let us suppose that the White King occupies b2 (i.e. square F in his principal domain) and he has the heterodox opposition to Black (who has the move) positioned on his own F (a8). The authors examine three possible replies for Black: 1) 1. … a8-a7; 2) 1. …a8-b7; 3) 1. …a8-b8. Of these, the second rapidly transmutes into the first.

            1st Variation, after 1. …a8-a7

            b2-b3 (White retains the heterodox opposition and the threat of reaching A in one move)

            2. …a7-b7 (forced to remain one square from A)

            3. b3-c3 (still has heterodox opposition and threat on A)

            3. …b7-c7 (forced. If he plays b7-a7, White will have the two file advantage to O)

            4. c3-d3 (still has heterodox opposition and threat on A)

            4. … any (Black is now forced to abandon his control of A, as any move to the left will
            give White a two file advantage to O. White now occupies A and wins).

            2nd Variation

            Becomes 1st Variation, e.g.

            1. …a8-b7

            2. b2-c3 etc.

            3rd Variation, after 1. …a8-b8

            2. b2-c2 (takes the heterodox opposition)

            2. …b8-c8 (to keep White King as far as possible from A)

            3. c2-d2 (retains the heterodox opposition)

            3. …c8-d8 (Black cannot turn back because White will gain the two file advance. The first             variation showed that …c8-c7 would be a win for White)

            4. d2-c3 (White breaks the opposition, threatening to reach A in one move)

            4 …d8-c7 (forced to protect A)

            5. c3-d3 (reverting to the first variation, and White wins).

            It is clear, therefore, that White must enter his principal domain on a square which gives him the heterodox opposition, or which does not permit Black to take it.


  • Figure 7: White’s Secondary Domain
            In Figure 7 the dashed letters indicate the extent of the White King’s secondary domain. As we have seen, he must pass from this domain into his principal domain either by taking the heterodox opposition, or by moving onto a square which does not allow Black to take it. Thus, in Figure 7, White cannot play to b2 (F) on the first move, because Black would take the heterodox opposition by moving to a8 (F). Therefore, the best White can do is 1. al-bl (C’-D’), thereby taking the secondary heterodox opposition (on file adjacent to the right and square of opposite colour).

If Black replies 1. … a7-b7 (avoiding F and E which would allow White to enter his principal domain with the heterodox opposition, at the corresponding sister square), then White must play 2. bl-cl (D’-C’), retaining the secondary heterodox opposition.

Now Black must avoid squares F, E, G, which would allow White to enter his principal domain as before, so he plays 2. … b7-c7 (C-B).

White, as before, can only retain the secondary heterodox opposition, and must play 3.cl-dl (C’-B’).

Black cannot now play to C, E or A, because White will have the two file advantage to pole O. If he goes to c8 (G), White will enter his principal domain at d2, with the heterodox opposition, and win as we have seen. Black must play to the d file (the solution is the same for 3. …c7-d7 as 3. … c7-d8).

Now the White King can breach the opposition, by entering his principal domain at c2 (E), thereby preventing Black from taking the heterodox opposition at his sister E, and simultaneously threatening to reach c4 (A) in two moves.

Black must remain on the d file, since a move to G or B would enable White to take the heterodox opposition in the principal domain.

White replies 5. c2-c3 (E-C), remaining in breach of the opposition and threatening to reach A in one move.

Because of this, Black is forced to play 5. … (d)-c7 (C-B).

We have already seen how White will win once he has taken the heterodox opposition in the principal domain (e.g. 6. c3-d3).

The authors conclude their investigation into this position by giving a drawing variation, in order to show how ignorant play by White can ruin his chances of a win. In such a variation, Black is satisfied to take and hold the heterodox opposition, preventing penetration of his position.

Returning to the position of Figure 7 (the original position), let us assume that White foolishly plays 1. al-b2 (C’-F).

As Black has the move, he takes the heterodox opposition in the principal domain by playing 1. …a7-a8 (D-F). If the White King moves about in the principal domain, Black will follow him, always keeping the principal heterodox opposition, and will accompany him, one file behind, if he attempts to reach pole O. That is a draw. If White returns to al (C’), Black can take the secondary heterodox opposition in reverse at b7 (C).

From this, it is clear that White must leave the a-file on his first move (in the original position) and never return to it. An opening move of 1. al-a2 would lead to a draw, since Black would take the secondary heterodox opposition in reverse with the reply 1. …a7-b8 (D-E), leading to a drawn game.

In conclusion, it will be observed that the most Black can hope for is a draw. Given accurate play by White, Black can only succeed in delaying the progress of events.


The first appearance of chess in Beckett’s theatrical works occurs in the suppressed play Eleuthéria (1947). Towards the end of Act III, an ‘audience member’ delivers the following speech to the Glazier:


… if I’m still here it’s that there is something in this business that literally paralyzes me and leaves me completely dumbfounded. How do you explain that? You play chess? No. It doesn’t matter. It’s like when you watch a chess game between players of the lowest class. For three quarters of an hour they haven’t touched a single piece. They sit there gaping at the board like two horses’ asses and you’re also there, even more of a horse’s ass than they are, nailed to the spot, disgusted, bored, worn-out, filled with wonder at so much stupidity. Up until the moment when you can’t take it any more. Then you tell them, So do that, do that, what are you waiting for, do that and it’s all over, we can go to bed. It’s inexcusable, it goes against even the most elementary know-how, you haven’t even met the guys, but it’s stronger than you, it’s either that or a fit. There you have pretty much what’s happening to me. Mutatis mutandis, of course. You get me? (Beckett, 1995, 143-44).


            It is this sense of frustration and despair, deriving from the inevitable decline of a chess game first identified in Murphy, but exaggerated at the hands of the idiot players (amongst whom, one suspects, Beckett might have numbered himself) who represent us all as we fail to grasp the hopelessness of our situation, that is a theme in much of Beckett’s work. The Cartesian mechanisms of chess always demand that choices are made; choices that gradually run out until, in the end, win or lose, there remain no more. Duchamp declared: ‘in art I came finally to the point where I wished to make no further decisions, decisions of an artistic order, so to speak’ (Judovitz, 2010, 109). Beckett applied the same principle to life itself.

It is interesting to note that the chess-playing protagonist of Eleuthéria is called ‘Victor’, which was the nickname given to Duchamp by Henri-Pierre Roché (the author of Jules et Jim), a close personal friend since before World War I. Roché’s unfinished novel of 1957, entitled Victor (Duchamp), is a character study. Caroline Cros observes:


The main character, Victor (Duchamp), is almost entirely absent throughout the book, yet Patricia (Beatrice [Webb]) and Pierre (Henri-Pierre [Roché]) are both utterly fascinated by him – ‘There is no danger since we both love him’ – and speak of him incessantly (Cros, 2006, 45).


            This is essentially the scenario of Eleuthéria, in whichVictor is more often absent than present, yet is the main topic of conversation amongst the other characters. He constantly evades giving an account of himself, yet exerts a powerful influence, effectively ‘playing’ the other characters like chess pieces. Challenged by the Glazier, he says:

            VICTOR: I look out for my welfare, when I can.

GLAZIER: Your welfare! What welfare?

VICTOR: My freedom.

GLAZIER: Your freedom! It is beautiful, your freedom. Freedom to do what?

VICTOR: To do nothing.

            It was Roché who wrote the following summary of Duchamp and Halberstadt’s book:
There comes a time toward the end of the game when there is almost nothing left on the board, and when the outcome depends on the fact that the King can or cannot occupy a certain square opposite to, and as a given distance from, the opposing king. Only sometimes the King has a choice between two moves and may act in such a way as to suggest he has completely lost interest in winning the game. Then the other King, if he too is a true sovereign, can give the appearance of being even less interested, and so on. Thus the two monarchs can waltz carelessly one by one across the board as though they weren’t at all engaged in mortal combat. However, there are rules governing each step they take and the slightest mistake is instantly fatal. One must provoke the other to commit that blunder and keep his own head at all times. These are the rules that Duchamp brought to light (the free and forbidden squares) to amplify this haughty junket of the Kings (Lebel, 1959, 83).


            Ruby Cohn recounted Beckett’s own description of the scenario of Endgame, which seems to echo Roché’s text:
Hamm is a king in this chess game lost from the start. From the start he knows he is making loud senseless moves. That he will make no progress at all with the gaff. Now at the last he makes a few senseless moves as only a bad player would. A good one would have given up long ago. He is only trying to delay the inevitable end. Each of his gestures is one of the last useless moves which put off the end. He’s a bad player (Cohn, 1974, 152).


            Deirdre Bair cites an unnamed Irish writer and friend of Beckett who ‘feels that any interpretation of Fin de partie must begin with the influence of Marcel Duchamp’ (Bair, 1978, 393). The contention in the present article is that this influence goes deeper than just the basic predicament described by Roché and Cohn, and is the result of Beckett’s awareness of Duchamp and Halberstadt’s book, or at least of the endgame position it contains. While Dirk Van Hulle has confirmed that the book is not among those in Beckett’s extant library, “that does not necessarily imply that he didn’t read Duchamp’s book, because Beckett gave away many of his books to friends” (private email to the author, 5.7.13). Since Duchamp himself gave away copies of L’opposition… it is possible that Beckett received one and passed it on. Or it is equally possible that, given their circumstances in Paris and Arcachon, the book was never actually given to Beckett, but Duchamp explained its contents to him.

Either way, its unique characteristics may be detected in the structuring of the drama, in the staging, and in some key points of dialogue. The endgame position itself is, as Duchamp himself pointed out, ‘so rare as to be nearly Utopian’ (Cabanne, 1971, 78). It almost has the status of a philosophical proposition of great theoretical purity. It is full of ironies, indeed of potential horrors. This is not just any endgame: it is the endgame to end all endgames.

The frustrations of the position described above finds expression in the way in which Black (Hamm) haphazardly delays and thwarts White (Clov). Identification of these two characters with their respective chess colours is made easy by the symbolic attributes of both: Hamm is blind, hence unaware; in a wheelchair, hence restricted; wearing dark glasses, hence ‘black’; Clov is knowing, mobile, and very frustrated.

Both the structure and content of the play echo this delayed peculiarity. Beckett’s response is poetic yet formal: the state of a player at the end of a long game. Hamm and Clov themselves represent both players and pieces (the Kings) and the whole play takes place at the next-to-end of the dramatic structure, which so strongly resembles the phases of a game of chess.

Hamm is desperate for the end of the game, yet unable to comprehend the geometry of the position: ‘Enough, it’s time it ended, in the refuge too. (Pause) And yet I hesitate, I hesitate to… to end.’

His opening cri de coeur resembles Duchamp’s note in the Green Box: ‘given that…. ; if I suppose I’m suffering a lot…’:

Can there be misery (he yawns) loftier than mine? No doubt. Formerly. But now? (Pause) My father? (Pause) My mother? (Pause) My … dog? (Pause) Oh I am willing to believe they suffer as much as such creatures can suffer. But does that mean their sufferings equal mine? No doubt.


Duchamp’s quasi-mathematical (“given that…”) statement of supposed suffering is matched by the detached, even bored (“he yawns”), self-observation of Hamm, whose similarly quasi-mathematical qualities are revealed most clearly in the French: “Mais est-ce dire que nos souffrances se valent? Sans doute.”

The play is set in a location by the sea, one where the outside world has crumbled away to nothingness. This setting is reminiscent of Arcachon and Europe under the Nazis. The opening description of the stage set and Clov’s actions establish the Duchamp/Halberstadt position. Grey light is reflected from the surface of a chessboard. The two windows represent the two poles of the position. This is confirmed later in the play when Clov looks through both windows and describes the scene for Hamm’s benefit: ‘Light black. From pole to pole.’ (‘Light black’ also describes the alternation of white and black squares).

The two ashbins, homes of Nagg and Nell, symbolize the immobile and redundant pawns. A picture with its face turned to the wall seems perhaps to echo Duchamp’s abandonment of painting for chess. When Clov removes the picture and replaces it with an alarm clock, the echo rings louder, since, from the audience’s point of view, the clock is seen from the side, a disposition which has a source in the Green Box:

            The Clock in profile

            and the Inspector of Space

            Note: When a clock is seen from the side it no longer tells the time.

            Beckett extends this examination of a clock’s properties by having his characters listen to its alarm, as if it were a piece of music:


(Enter Clov with alarrn-clock. He holds it against Hamm’s ear And releases alarm.They listen to it ringing to the end. Pause.)

CLOV: Fit to wake the dead! Did you hear it?

HAMM: Vaguely.

CLOV: The end is terrific!

HAMM: I prefer the middle.


            Notice that Hamm’s ineptitude extends even to the simplest act of listening, whereas Clov is well able to appreciate the change from activity to inactivity. Hamm prefers the cover and confusion of ceaseless activity, just as he would have preferred the multiplicity of choices in the middle-game which has ended.

Clov’s opening movements and actions serve not only to map out the position, but also tell us that he understands it, since it is he who opens the curtains on the windows and looks through them. It is as though we are seeing enacted the thought-processes of the White player, as he analyses the position using Duchampian geometry. His opening speech makes clear the facts of his position, i.e. that he is waiting for Hamm/Black to move to a suitable square, enabling him (Clov) to enter his principal domain either with or in breach of the opposition.


I’ll go now to my kitchen, ten feet by ten feet – by ten feet, and wait for him to whistle me. (Pause) Nice dimensions, nice proportions, I’ll lean on the table, and look at the wall, and wait for him to whistle me.


            The kitchen, therefore, is White’s secondary domain, as the squareness of its outline suggests, and Clov is watching the wall not through boredom, but in anticipation of the moment when he will be able to penetrate it (i.e. into his principal domain) and win. The whistle is Hamm’s signal that he has ‘moved’, and occurs at several points throughout the play. We must imagine a scenario of White constantly retaining the heterodox opposition, in response to the haphazard but successful delaying moves of Black. As we have seen in the third of the winning variations of the Lasker-Reichelm position, a point must come when White is able to enter his principal domain in breach of opposition. It is at the penultimate whistle that this finally occurs and Clov is suddenly free to move – to ‘go’ – and to win. Hamm’s opening speech confirms this, and establishes him as a bad player who should have given up a long time ago. The act of wiping his glasses, pointless as it is for a blind man, suggests the absurdity of his optimism.

The ensuing dialogue begins the cataloguing of the extraordinary relationship between the two characters, which finds its parallel in the minds of two chess-players. Each is dependent upon the other for his very existence, and some degree of union is achieved (via the chessboard), yet simultaneously they are engaged upon a struggle of mutual destruction. In this particular instance, the blind Hamm is aware of impending doom, but plays entirely by his feelings, whereas Clov, unable, due to his suppressed exasperation, to pity Hamm (suppressed by necessity since this is, after all, a game of chess), plays logically (‘I love order. It’s my dream’), hampered, indeed crippled, by Hamm’s lack of understanding. If Hamm understood, he would perceive that Clov also understood, and would resign forthwith. The relationship is summed up by the idée fixe:

            HAMM: (anguished). What’s happening, what’s happening?

            CLOV: Something is taking its course.

            Clov, of course, cannot afford to reveal his knowledge to Hamm, even if such a thing were possible.

A further curious exchange acquires significance in the light of Duchamp:

            HAMM: Why don’t you kill me?

            CLOV: I don’t know the combination to the larder.

            The larder would be set into the wall of the kitchen. If Clov could gain access to it, there might be a quick way through the wall (i.e. from his secondary to his principal domain), but, of course, it is Black/Hamm who is preventing this solution (and thereby his own rapid death). He seems to sense this fact later, when ingenuously he promises to give Clov the combination (itself a chess term), a promise which, as Clov well knows, he cannot fulfil except by accident.

This exchange is followed by references to bicycle wheels which yet again call Duchamp to mind, and reminiscences of the recent middle-game, with its knights and pawns, of whom Nagg and Nell (who ‘crashed on our tandem and lost our shanks’) are two. During his conversation with them, Hamm reveals the depth of his feelings, confirming that he has ‘a heart in his head’ (a serious handicap for a chess player) and almost succeeds in eliciting our pity. He spoils everything with his cry: ‘My kingdom for a nightman.’

‘Nightman’ is a portmanteau-word containing the notion of a knight (i.e. a horse), black in colour (night) which will end the game in Black’s favour. As Hamm follows this futile wish with a desperate move, our suspicions of his inadequacies are confirmed. So desperate is he, in fact, that he takes comfort simply from the change of square (accomplished in the realm of the imagination, with the stage invisibly becoming the new square), and has Clov push him around its boundaries and back to the centre, straightening up fussily as a distracted chess-player (while saying ‘j’adoube’) might do with his King.

Clov quickly realises that the new move has not presented the winning opportunity (‘If I could kill him I’d die happy’) and, exasperatedly, has to help Hamm by looking through the two windows once again, but this time with a telescope. Since they describe the telescope as a ‘glass’, and they consider the view from two separate panes, one is once again unavoidably reminded of Duchamp. The blue sea and sky seen through one window, and the earth colours through the other, suggest the ‘Bride’ and ‘Bachelor’ panels of the Large Glass. The telescope also seems to owe something to the iconography of the Large Glass. Clov observes the audience through it, with the comment: ‘That’s what I call a magnifier.’ Duchamp included a maginfiying lens in the small glass To be looked at (from the other side of the glass) with one eye, close to, for almost an hour, and intended to include one in the Large Glass, in the position eventually occupied by the Mandala.

Clov’s lack of pity for Hamm becomes more understandable as the play proceeds; indeed, we share his frustration. In tones of whining, threatening bombast Hamm prevaricates, delays and digresses. In the end, he makes a complete fool of himself, wildly predicting that Clov will lie down, like a resigning King. Hamm is even hoping to Queen a pawn, that is to say, Mother Pegg, whose death he will not believe.

The culminating folly is his attempt to move with the aid of the gaff, an attempt which fails, and fails again towards the end of the play when he makes a last effort to understand the position. It is at this point that the spectre of Duchamp appears, in a form resembling Mr Endon:


HAMM: I knew a madman once who thought the end of the world had come. He was a painter – and engraver. I had a great fondness for him. I used to go and see him, in the asylum. I’d take him by the hand and drag him to the window. Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness! (Pause) He’d snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes. (Pause) He alone had been spared. (Pause) Forgotten. (Pause) It appears the case is… was not so…unusual.’


            In chess terms Hamm’s long speech seems to be a description of the careless play in the preceding middle-game, which has led to his present predicament. It would appear that, at some point one of Black’s Knights left a pawn unguarded. We have already heard that the place is full of corpses (i.e. taken pieces) and now Hamm moves once more, still aware of the hopelessness of his position, and still unable to understand it:


I’ll soon have finished with this story. (Pause) Unless I bring in other characters. (Pause) But where would I find them? (Pause) Where would I look for them? (Pause). He whistles. (Enter Clov.) Let us pray to God.


            This move appears to mark a turning-point in the drama. Clov seems more confident. His feet have stopped hurting. He is beginning to put things in order. He is cool with Hamm who, in his turn, is still more desperate, as he perceives that at last he is losing. A pawn dies. Hamm parades his area, ‘sees’ the pole points, senses his defeat, but still cannot understand the position. He contemplates resigning (by lying down), but cannot, clinging foolishly to some hope:


Perhaps I could push myself out on the floor. (He pushes himself painfully off his seat, falls back again.) Dig my nails into the cracks and drag myself forward with my fingers. (Pause) There I’ll be, in the old refuge, alone against the silence and..(he hesitates).. the stillness. If I can hold my peace, and sit quiet, it will be all over with sound and motion, all over and done with.


            Instead, he moves again – disastrously. This penultimate move, then, is the one in which Whlte enters his principal domain in breach of opposition and, as we saw in the Lasker-Reichelm position, must win. The final exchanges between Hamm – and Clov serve to point up the absurdity of the position and, once again, the difference in play between Black and White:

            HAMM: Do you know what’s happened?

            CLOV: When? Where?

            HAMM: (violently) When! what’s happened? Use your head, can’t you? What has happened?

            CLOV: What for Christ’s sake does it matter?

            HAMM: Before you go…(Clov halts near door)… say something.

            CLOV: There is nothing to say.

            HAMM: A few words…to ponder…in my heart.

            CLOV: Your heart!


On the 10th January 1958, Marcel Duchamp and his wife Teeny attended the theatre in New York. In a letter to Henry McBride, he noted: ‘We saw, and loved, Endgame of Beckett.’ (Caumont and Gough-Cooper, 1993, 10-12 January).


Adorno, Theodor W. (1982) “Trying to Understand Endgame,” New German Critique, 25, pp. 119-150

Bair, Deirdre (1980), Samuel Beckett: A Biography, London: Picador.

Beckett, Samuel [1934] (1994), More Pricks Than Kicks, New York: Grove Press.

Becket, Samuel [1938] (1994), Murphy, New York: Grove Press.

Beckett, Samuel (1946), ‘Poèmes 38-39’, Les temps Modernes, 2.14, pp. 288-293.

Beckett, Samuel [1947] (1995), Eleuthéria, New York: Foxrock.

Beckett, Samuel [1957] (1976), Endgame, London,  Faber.

Caumont, Jacques and Gough-Cooper, Jennifer (1993), Marcel Duchamp, London: Thames and Hudson.

Cabanne, Pierre (1971), Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, London: Thames and Hudson.

Cohn, Ruby (1974), Back to Beckett, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cros, Caroline (2006), Marcel Duchamp, London: Reaktion.

Éluard, Paul (1932) [Selected Poems], (Tr. Samuel Beckett), This Quarter 5.1, pp. 89-98.

d’Harnoncourt, Anne and McShine, Kynaston (1973), Marcel Duchamp, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Fehsenfeld, Martha Dow and Overbeck, Lois More (eds.) (2009) The Letters of Samuel Beckett Volume I: 1929-1940, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gontarski, S. E. (ed.) (2010) A Companion to Samuel Beckett. London: Wiley/Blackwell.

Haynes, John and Knowlson, James, (2003) Images of Beckett, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Henderson, Linda Dalrymple (1998), Duchamp in Context, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Judovitz, Dalia (2010), Drawing on Art: Duchamp and Company, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Knowlson, James (1996), Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, London: Bloomsbury.

Lane, Richard (ed.) (2002) Beckett and Philosophy, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Naumann, Frances M. and Bailey, Bradley (eds.) (2009), Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess, New York: Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, LLC.

Reavey, George (ed.) (1936), Thorns of Thunder: Selected Poems of Paul Éluard, (Tr. Samuel Beckett, Denis Devlin, David Gascoyne, et al.), London: Europa Press and Stanley Nott.

Restivo, Giuseppina (1997), ‘The Iconic Core of Beckett’s Endgame: Eliot, Dürer, Duchamp’, in Engelberts, Matthijs (ed.) Samuel Beckett: Crossroads and Borderlines. Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 111-124.

Roché, Henri-Pierre (1959), ‘Souvenirs de Marcel Duchamp’, in Lebel, Robert (ed.) Sur Marcel Duchamp, New York: Grove Press, pp. 79-87.

Sanouillet Michel and Peterson, Elmer (eds.) (1975), Marchand Du Sel: The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, London: Thames and Hudson.

Schwarz, Arturo [1969] (2001) ,The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. New York: Delano Greenidge.

Shattuck, Roger and Watson Taylor, Simon (eds.), (1965) Selected Works of Alred Jarry, London: Methuen, 1965.

Shenk, David (2006), The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, London: Doubleday.

Tomkins, Calvin (1998) Duchamp: A Biography. London: Random House.

Wood, Beatrice (1976), Oral history interview with Beatrice Wood, available at http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-beatrice-wood-12423 (accessed 15 January 2012).


 I. Duchamp’s column was published every Thursday from 1937 to the outbreak of war. Ce Soir was edited by Louis Aragon.

 II. The shapes of the three Inscriptions in the Cinematic Blossoming of the Bride were created by suspending meter squares of delicate gauze or lace above a radiator (also in front of an open window), photographing the resulting movements in the rising heat, and carefully transcribing their outlines onto the Glass.

 III. It should perhaps be put on record at this point that, in a conference on ‘Art and Chess’ at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1991, Mme. Teeny Duchamp, the artist’s widow, insisted that Marcel Duchamp had never played chess with Samuel Beckett. Quite what the motivation was for this denial is unclear, but the abundant evidence, however anecdotal, seems to contradict Teeny completely. She was herself a keen chess player, and had first met Duchamp in 1923. She married Pierre Matisse in 1929, and renewed her acquaintance with Marcel only in 1951, when they were married.

 IV. Despite this history, Duchamp’s highest chess level was only Master (rather than Grandmaster). Out of nineteen tournament matches played between 1924 and 1933, his record was one win, eleven losses and seven draws.

 V. In 1933, Duchamp translated Eugene Znosko-Borovsky’s book on chess openings into French, as Comment il faut commencer une partie d’échecs. This study of the other end of a chess game rather complements his own publication on endgames.

 VI. Note that I have used the English, algebraic, square-naming chess notation, as opposed to the piece-naming system used by the authors.

 VII. Roché began calling Duchamp ‘Victor’ after a dinner in New York on January 22nd, 1917 (Caumont and Gough-Cooper 1993, 21-22 January).

 VIII. Further correspondence between the present author and Deirdre Bair has failed to reveal the identity of this ‘Irish writer’.

 IX. In his famous essay on Endgame, Adorno suggests that Hamm’s name refers to a castrated Hamlet, with the consequent associations of melancholy and blackness.

 X. This note, in turn, originates in Alfred Jarry’s Gestures and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician: ‘Why should anyone claim the shape of a watch is round – a manifestly false proposition -since it appears in profile as a narrow rectangular construction, elliptic on three sides; and why the devil should one only have noticed its shape at the moment of telling the time? – Perhaps under the pretext of utility. But a child who draws the watch as a circle will also draw a house as a square, as a facade, without any justification…’ (Shattuck and Watson Taylor, 1965, 193).

Marcel Duchamp – Spring, 1911 – Where it All Begins

Early in 1911, at the age of 24, Marcel Duchamp painted a relatively small painting (25 7/8 by 19 3/4 inches, oil on canvas) he called Young Man and Girl in Spring. 1 This painting is also identified as Spring, which is how the painting is referred to throughout this paper. A larger version (58 5/8 x 19 3/4 inches, oil on canvas) followed. This second version was exhibited at the 1911 Salon d’Automne in Paris.2 Although no photograph of the entire second painting is known to exist, part of it is visible—now repositioned horizontally—as the background of Duchamp’s Network of Stoppages of 1914.

What follows is an analysis of the first version of Spring and its role in Duchamp’s larger creative output. Some of my ideas, as well as my interpretations and conclusions, draw on the large and ever-growing body of scholarly literature on Duchamp. However, my observations and ideas are shaped by my perspective as a practicing artist. Quite intentionally, I have tried to follow the logic of Duchamp’s creative process and his artistic decision-making strategies from the standpoint of his being a visual artist. I offer what follows in that spirit.

In this paper, I explore the possibility that Spring contains pre-figurative elements of Duchamp’s final magnum opus, Étant donnés (Given: 1º The Waterfall, 2º The Illuminating Gas), created between 1946 and 1966. That a small, sketchy painting made thirty-five years earlier could be seen as a study for the confounding, elaborate installation that is Étant donnés may strike readers as somewhat improbable. Nevertheless, through careful scrutiny of Duchamp’s artwork and the many notes he made, it is my opinion that very early on—Duchamp planned and prepared for the major works he would eventually produce. I acknowledge that this process is highly unusual, that most artists develop their styles over a period of time, with any one piece or style representing a point on a trajectory of development and maturation. It is well known Marcel Duchamp used ideas he had formulated years before their actual implementation. As Michael Taylor observes: “The pseudoscientific title of Etant donnes has its source in a note first published in 1934 known as the Green Box: “Etant donnes 1° la chute d’eau / 2° legaz d’eclairage.”3

Part I
Although it is uncharacteristically rough in execution, Spring is a fully realized composition(Fig. 1).

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  • Young Man and Girl in Spring
    Figure 1
    Spring (Young Man and Girl in Spring), 1911. Oil on canvas, 25 7/8 x 19 3/4 in. (65.7 x 50.2 cm.). Israel Museum of Art, Jerusalem

The artist apparently deemed this painting important enough to offer it as a wedding present to his favorite sister, Suzanne, who married a Rouen pharmacist, Charles Desmares, on August 24, 1911. On the back of the canvas Duchamp wrote, “A toi ma chere Suzanne —Marcel” (“To my dear Suzanne —Marcel”).4
Perhaps due to the painting’s uncharacteristically loose, expressionistic execution, some scholars assert that Spring is merely a loose study. However, the existence of an India ink and charcoal study for the female figure of Spring,also dated 1911 and titled Standing Nude (Fig. 2), adds weight to the argument that Spring is an autonomous work, not a preliminary sketch. 5

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  • Standing Nude
    Figure 2
    Standing Nude, 1911. India ink and charcoal on paper 24 5/8 x 18 7/8 in. (62.5 x 47.8 cm.). Collection of Silvia Schwarz Linder and Dennis Linder, Milan

The two versions of Spring can be seen as the final symbolic allegorical group of works that Duchamp began painting in April 1910 with Portrait of Dr. Dumouchel. The others in this group include The Bush (1910), Paradise (December 1910–January 1911), The Baptism (1911), and Draft on the Japanese Apple Tree (1911).

Spring is an allegorical painting set in a landscape of tree forms. Most prominent in the composition are the two elongated, up-reaching figures, which occupy the frontal plane and extend from the lower to upper margins of the painting on both sides.

Both figures are delineated by black contour lines. On the left is a female nude; on the right is a male whose genitals are obscured by a thong-like covering. The back of the female’s head is visible as a cap of dark hair; except for her chin, her face is blocked by the closer arm, which, like her other arm, is thrust upward toward a canopy of leaves. Both of the female’s arms are rendered twice (Fig. 3), visually suggesting waving limbs. This depiction of sequential positions in space essentially constitutes Duchamp’s original attempts to paint a figure in motion a year before his two versions of Nude Descending a Staircase, of 1912.

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  • Arms of female figure, marked to indicate “waving” motion
    Figure 3
    Detail of fig. 1, Spring: arms of female figure, marked to indicate “waving” motion

The male figure extends his right arm into the tree leaves. His other arm is bent above his faceless head, the hand in a fist. The feet are roughed in. Just below his feet is a patch of ochre that is deeper in tone than the field of ochre dominating the lower right quadrant. It is in this area Duchamp signed the work in block letters followed by an 11, signifying the year of its production, 1911.

The top of the painting is filled with a canopy of tree leaves defined at its lower edge by angled black lines.6 The central area of the canopy is yellow, with an uneven upper band of white pigment suggesting sunlight streaming from above. Surrounding these leaves and the slender black tree trunk is a section of lightened blue. The black line of the tree trunk doubles as the center indentation of an unmistakable heart shape, which occupies most of the composition. Leading Duchamp scholar Francis Naumann, in his essay on Spring, was the first to notice this large geometrically simplified shape for a human heart.7 The bottom V shape of the heart passes behind the lower torsos of the two figures. The left outline of the swelling V doubles as the thin, curving trunk of a tree or sapling. Its leaves or blossoms extend from the left behind the female’s lower back. The shape and hue of these leaves, along with the bent trunk, recall the tree form in another painting by Duchamp in 1911, Draft on the Japanese Apple Tree (Figs. 4 and 5). This can be seen as an early example of Duchamp’s recycling of pictorial content from one piece to another, a practice examined in the pages that follow.

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  • Figure 4
  • Figure 5
  • Draft on the Japanese Apple Tree, Marcel Duchamp, 1911, oil on canvas, 24 X 19 11/16″, collection of Dina Vierny, Paris.
  • Detail from fig. 1 – Bent tree form outlined.

In the area at upper – far left, behind the pink-budded tree, is another tree with a simple, straight black trunk. Over a dark green area are about a dozen daubs of white, red, and green that help define the tree’s form. On the right side, surrounding the upper torso of the male figure, are circular shapes outlined in black which I believe were meant to represent trees. These are less realized than those on the left side and are not painted in.

The center of the entire composition and consequently at the center of the heart shape, is a circle whose circumference is energetically and repeatedly drawn with black crayon or oil pastel. Within this circle is rendered a small, pinkish figure, whose back is positioned to roughly align with the black tree trunk of the central tree. Head tilted to the left, its face, like the two nude figures, is featureless. One leg is straight down, while the leg on the right is raised and bent downward at the knee. One arm is extended, and the other arm is not visible.

This overdrawn circle also loops down in ovoid strokes that cut across the profile head of a fourth human figure, also with a featureless face. The legs of this figure appear to be folded in a kneeling position and are partially cropped by the arced line of the heart outlined on the right. A coat with tails can be interpreted, draped over the kneeling figure’s shoulders.8

Located toward the top left of the kneeling figure is a series of round shapes, modeled in pink/red and white. Small jots of black seem to indicate tree trunks, possibly an allusion to a small grove of trees, executed almost like a child’s simplistic rendering of “lollipop trees” complete with short, vertical black jots for trunks. Interspersed with the pink/red colors are similar shapes in grey. Their uniform size, combined with a stacked symmetry of placement, is not convincingly organic in nature. The staggered symmetry of these uniform-sized boulder shapes is akin to the appearance of brick wall construction. Even the hue is reminiscent of the color of bricks. This aspect creates some ambiguity in their appearance. Other shapes, more loosely formed, are found to the right of the kneeling figure’s profile.

The V point of the prominent heart shape outline in combination with the two figures’ straight legs approximates the letter M. (Fig. 6) This is the first example of Duchamp’s embedding one of his initials into his works, a practice he would continue throughout his career.

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  • outline of M shape
    Figure 6
    Detail of fig. 1, Spring: outline of M shape.

Part II
Spring is noteworthy in several ways. Its two leaping figures are overtly exuberant and make this Duchamp’s most expressionistically emotional painting. Positioned on either side of the composition, streamlined and elongated to extend over most of the vertical dimension of the work, they create a framing device for the encircled central figure. That their faces are without features supports their function as a formal device, although without diminishing their symbolic intent.

The forceful circles drawn repeatedly around the central figure in the outlined heart shape visually emphasize the importance of this element, especially the circle’s placement in the middle of the composition. On close examination, the rough quality of line points to the use of oil pastel or crayon applied over thick, dried oil paint, not to the blending-in that is usual in oil painting. In other words, these circles were drawn over the composition after it was painted (Fig. 7). Perhaps Duchamp came to realize that he could achieve a visceral effect by “roughly” circling this centrally placed element. In any case, it is clear that his intention was to emphasize this part of the painting.

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  • crayon lines circling the central figure
    Figure 7
    Detail of fig. 1, Spring: crayon lines circling the central figure

Considering the relatively long time oils take to dry, it is conceivable that the painting was completed before the attributed date of early 1911. If this is the case, it would not be the first time Duchamp mistakenly dated one of his works.9

That being said, I would like to comment on Arturo Schwarz’s interpretation regarding the possible intent behind the figure enclosed within a circle as representing Mercurius in a bottle The figure of Mercurius (Mercury) was a commonly used alchemical image symbolizing the universal agent of transformation.10 Schwarz illustrates an eighteenth-century woodcut for visual comparison (Fig. 8).

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  • Mercurius in a Bottle
    Figure 8
    Anonymous, Mercurius in a Bottle. Woodcut engraving for J. C. Barchusen’sElementa chemiae, Leiden, 1718.

Duchamp addressed his interest in alchemy on a variety of occasions
He responded to biographer Robert Lebel’s question about his connection to the subject with the following statement: “If I have practiced alchemy it was in the only way it can be done now, that is without knowing it.”11

While some art historians agree on this interpretation, like most matters concerning Duchamp’s creations, other viewpoints abound. Both Naumann and Duchamp biographer Calvin Tomkins reject Schwarz’s alchemy theory in favor of the notion that Spring can be read as an affirmative statement about marriage.12 Naumann suggests that the figure in the globe is possibly prophetic of the married couple’s newborn-to-be.13

A different perspective is expressed by another Duchamp biographer, Alice Goldfarb Marquis, and art historian Jerrold Seigel, both of whom believe there is not one figure but “several dancing figures” in the circle.14 Pierre Cabanne, another expert and a personal friend of Duchamp’s, says of the central circle in Spring that it contains “ill defined forms.”15

An unusual, if not perplexing, interpretation of this circle comes from philosopher and art historian Thierry de Duve. In his book Pictorial Nominalism, de Duve acknowledges other interpretations of the orb, including Schwarz’s alchemy comparisons and Maurizio Calvesi’s reference to vessels in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (ca. 1500). De Duve’s opinion is that it could well be inspired by the small circular convex mirror in Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife Giovanna Cenamani, or The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (1434).16 However unique a theory, especially because of the wedding connection, it seems an unlikely source considering that the famous convex mirror in van Eyck’s painting reflects the images of three figures, the bride and groom as well as the painter himself, none remotely resembling the singular figure in the orb.

At this point, an examination of the specific emblem Schwarz identified is warranted. In 1718, Leiden chemistry professor Johann Conrad Barchusen had a series of seventy-eight emblems engraved, titled Elementa chemiae, which are meant to allegorically represent the specific process of alchemical transmutation known as “the wet way,” as opposed to the shorter process called “the dry way.”

The Mercurius emblem that Schwarz chose as comparable to the central figure in Spring is close to the end of Barchusen’s sequence, at number seventy-five. The caption for this emblem has been translated as follows: “After much suffering and torment I was resurrected large and pure and immaculate.”17
The sentiments associated with Barchusen’s Mercurius do not mesh in an illustrative sense on any level, alchemical or otherwise, in terms of celebrating newlyweds.

I would like to offer another observation on this small figure, however unconventional, along with a different general point of view about Spring. The positioning of the legs—one straight, one bent and the only visible arm outstretched and extended within a small patch of bright paint directly above a small black line where the hand would appear—are uncannily familiar.

These forms, including a head-like shape tilted to the left, very closely approximates the reclining nude holding a lantern in Étant donnés With this visual correspondence in mind, the circle can be understood as an allusion to a peephole placed in the center of the figurative framing devise through which a scene is viewed, a vantage point consistent with his final creation. In addition but possibly just coincidental, the yellow linear device in Spring, which extends vertically below the outstretched arm on the right, might be seen as a visual symbol of a waterfall.(Fig. 9)

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  • outline of central figure
    Figure 9
    Detail of fig. 1, Spring: outline of central figure in relation to the nude and other elements in Étant donnés

The repetitive, roughly drawn lines that drop down to include the kneeling figure form a shape that is roughly comparable to the opening in the brick wall of Étant donnés.(Fig. 10)

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  • 1.The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas)
    Figure 10
    Étant donnés (Given: 1.The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas), 1946–66, view through the door of the installation. Mixed media. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The representation of a kneeling figure had lasting importance for Duchamp. In 1967 he produced eighteen drypoint etchings which are included in the second volume of Arturo Schwarz’s Complete Works, The Large Glass and Related Works. Half of these were devoted to The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, while the other half formed a suite called The Lovers.

Of the latter, one print depicts a female figure kneeling as if in prayer; significantly, it is titled The Bride Stripped Bare. Besides the obvious connection with the full title for the The Large Glass, (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even), the drawing creates a full-circle connection with the first work of Duchamp’s to bear this title, a drawing produced in 1912 while he was in Munich. These 1967 prints were some of Duchamp’s last artworks, created before the public was made privy to the Étant donnés installation, which, as he had specified, happened only after his death. Whatever his intentions, it is noteworthy that Duchamp in his final days would return to the theme of kneeling/prayer imagery first addressed in depth in his early allegorical paintings, many of which depicted figures in this position.

Let us return to the meaning of the two leaping figures in Spring. In the first comprehensive catalog of Duchamp’s work Robert Lebel speculates that the painting is a response to the loss of the youthful closeness of his siblings: “Both his brothers were married and his sister wedded a pharmacist from Rouen in 1911: these were just so many assaults upon the ties of childhood for one who was to remain so long the “ bachelor.”18

I believe the most original supposition as to what inspired Spring is offered by Alice Goldfarb Marquis in her biography of Duchamp, Marcel Duchamp: Eros, C’est la vie. Prior to painting Spring in early 1911, Duchamp had a relationship with a model, Jeanne Serre, who is believed to be one of the figures represented in the 1910 painting The Bush. This relationship produced Duchamp’s only child, born February 6, 1911. Marquis believes it is possible that the birth of this child, named Yo, and the end of the affair might be the actual inspiration for Spring.19

Schwarz and Cabanne share the opinion that the two reaching figures represent Suzanne and Marcel, Schwarz insisting that Marcel was opposed to the wedding. And while these bordering figures may or may not be Duchamp’s primary focus for Spring, they are clearly presented as symbolic of something—seen in the pair’s action of reaching upward.

The specific, emotive body language is another thing that separates this painting from Duchamp’s other allegorical works of 1910–1911. Those paintings are obscure in their symbolism. The glowing hand in the Portrait of Dr. Dumouchel is inexplicable beyond, perhaps, referring to this doctor’s “miraculous curative powers”; the relationships between the couples in Paradise, The Bush, and Baptism are all seemingly symbolic in intent, and yet they are stubbornly ambiguous. The odd, Buddha-like figure in Draft on the Japanese Apple Tree is bafflingly arcane.

The essay Schwarz wrote for The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp describes the Spring figures’ arms “lifted to the sky in a Y-shaped figure.”20 Actually, the arms of the two figures do not form the shape of any letter, much less Y, as they reach up into the leaves of the tree. However there is a Y shape drawn in the space between the figures’ arms.(Fig. 11)

click images to enlarge

  • outline of Y shape
    Figure 11
    Detail of fig. 1, Spring: outline of Y shape.

This constitutes the top connection of the two orbs of the linear heart shape while doubling as the image of the centrally placed tree trunk. Returning to the small encircled figure, we see that not only is it placed in the painting’s center, but it is also at the center of the heart shaped symbol. Surely the symbolic metaphor of something being “central to one’s heart” would not escape Duchamp’s attention in this time frame.

In writings about Spring, one often encounters interpretations of the purpose for the upward stretch of the two figures. Are they reaching for fruit from the Tree of Life, or perhaps the apple in the Garden of Eden? No, there is no discernable fruit of any kind in this painting. (The absence of fruit makes sense in view of the title Spring, whenfruit is not mature and ripe for picking.)

The top center of the canvas is a discernibly lighter yellow/white than the green abstracted “leaves” on either side. In other words, strong sunlight is clearly suggested as it filters through the tree leaves. I propose that the two figures are enacting, allegorically, the act of “reaching for the sun.”

Duchamp addressed the subject of the sun at least two other times. In 1911, the same year Spring was conceived, Duchamp illustrated several poems by Jules Laforge, one of which is Once More to This Star, also translated as Another for the Sun. Jerrold Seigel offers this synopsis of the poem: ”The sun exchanges insults with the earthlings it threatens to warm no longer . . . once the old waning star has died.”21 Another example is a simple drawing from 1914 entitled To Have an Apprentice in the Sun. On a sheet of music staff paper, it depicts a figure struggling uphill on a bicycle. Duchamp believed it noteworthy enough to include it in his first compilation of reproductions of significant works, known as the Box of 1914.

Part III
After painting the two versions of Spring Duchamp switched gears stylistically and executed notes, works, and studies that culminated in The Large Glass, as well as his final painting in 1918, Tu m’.Duchamp began developing his ideas through extensive note-taking for future projects. The late Walter Hopps, who was responsible for organizing Duchamp’s first retrospective in the United States, provided a succinct analysis for the overall import of these notes: “Although they were not published until 1934, some of the notes in The Green Box date back to before 1915 [the year] when Duchamp started fabricating The Large Glass. These notes are the complete scheme for and the literary form of The Large Glass, which is itself like a circuit diagram or even cybernetic abstraction. In Étant donnés, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even becomes a strange and magical three-dimensional tableau, and Duchamp’s magnum opus is now complete: a work that exists in conceptual, diagrammatic, and figurative form.”22

It is conceivable that after he realized the Large Glass and Tu m’—in effect crossing them off his “to do” list—Duchamp gave himself the rest of his life to actualize his third and final pre-planned major project. In doing so he freed himself to pursue other interests that would occupy him over the years: the “production” of a variety of readymades,his close involvement with the presentation of ground-breaking art exhibitions which radically challenged accepted practices, and of course the pursuit of his lifelong fascination with the game of chess. The notion that he planned out his entire artistic output before its execution can be compared to the method of a superior chess player, who has the capacity to figure out his moves and strategies well beforehand. Most significantly, this mode of operation would grant him the one thing he claimed to value over all else: personal freedom.

Another look at Network of Stoppages—Duchamp’s 1914 painting produced over the second version of Spring— is warranted in order to understand his creative process.(Fig. 12)

click images to enlarge

  • Network of Stoppages
    Figure 12
    Network of Stoppages, 1914. Oil and pencil on canvas, 58 5/8 x 77 7/8 in. (148.9 x 197.7 cm.). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It is revealing how several different projects dovetailed in one another. Put another way, in quick succession, different projects were manifest in a single work. With his pre-existing notes for The Large Glass (its dimensions, the “capillary tubes” element, and the premise for 3 Standard Stoppages, in particular) this was not a matter of having one epiphany after another. This was the application of pre-formulated thought born of copious note-making.

In 1913 Duchamp had developed his first schematic plans for The Large Glass. A year later, the experiment in his notes on The Idea of Fabrication would culminate in the production of three ruler/templates called 3 Standard Stoppages. This information and these devices would be applied to Network of Stoppages. Black bands of paint were applied to both sides of the second Spring, producing a space that is exactly half-scale of The Large Glass’s dimensions. The three constructed Stoppages templates were used to create the Network of Stoppages in a configuration that would later serve two functions for The Large Glass: the small circles were inserted throughout the array of curved lines that indicated an aerial view of the placement of the nine “bachelors” (also known as Malic Moulds). The linear design is also the first rendition of the Large Glass’s “capillary tube” element, the series of lines incised into Large Glass which traverse the forms that constitute the bachelors/Malic Moulds.

Here we have a total of six interlocking projects that evolve into one another with a common goal in mind: the second version of Spring; 3 Standard Stoppages templates; Network of Stoppages painting, which includes The Large Glass in half-scale dimensions, the positioning of the bachelors, and the first version of the capillary tubes.

In relation to his later work, Spring can be chronologically positioned. If it is not the first-draft study for Étant donnés, it is at least a premonition of some of the most important visual elements central to this last work: a reclining figure, one arm raised and holding aloft what I perceive to be a lit lantern near a waterfall, as glimpsed through a peephole that must be viewed through an opening in a constructed brick wall. The cloaked kneeling figure in Spring represents the voyeur, a well-known subject of interest to the artist. In fact, the classic pose of a voyeur is a person crouching or kneeling in order to spy through a keyhole. Because Étant donnés must be viewed through two peepholes, the viewer is essentially transformed into a voyeur—one who takes in a scene privately.23

Another general visual interpretation of Spring symbolically situates it in a time/space continuum, an allusion to the eventual realization of Étant donnés. The two border figures are situated on the green and yellow circular shapes formed by the negative space on either side of the large outlined heart symbol, in other words, “hills.” Viewed thus, the circle/peephole with the small figure can be perspectively construed as being far off in the distance. We know that at the time he painted Spring, Duchamp was interested in allegory and symbolism and was sufficiently intrigued by Symbolist poetry to do a series of illustrations based on poems by Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue. Perhaps symbolically this circle/peephole device illustrates something taking place in the future—“over the hills and far away”—at a time when Duchamp planned to actually construct the Étant donnés installation.

Based on the belief that Spring is in fact the first study for Étant donnés and that it was executed even before studies for The Large Glass had commenced, perhaps its intention as merely a wedding gift is an oversimplification of Duchamp’s more serious concern. Knowing its long-range significance, he could have given it to his favorite sister for safekeeping. I believe Duchamp intentionally inscribed only his sister’s name to emphasize her sole ownership if the marriage did not work out. (If this were the case, it proved to be a wise move and is an example of Duchamp’s astute forward thinking; the marriage ended in divorce seven years later.) Through the course of Duchamp’s life and extensive travels, many works of his were lost, yet Suzanne still had this painting in her possession at the time of her death in 1963.

Spring was never included in any version of Boîte-en-valise,the purpose of which was the presentation (at small scale) of all of the works he believed of import in his career. One other major work, Étant donnés, was left out, for the reason that only after he died, as per his instructions, was it to made be known. Thus, it seems appropriate that because his last, secret masterpiece would have to be absent from his portable museum, the first painting, Spring, that led to it was excluded as well.

With these observations in mind, it is my assertion that Marcel Duchamp’s intent was to conclude his artistic career by coming full circle back to his original study, Spring. His artistic interests and aspirations remained true to his early allegorical works, which had, in fact, eclipsed his earlier forays into landscape and portraiture. The allegorical works were his first truly original expressions. Spring is representative of his study for his ultimate allegory—Étant donnés.

I believe that his major works, beginning with Spring in 1911, along with 3 Standard Stoppages and the readymade concept, were planned out in the mind and in his notes in a concentrated period of time before their execution by several years and even decades later.

Granted, it is almost incomprehensible that an artist so early in his career could possibly have schemed, organized, and internalized such an intense cavalcade of interrelated artworks or made plans to unfurl future creations over the course of his lifetime. On the other hand, the incomparable and ever-elusive Marcel Duchamp was possibly the only artist who could attempt and pull off such a timed-release, sustained process of creation.

© copyright 2008 Kurt Godwin. All rights reserved.

§ My thanks to Francis M. Naumann for his support and encouragement and to my editor, Julia Moore, for helping me craft this article.


1 Spring was painted in Neuilly, France. Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, second rev. ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1970): 426


2 Francis M. Naumann, The Mary Sisler Collection. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984: 172. In 1914 Duchamp applied black paint over the original left and right margins of the painting and rotated it counterclockwise 90°. The most recognizable image is that of a female nude, seen on her back because of the rotation. The rest of what remains of the painting is blurred, as if by a wash of thinned paint. The details, which must have been quite clear originally, are now mostly unrecognizable. The “recumbent” female figure is the exception. She appears to be more fully realized in detail than the woman in the first Spring.


3Michael Taylor, Marcel Duchamp – Etant donnes,(Philadelphia Museum of Art Publishing Department, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 2009), 23


4 After Suzanne died 1963, Spring came into the possession of the New York City art gallery Cordier & Ekstrom and then was bought for the Mary Sisler Collection. Duchamp scholar Arturo Schwarz collection acquired it from Sisler and in time donated it to the Israel Museum of Art, where it is today. Schwarz notes that the painting was relined in the 1960s, covering over the inscription. Arturo Schwarz, Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp Rev. and expanded paperback edition (New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 2000): 546.


5 This drawing study is almost the exact same size as Spring, measuring 25 5/8 x 18 3/4 inches. The simple contour of the nude is so closely copied at the same scale that it is not inconceivable that it was used as a direct transfer for the painting. The figure is allegedly a model named Reina who appears in a similar pose in an engraving by Duchamp’s oldest brother, Jacques Villon (Schwarz, 2000: 546.)


6 Although it is often asserted that there is fruit of some sort in this tree depiction, none in fact is represented. The title of the work specifies spring.


7 Naumann, Sisler Collection: 139.


8 That Duchamp would depict a kneeling figure is significant. With the exception of the Portrait of Dr. Dumouchel, the first painting in his allegorical style, there are kneeling figures in all of Duchamp’s allegorical works. Further, in 1910, the same year of the Dumouchel portrait, he produced four pen-and-ink drawings, all titled Study for Kneeling Nude.


9 Speaking with Pierre Cabanne about the illustration he made for Jules Laforgue’s Once More to This Star, Duchamp stated, “I had put a stupid date below, 1912, when it had been done in November 1911, and I dedicated it to [F. C.] Torrey in 1913. When you compare the dates, you say, ‘that’s impossible.’ An amusing mess.” Pierre Cabanne, Conversations with Marcel Duchamp (New York: Da Capo Press, 1971): 46.


10 Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, second rev. ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1970): 238.


11 John F. Moffitt, Alchemist of the Avant-Garde: The Case of Marcel Duchamp (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003): 9.


12 Rudolf Kuenzli and Francis M. Naumann, eds., Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1989): 25, and Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996): 53.


13 Francis M. Naumann, The Mary and William Sisler Collection (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984): 138.


14 Alice Goldfarb Marquis, Marcel Duchamp: The Bachelor Stripped Bare (Boston: MFA Publications, 2002: 59, and Jerrold Seigel, The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp: Desire, Liberation, and the Self in Modern Culture (Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1995): 34.


15 Pierre Cabanne, Duchamp & Co., trans. Peter Snowdon (New York: Rizzoli Publications, 1997): 34.


16 Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991): 53.


17. Alexander Roob, The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy & Mysticism (Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 1997): 145.


18 Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp, 1st American ed. (New York: Paragraphic Books, 1959): 6.


19 Calvin Tompkins, Duchamp: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996): 45.


20 Schwarz, 1970: 90.


21 Seigel: 34.


22 Walter Hopps, Susan Davidson, Ann Temkin. Cornell/Duchamp. . . In Resonance (Stuttgart, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 1998, and New York: D.A.P. Distributed Art Publishers, 1999): 75.

23 In his book Ingres: Erotic Drawings, art historian and critic Stephane Guegan includes a section devoted to Ingres and voyeurism. The chapter concludes, in part, with the following statement: “The theme of the vulnerable, reclining woman, viewed from the front or back, left other traces, often of a passably licentious aura, among the drawings Ingres bequeathed to his birthplace. On one is written: ‘One who looks in at the door.’ This confirms Ingres’ calculated voyeurism, more subtle than is sometimes thought.” Stephane Guegan, Ingres: Erotic Drawings (Paris, Flammarion, 2006): 59.
The subject of Ingres’ interest is noteworthy in relation to Duchamp’s. Included in Duchamp’s final series of etchings, The Lovers, he paid homage to a few artists he apparently held in high esteem. One print is based on a work by Rodin, another on a Courbet. But he must have had particular admiration for Ingres, for he based two compositions on paintings by the older master.

Belle Haleine: Eau de Voilette [Beautiful Breath: Veil Water], 1921

click to enlarge
Rigaud perfume bottle
Belle Haleine: Eau de Voilette
[Beautiful Breath: Veil Water], 1921
Assisted readymade: Rigaud perfume bottle
with label created by Duchamp and Man Ray,
bottle 6” (15.2 cm) high, in an oval,
violet-colored cardboard box,
6 7/8 x 4 7/8 inches (16.3 x 11.2 cm);
inscribed on gold label attached
to the back of the box:
Rrose / Sélavy / 1921

Belle Haleine: Eau de Voilette [Beautiful Breath: Veil Water] is the amusing title Marcel Duchamp gave to a work of art that he made—with the assistance of Man Ray—in the spring of 1921. At first glance, it appears to be little more than an ordinary perfume bottle, although readers of French might confuse it with a mouth wash, which, if consumed, would give them, as the label indicates, belle haleine [beautiful breath]. We now know that in order to produce this work, Duchamp appropriated an actual bottle of perfume issued by the Rigaud Company of Paris in 1915 for “Un air embaumé,” the name given to the most popular and best-selling fragrance the perfumery had produced in its sixty-five year history. Advertisements for this product feature a scantily clad female model holding a bottle of the perfume below her nostrils,

click to enlarge
Advertisement for Un Air
Figure 1
Advertisement for Un Air
Embaumé, Rigaud Perfume,
La Rire no. 88 (9 October 1920)

the essence of the liquid rendered visible as an undulating, ribbon-like shape floating through the air. The model is shown taking a deep breath, her eyes closed and head tilted slightly back, as if to suggest that the scent possess the qualities of an aphrodisiac, rendering powerless all who inhale its intoxicating vapors. It may have been precisely these qualities that attracted Duchamp to this particular brand of perfume, for he wished to draw attention to the woman whose features are depicted on the bottle, his newly introduced female alter-ego: Rose Sélavy.

Rose Sélavy was born by self-procreation in 1920. Duchamp—who was then living in New York and who, for years, had harbored a personal and professional disdain for entrenched, academic systems within the world of art—sought to establish an entirely new artistic identity. Just as he had invented the pseudonym of R. Mutt three years earlier (when, in 1917, he boldly submitted a white porcelain urinal to an art exhibition with infamous results), this time he wanted something more permanent, an alternative persona through which he could hide his true identity while continuing to function as an artist. “The first idea that came to me was to take a Jewish name,” he later explained. “I was Catholic, and it was a change to go from one religion to another!  I didn’t find a Jewish name that I especially liked, or that tempted me, and suddenly I had an idea: why not change sex? It was much simpler. So the name Rrose Sélavy came from that.”1 The name Rose Sélavy not only succeeds in changing gender, but, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Jewish identity he originally desired. Sélavy is a close phonetic equivalent of Halévy, a common Jewish name in France. Moreover, in America the name Sélavy could be pronounced “Say Levy,” but of course the most obvious pun is with the French phrase “c’est la vie” [that’s life].2 Almost immediately, Rose was credited with the production of works of art, such as Duchamp’s Fresh Widow—a miniature French window with its panes covered by black leather (Museum of Modern Art, New York)—which, on its support, is inscribed in bold uppercase letters: “COPYRIGHT ROSE SELAVY 1920.”

Although Rose Sélavy was already functioning as an artist, it was not until the winter of 1920-21 that Duchamp decided that she should become visibly manifest, so he enlisted the services of his friend and colleague Man Ray to help take pictures of himself in drag.

click to enlarge
Portrait of Rose Sé
Figure 2
Man Ray, Portrait of Rose Sé
, 1921, New York, negative Estate
of Man Ray, Musée National d’Art
Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou,
Paris copy print from Jean-Hubert Martin,
Man Ray Photographs [London:
Thames & Hudson, 1981]))

He printed one of the pictures he had taken of Rose Sélavy and closely cropped the head into an ovoid format, which he placed atop a symmetrical design in black ink meant to fit within the wing-like, decorative shapes that emanate from the base of the Rigaud perfume bottle. He then carefully wrote the word BELLE in ascending letters on the left side of the label, followed by the word HALEINE descending on the right. Below that, he wrote Eau de Voilette in an expressive italic font, underneath which appear the letters “RS,” the initials of Rose Sélavy (the “R” rendered backwards, its lower branch responding to the flourish given to the seraph atop of the letter “S”). At the base of the label appears the locations where, presumably, the perfume would be sold—New York and Paris—two city centers that Duchamp traversed frequently during these years (indeed, he probably purchased the bottle during a trip to Paris in 1919). A photograph of the layout was reduced in size to fit the small format of the perfume bottle, whereupon the resultant print was then carefully glued to its surface. The finished product made its first public appearance on the cover of New York Dada, a single-issue magazine edited by Duchamp and Man Ray that was released in April 1921.

click to enlarge
 Label for the Belle
Figure 3
Man Ray, Label for the Belle
, 1921, gelatin silver
print, 8 13/16 x 7 inches (The J. Paul
Getty Museum, Los Angeles).

The bottle was placed in the center of the cover and surrounded by a seemingly endless repetition of the type-written words “new york dada april 1921” printed in lower-case letters and positioned upside-down in an exceptionally small font that ran to the edges of the cover, the whole cast, appropriately, in a reddish, rose-colored hue.

Exactly whose idea it was to reproduce this bottle on the cover of New York Dada is unknown, but we do know that, at the time, both Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp had hoped that the Dada movement—which had originated in Europe and spread quickly throughout various European capitals—would continue to broaden its scope internationally. In a metaphorical sense, then, the artists may have equated the ability of a fragrance to permeate its surroundings with the convention-defying capabilities of Dada to influence all the arts. Unfortunately, however, at the time the Dada movement was in the process of breathing its last breath, for within a matter of years, it would be replaced by Surrealism in Paris, while the artists in New York either left for Europe or retreated to more conventional forms of artistic expression. The seed of Dada would eventually germinate, but only about a half century later, when a group of young artists in London, New York and Paris became aware of Duchamp’s work—particularly the readymades—and immediately recognized its radical aesthetic implications. Ironically, this scenario reinforces a possible alternate reading to the words “un air embaumé,” which translates literally as “perfumed air,” but which, in English, could also be read as “embalmed air.” Indeed, it has recently been observed that the box in which the perfume was packaged—which was preserved and is intended to be part of the final work of art—is curiously shaped like a coffin.3 Like a mummy enwrapped in cloth and preserved for eternity, it would seem that today—with the artist’s uncontested influence on the development of contemporary art—Duchamp’s bottle of perfume has finally been opened, allowing for the diffusion of an alluring spirit that virtually everyone can now readily detect.

click to enlarge
New York Dada,
April 1921, cover
Figure 4
New York Dada,
April 1921, cover.  Private
Collection, New York

Rigaud was the perfect fragrance for Duchamp to have selected.  Not only was it a known and popular French brand of perfume, but its exotic qualities—which the firm emphasized in all of its advertisements—was an ideal fragrance for the somewhat vulgar and lascivious Rrose to endorse. In an advertisement that appeared in Harper’s Monthly, it is implied that Un Air Embaumé was a scent that originated in an unspecified Arab country located somewhere in the Middle East; it depicts a harem girl gesturing toward a peacock with one hand, while she uses the other hand to hold back a curtain revealing the interior of a darkened boudoir.

click to enlarge
Advertisement for Un Air Embaumé
Figure 5
Advertisement for Un Air Embaumé,
Rigaud Perfume Company,
Harpers Monthly, December
1919.  Collection Francis M.
Naumann, New York

There, a couple inclines on a bed, while a gold bottle of Rigaud floats mysteriously above their heads, glowing in the darkness like an apparition.  Another advertisement that appeared in several American fashion magazines shows a woman seated in her dressing room, visible to viewers through an open curtain door.

“A peep into the boudoir of any much sought-after woman,” the caption reads, “will usually reveal some RIGAUD odeur as the real secret of her power to fascinate men.” In small print at the bottom of the page, the advertisement informs prospective buyers that, if purchased for yourself or as a gift, the fragrance is assured to have an enduring effect. “Un air embaumé is one of the most loved of Rigaud odeurs. It is the type of rare fragrance that a woman clings to devotedly for many, many years.”

click to enlarge
Advertisement for Rigaud
Figure 6
Advertisement for Rigaud
Perfume, New York fashion
magazine, ca. 1920-21. Collection
Douglas Vogel, New York

In June of 1921—a few months after the appearance of New York Dada—Duchamp returned to Paris, where, later in the year, he signed a large painting by Picabia entitled L’Oeil cacodylate (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) with the name Rrose Sélavy, spelling the name Rrose for the first time with a double-r. Later he said that this was required, for, as he explained, “the word ‘arrose’ demands two R’s.”4 Clearly Duchamp intended to evoke a pun on the word “eros,” for Rrose Sélavy is a homonym for the phrase “eros c’est la vie” [eros, that’s life]. Although less often acknowledged, the double-r might also have been derived from the French verb arroser, which means to wet or moisten, an appropriate word considering the obviously erotic connotations of perfume, which the manufacturer wanted users to think offered one of the first elements of attraction in any successful amorous encounter. Duchamp later signed the box of his perfume bottle with the name Rrose Sélavy (using the double-r), and gave it to Yvonne Chastel-Crotti, the ex-wife of his former studio-mate in New York, Jean Crotti (a Swiss-born painter who had married Duchamp’s sister Suzanne), a woman with whom Duchamp had had his own brief amorous encounter in 1918.5

The bottle remained in Yvonne Crotti’s possession throughout her life, and although it had been included in a group show of collage in Paris in 1930, it was shown for the first time within the context of Duchamp’s work in an exhibition organized by the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in New York in 1965.6 It was there that the object was first identified as an “assisted readymade,” indicating that—as with all other readymades—the object itself already existed, but required some alteration, that is to say, assistance on Duchamp’s part in order to bring it into being as a work of art. That assistance resulted in having created one of the most provocative works of art ever made, a simple bottle of perfume whose liquid long ago evaporated, but whose essence, to be sure, will continue to influence artists long into the future.

This text was first published as the entry on Duchamp’s Belle Haleine: Eau de violette in the sales catalogue Collection Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé, Christie’s Paris, 23 February 2009, lot no. 37.

1 Pierre Cabanne, Interview with Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. by Ron Padgett (New York: Viking Press, 1971), p. 64.

2 The similarity to Halévy was pointed out by Ellen Landau, and is reported in Bradley Bailey, Duchamp’s Chess Identity, doctoral dissertation, Case Western Reserve University, 2004, n28, p. 107; see also Bradley Bailey, ” Rrose of Washington Square: Marcel Duchamp, Fanny Brice, and the Jewish Origins of Rrose Sélavy ,” Source XXVII, no. 1 (Fall 2007), p. 41.

3 As suggested by Rhonda Roland Shearer in Bonnie Jean Garner, “Duchamp Bottles Belle Greene: Just Desserts for his Canning,” Tout-Fait, issue 2 (2000): www.toutfait.com. For the double reading of the title, see also Steven Jay Gould’s contribution to this article: “From the Bitter Negro Pun to the Beautiful Breath Bottle.”

4 Cabanne, Dialogues with Duchamp, p. 65.

5 Arturo Schwarz claims that this work was “signed after 1945,” although he provides no explanation for why the signature was applied at this time (see Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp , 3rd revised and expanded edition [New York: Delano Greenidge, 1997], vol. II, cat. no. 388, p. 688).

6 NOT SEEN and/or LESS SEEN of/by MARCEL DUCHAMP/RROSE SELAVY 1904-64, Cordier & Ekstrom, Inc., New York, 14 January – 13 February 1965, cat. no. 71. At the time of this show, Yvonne Crotti was living in London (her last name changed by married to Lyon), and it was probably through Duchamp’s assistance that the work was sold (at the time, Arne Ekstrom, proprietor of the gallery, was actively acquiring works by Duchamp for the Mary Sisler Collection). The 1930 show that included his Belle Haleine / Eau de Violette was Exposition de Collages, organized by Louis Aragon for the Galerie Goemans, Paris, March 1930; Duchamp was also represented by  Pharmacy, an example of The Monte Carlo Bond, and two versions of the L.H.O.O.Q.(see Jennifer Gough-Cooper and Jacques Caumont, “Ephemerides on and about Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy 1887-1968,” in Pontus Hulten, ed., Marcel Duchamp, exh. cat., Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1993, entry for 02/06/1930).

A New Look: Marcel Duchamp, his twine, and the 1942 First Papers of Surrealism Exhibition

The First Papers of Surrealism exhibition, which opened on October 14, 1942 at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion in midtown Manhattan, was both historic and peculiar. As heralded by Newsweek magazine, First Papers of Surrealism was the “biggest all-surrealist show ever seen in the United States.”(1) It announced the arrival of Surrealism’s most celebrated artists, many of whom had recently left Europe to avoid the war. The exhibition’s title, in fact, alluded to the documents some artists had needed during their travels. In addition, First Papers of Surrealism benefited the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies, a wartime charity organization.(2) In such ways, the show was a very serious event, a product of and a response to the tumultuous political environment of the early 1940s.

click to enlarge
First Papers
of Surrealism catalogue
Figure 1
Title page, First Papers
of Surrealism
1942. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

But First Papers of Surrealism was an equally whimsical affair, a playful reordering of the gallery experience. At the show’s opening, as children ran around and played catch, several hundred feet of twine, hung by Marcel Duchamp, festooned the primary exhibition space.(3) This installation—hereafter referred to as his twine, the original title given by the First Papers of Surrealism catalogue (Fig. 1)—acted as something of a veil.(4) It partially masked the room’s ornate Gilded Age architecture, as well as some of the paintings on display.(5) Though certainly unorthodox, this installation was not without precedent. At the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris, a taxicab carrying snail-covered mannequins was parked near the gallery’s entrance, coal bags were suspended from the ceilings, and the lights were dimmed so that visitors needed flashlights to see.(6)

In the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition, Duchamp’s twine created an intriguing environment through an economy of means. Yet for all the simplicity of the installation’s material, visitors were left uncertain of his twine‘s significance. As perhaps expected, the installation elicited a variety of interpretations. For Elsa Schiaparelli, one of the exhibition’s coordinators, the twine was something of a guide, “directing visitors to this and that painting with a definite sense of contrast.”(7) Edward Alden Jewell, the New York Times art critic, focused on the installation’s functional effects, reporting that, “[the twine] forever gets between you and the assembled art, and in so doing creates the most paradoxically clarifying barrier imaginable.”(8) Some visitors, such as Harriet and Sidney Janis, on the other hand, opted for more metaphorical interpretations. They believed the installation represented the complexity of understanding contemporary art, writing that Duchamp’s use of twine “symbolized literally the difficulties to be circumvented by the uninitiate in order to see, to perceive and understand, the exhibitions.” (9)

Duchamp himself never provided any explicit interpretation of his twine. Instead, he tended, like Jewell, to stress more his twine’s functional value than its symbolic meaning. He believed that the installation was more transparent than opaque, saying in a 1953 interview: “It was nothing. You can always see through a window, through a curtain, thick or not thick, you can see always through if you want to, same thing there.”(10) In recalling the frustration some of the other participating artists felt for his twine, Duchamp was unsympathetic. He doubted why “Some painters were actually disgusted with the idea of having their paintings back of lines like that, thought nobody would see their paintings.”(11)

That Duchamp was keen to downplay, even deny, the obstructing quality of his twine is especially interesting, because that aspect has been the one most emphasized since First Papers of Surrealism closed on November 7, 1942. The installation has generally been discussed in terms of separation and dislocation; the twine deemed a dividing barrier, or what T.J. Demos calls “the maximal obstacle between paintings and viewing space.”(12) This approach to the exhibition sets into motion a series of conflicts—installation versus paintings, paintings versus viewers, viewers versus installation—and has provided further opportunity to contextualize the exhibition within the political, social, and economic tensions of World War II. As Duchamp’s statements suggest, however, conflict was not the intended product of his twine.

click to enlarge
First Papers of Surrealism
(South view)
Figure 2
John Schiff, his twine at
First Papers of Surrealism
(South view), 1942. Philadelphia
Museum of Art.
First Papers of Surrealism
(North view)
Figure 3
John Schiff, his twine
at First Papers of Surrealism
(North view), 1942.
Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Looking at a photograph of the First Papers of Surrealism installation taken by John Schiff (Fig. 2), it is easy to see why his twine might be interpreted as an obstacle between viewer and art. The twine crisscrosses back and forth across the photograph’s frame, making the gallery and the art on display appear inaccessible. This photograph, moreover, is the best known and most consistently cited record of First Papers of Surrealism, which might explain the prevalence of this interpretation. Photographs, however, can be misleading, and Schiff’s is no exception.(13) Though the photograph suggests a separation between the viewer—in this case Schiff—and the art, Duchamp’s twine installation was more permeable and the art on display more accessible than many believe it to have been. The essay to follow will clarify these misconceptions through a detailed study of the First Papers of Surrealism photographs and of the architecture of the gallery space itself, with the ultimate goal being a more complete and accurate conception of the exhibition’s design.

The aforementioned photograph by Schiff is reproduced, along with another installation shot (Fig. 3), in Lewis Kachur’s book Displaying the Marvelous, the most comprehensive study of First Papers of Surrealism to date.(14) The same two photographs are also reproduced in Robert Lebel’s Marcel Duchamp.(15) These photographs constitute the most comprehensive visual record of the exhibition and of his twine. Combined, they show the gallery in its near-entirety by presenting the room from opposite ends; one photograph looks north, the other south. They do not show the gallery from a single vantage point, nor were they “taken from the center” of the room, as Kachur has described them.(16)

To determine where Schiff’s photographs were taken and what they represent, it is necessary to visualize the architecture of the gallery itself. For the sake of clarity, this essay is accompanied by an interactive floor plan of the space (Fig. 4).(17) Approximately 54 feet long by 25 feet wide, the room sits on the second floor of the Reid Mansion’s southern wing (Fig. 5). On the gallery’s west side, situated directly above Madison Avenue, there are three windows. The north and south ends each have two windows, which overlook the mansion’s courtyard and Fiftieth Street, respectively. Even though the gallery windows were covered during the exhibition, their locations are betrayed by light reflecting off the floor and are thus easily discernable in Schiff’s photographs. These same photographs do not show the gallery’s entrance, which was located at the middle of the east wall. They instead show only the ornate molding around the doorway, the entrance itself being hidden by the temporary partitions set up for the exhibition.

click images to enlarge

  • First Papers of Surrealism
gallery plan
  • New York Palace Hotel
  • Figure 4
  • Figure 5
  • First Papers of Surrealism
    gallery plan, 1942, Design
    by the author, 2006.
  • New York Palace Hotel (formerly
    the Whitelaw Reid Mansion), New York, 2006.
    Photograph by the author.

These partitions, each situated perpendicular to the nearest wall, allowed the Surrealists to increase the hanging space. As illustrated in the floor plan, there were ten such partitions: five ran the course of the west wall; two were placed at the north end; and three sat along the east wall. At the south end was a small stage with a piano on it. (Though they did little to change the gallery’s layout, there were also six temporary partitions set parallel to and directly against the walls, presumably used to avoid putting holes in the room’s original wood paneling.) On the whole, his twine was restricted to the ceiling space and the gaps between neighboring partitions—the main exception to this rule being the space between the two partitions flanking the entrance. There, a lack of twine allowed visitors to enter. The interior of the gallery was also free of twine and thus open to ambulation. Carroll Janis, the son of Harriet and Sidney Janis and one of the children present at the First Papers of Surrealism opening, confirms these details, recalling that “there was free access down the center of the large room, with ‘partitioned niches’ on either side.”(18)

A close examination of Schiff’s photographs makes it is possible to recreate where he stood when shooting. These vantages, which are marked on the accompanying floor plan, have also been recreated in two included photographs (Figs. 6-7).(19) Because the view of the room’s southern end shows the stage that was set up there, the view of the northern end must have been taken from somewhere in the vicinity of this platform. Duchamp used hardly any twine in that area, so the photograph taken from the south (the north view) is without foreground obstructions. This photograph in turn shows that its counterpart, the south view, was taken from between the partitions at the opposite end of the room. As twine was strung across these partitions, the photograph taken there (the south view) represents the gallery as an area closed-off by a web of intersecting lines. The photograph is therefore deceptive, as the space beyond the twine was actually open and easily accessible.

click images to enlarge

  • New York Palace Hotel (South view)
  • Room at the New York
Palace Hotel (North view)
  • Figure 6
  • Figure 7
  • L’Orangerie room at the
    New York Palace Hotel (South view),
    2006. Photograph by the author.
  • L’Orangerie room at the New York
    Palace Hotel (North view), 2006.
    Photograph by the author.

In addition to providing information regarding the layout of First Papers of Surrealism, these photographs highlight the artificiality, or perhaps theatricality, of Schiff’s process. Kachur has described the photographs as being “as straightforward as possible,” but while that claim might hold true for the north view, it is hardly the case with the south.(20) Because of the twine’s layout, photographing the north view would have required little more than standing near or atop the stage. Photographing the south view, however, would have entailed a more involved process. To get this shot, Schiff had to stand behind the twine running between the northernmost partitions. If Duchamp’s installation was indeed a physical barrier, then Schiff’s task would have been quite demanding. But regardless of how easy or difficult the twine was to circumvent, the photographs are nonetheless carefully orchestrated.

Specifically, Schiff’s photographs and the means by which they were taken emphasize and demonstrate the permeability of Duchamp’s installation at First Papers of Surrealism. Even the south view, the one mostly obscured by his twine, nonetheless provides a relatively clear view of the exhibition. Moreover, the photographs actually seem to encourage the practice of looking through his twine. They ask the viewer to acknowledge the installation, the gallery space, and art beyond. It is something of a looking game: focus on the twine; focus on the gallery; focus on the art. The game repeats as the viewer continues through the exhibition. Becoming more accustomed to the environment, the viewer may realize that the relationship between the three entities is more a fluid partnership than a one-sided competition. Schiff’s photographs suggest this sort of dynamic interaction with the twine; in their staging, they actually document that experience.

click to enlarge
Max Ernst’s Le Surrealism
et la Peinture
Figure 8
Max Ernst’s Le Surrealism
et la Peinture
twine at First Papers of Surrealism
, 1942. Newsweek,
26 October 1942.

Throughout the rest of the First Papers of Surrealism records and materials, the concept of seeing through his twine, of allowing Duchamp’s installation to somehow mediate the viewing experience, is consistently reiterated. A photograph from Newsweek (Fig. 8), for instance, shows Max Ernst’s Le Surréalisme et la Peinture (1942) behind his twine. In this case, the photograph’s small field of view limits the ability to locate either the camera’s vantage point or the placement of Ernst’s painting (though the work does appear to hang on one of the six partitions set parallel to and directly against the gallery walls). More importantly, the Newsweek photograph demonstrates how easily one could have viewed the painting despite the presence of the twine. Arnold Newman, another photographer to take pictures of the First Papers of Surrealism installation, took at least two photographs of his twine, both of which include Duchamp. In one (Fig. 9), the artist looks out coyly from behind his twine; in the other (Fig. 10), he stands beside his 1913 Cimetière des Uniformes et Livrées (or Network of Stoppages, as it is known in English). In both photographs, his twine functions as a framing device, something to be recognized but not focused upon.

click images to enlarge

  • Arnold Newman, Marcel Duchamp
  • Arnold Newman, Marcel Duchamp
  • Figure 9
  • Figure 10
  • Arnold Newman, Marcel Duchamp, 1942. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  • Arnold Newman, Marcel Duchamp behind his installation of “sixteen miles of string,” 1942. Zabriskie Gallery website.

click to enlarge
First Papers of
Surrealism catalogue
Figure 11
Marcel Duchamp,” First Papers of
catalogue, 1942.
Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Since the geometric painting to Duchamp’s right in the second photograph by Newnam also appears in Schiff’s south view, Cimetière des Uniformes et Livrées must have hung on the partition between the middle and northernmost windows of the west wall of the gallery. The vantage point of Newman’s photograph, in turn, would have been just north of the gallery’s center.(21) This point is also marked on the included floor plan. That Duchamp was posed beside this particular painting is not a coincidence. Cimetière des Uniformes et Livrées, which was fully reproduced in the exhibition catalogue (Fig. 11), is a layering of imagery derived from other paintings and drawings, the top level being the synapse-like forms of 3 Standard Stoppages (1914), made by dropping meter-long threads from a height of one meter onto a horizontal surface.(22) In other words, Newman’s photograph shows a painting behind twine of a painting behind twine. A more reflexive image could hardly be imagined.

Duchamp may well have collaborated with Newman on setting up the photograph. Duchamp’s designs for the First Papers of Surrealism catalogue emphasize permeability and the process of looking through. On the front cover is an image of a wall pocked with bullet holes through which Duchamp punched five actual holes (Fig. 12), while on the page facing Sidney Janis’s foreword to the catalogue, the artists participating in the exhibition are listed so that their names collectively create the shape of a keyhole (Fig. 13), again referencing the process of looking through.(23) The back cover is a detailed image of Swiss cheese (Fig. 14).(24) By emphasizing the transparency of his twine, Newman’s photographs reiterate the iconography of the catalogue. If Duchamp did not actively collaborate with Newman in creating the compositions of the photographs, they are nonetheless very much in keeping with the central idea of the First Papers of Surrealism installation and catalogue.

click images to enlarge

  • Front Cover,First Papers
of Surrealism catalogue
  • Artists names in keyhole,
First Papers of Surrealism catalogue
  • Back Cover, First Papers
of Surrealism catalogue
  • Figure 12
  • Figure 13
  • Figure 14
  • Front Cover, First Papers
    of Surrealism
    catalogue, 1942.
    Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  • Artists names in keyhole,
    First Papers of Surrealism catalogue,
    1942. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  • Back Cover, First Papers
    of Surrealism
    1942. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Newman photograph of Duchamp beside Cimetière des Uniformes et Livrées also shows that twine was strung only from the edges of each partition on the sides closest to the middle of the gallery. Each partition, moreover, was set not directly against the wall but out by two or three feet. Such a layout would have made possible a navigable corridor ringing parts of the gallery’s east, north, and west walls. The corridor would have allowed passage around the gallery’s perimeter and entrance into the niches between facing partitions. The existence of such channels, however, is somewhat speculative. When asked, Carroll Janis could not confirm their presence, but nor could he deny the possibility that they had been there, writing, “I do not recall any corridor running around the back of the niches – but I wasn’t looking for it either!”(25)

If there was not a continuous walkway, some other means of passage through his twine must have been present. How else could Schiff’s and Newman’s photographs be explained? Janis claims to “[not] recall any real access into the niches,” though he counters that, “the string had a certain fragile character…one could have slipped under at certain points.”(26) Jewell, whose account may be more reliable given his age at the time and the nature of his job, provides a more convincing description. He reports that “intrepid” visitors could “reach closer proximity [to the paintings] by means of certain strategically placed apertures.”(27) This statement, beyond verifying the existence of openings in his twine, indicates that such “apertures” were intentionally created for the express purpose of accessing the partitioned niches. In Schiff’s north view of First Papers of Surrealism, such an opening appears to exist between the partitions perpendicular to one another at the gallery’s northwest corner. Close to the gallery’s north end and to the spot where Cimetière des Uniformes et Livrées hung, this opening was likely the one used by Schiff when he shot his south view of the exhibition and by Duchamp when he posed for Newman.

Just how many people actually chose to traverse the skeins of the First Papers of Surrealism installation is uncertain. Duchamp and Schiff count for at least two, and perhaps there were more. But even if only a few visitors were “intrepid” enough to pass through the installation, the possibility for such passage is a reminder that his twine was far less an impediment than commonly believed. Moreover, for those who did not physically navigate the installation, his twine arguably did more to enhance the paintings on display than it did to obscure them. “It was,” as Janis writes, “a fantastically interesting see-through construction, which transformed the gallery space into an unforgettable experience.” Contrary to his parents’ interpretation, Janis believes the twine actually “helped explicate the new art.”(28)

click to enlarge
First Papers of Surrealism
Figure 15
First Papers of Surrealism
catalogue, 1942. Philadelphia
Museum of Art.

That Duchamp’s installation at the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition would be concerned with new, intriguing, and even playful methods of looking at art is not surprising. Experimenting with sight was for Duchamp a lifelong preoccupation. A work like To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass), with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour (1918) predates the exhibition and demonstrates an early example of how Duchamp chose to engage the practice of looking. Concurrent with First Papers of Surrealism—and less than nine blocks away—at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1935-41) was on display through the peephole of a web-like apparatus.(29) Some years later, Duchamp would begin work on Etant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage (1946-66), a piece that summarizes many of the artist’s diverse interests but is above all about the act of looking through. Since the First Papers of Surrealism catalogue includes a reproduction of Duchamp’s In the Manner of Delvaux (1942) (Fig. 15), a collage showing a fragmented view of a female nude, Etant donnés, may have already been on Duchamp’s mind.(30) The use of certain other imagery in the catalogue—bullet holes, Swiss cheese, a keyhole—only furthers the likelihood of that possibility.

To what extent Duchamp himself would have related these or other works to the First Papers of Surrealism installation is uncertain. From a material point of view, he may have considered his twine to be more akin to 3 Standard Stoppages or With Hidden Noise (1916), as both those works involve string. Compositionally, he may have found more in common with Sculpture for Traveling (1918), another temporary work, which involved stretching parts of a bathing cap to different walls of a room. In truth, different aspects of his twine might resonate equally with many different works by Duchamp, and likewise there may be many ways to interpret the installation beyond the artist’s oeuvre alone. But analysis of that variety has never been this essay’s goal. The primary concern has always been the reexamination of the First Papers of Surrealism texts, photographs, and space. As his twine no longer hangs, having existed for not even a month, this documentary material is of utmost importance. By synthesizing as much of this information as possible, the hope has been the achievement of a more concrete understanding of the exhibition’s design and of the role his twine played there.


Footnote Return1. “Agonized Humor,” Newsweek, 26 Oct 1942, 76.

Footnote Return2. Ticket prices were listed as $1.10 for the opening preview and $.50 thereafter, as noted by Edward Alden Jewell in “Surrealists Open Display Tonight,” New York Times, 14 Oct 1942, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers the New York Times (1851-2003) .

Footnote Return3. At the request of Duchamp, Carroll Janis, the son of Sidney and Harriet Janis, and friends ran around and played ball in the galleries. The performance tickled some of the adult visitors and frustrated others. In Lewis Kachur’s Displaying the Marvelous (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), Kachur explains the children’s activities in a section called “Vernissage Consacré aux Enfants Jouant, à l’Odeur du Cèdre,” 195-7.

Footnote Return4. André Breton and Marcel Duchamp, First Papers of Surrealism (New York: Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies, Inc., 1942). As news of the installation spread, Duchamp’s handiwork soon acquired the catchy name Sixteen Miles of String. See, for instance, Robert Coates, “The Art Galleries, Sixteen Miles of String,” New Yorker, October 31, 1942, 72; Alfred M. Frankfurter, “The Passing Shows,” Art News: November 1-14, 1942, 24. This moniker, however, is misleading, as no such length was ever used; moreover, it is unnecessary when compared to the simpler title originally given in the exhibition catalogue: “his twine.” This phrase appears on the catalogue’s title page, alongside other basic information regarding the show. The same page also credits the “hanging” to André Breton, who indeed helped coordinate the exhibition. Thus, although “his twine” may also be understood as wordplay on “his twin,” a reference to the friendship between Duchamp and Breton, that interpretation is certainly secondary to the phrase’s purpose as a title credit.

Footnote Return5. Built in 1884 by McKim, Mead & White, the mansion was originally intended for railroad tycoon Henry Villard. Bankruptcy forced Villard to give up possession of the property, selling it to Whitelaw Reid, then editor of the New York Tribune. Today, the estate is part of the New York Palace Hotel, which calls the wing where the 1942 exhibition was held the Villard Mansion. See Christopher Gray, “Streetscape/Madison Avenue Between 50th and 51st Street; A Landmark 6-Home Complex in Dark Brownstone,” New York Times, 21 Dec 2003, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers the New York Times (1851-2003).

Footnote Return6. This exhibition is addressed in Kachur’s Displaying the Marvelous and Alyce Mahon’s Surrealism and the Politics of Eros, 1938-1968 (London: Thames and Hudson, 2005), among others.

Footnote Return7. Kachur, 179.

Footnote Return8. Edward Alden Jewell, “‘Inner Vision’ and Out of Bounds,” New York Times, 18 Oct 1942, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers the New York Times (1851-2003).

Footnote Return9. Harriet and Sidney Janis, “Marcel Duchamp, Anti-Artist,” View 5, no. 1 (March 1945), 18. Arturo Schwarz makes a similar interpretation in his The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1969), 515.

Footnote Return10. Duchamp quoted in Kachur, 183

Footnote Return11. Ibid., 189-90.

Footnote Return12. T. J. Demos, “Duchamp’s Labyrinth: First Papers of Surrealism, 1942,” October (Summer 2001), 94.

Footnote Return13. Interestingly, the reception of his twine is strikingly similar to that of Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917. In both cases, photographs have been the primary means for seeing the original work. That is of course true with his twine, a temporary installation seen only by gallery visitors. Fountain also no longer exists, although replicas are on display at several museums, in particular the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Even before the original was lost, however, Fountain was for years known largely through Alfred Stieglitz’s 1917 photograph of the work. Stieglitz’s photograph exaggerated the formal qualities of Fountain, prompting critics to respond with overly aesthetical interpretations of the readymade. Yet time has shown that Fountain is more an ironic and provocative critique of art than an objet d’art per se. As this study explains, Schiff’s photograph of his twine suggests a more imposing, impassible installation than in reality. For more on the reception of Fountain, see William Camfield, Marcel Duchamp: “Fountain” (Houston: Menil Foundation, 1989), particularly pages 13-60.

Footnote Return14. Kachur, 176, fig. 4.3; 180, fig. 4.5.

Footnote Return15. Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1959), plates 111a and 111b.

Footnote Return16. Kachur, 168.

Footnote Return17. The floor plan was drafted by the author according to measurements taken at the gallery. The placement of the partitions and the stage have been determined as best as possible according to the photographs by Schiff and Newman.

Footnote Return18. Carroll Janis, letter to the author, 31 January 2007.

Footnote Return19. The gallery, part of the New York Palace Hotel (see note 5), is now called L’Orangerie and is a meeting/banquet hall. I visited the L’Orangerie room on November 7, 2006, coincidentally the sixty-fourth anniversary of the First Papers of Surrealism closing. Despite some renovations to the ceiling and the installation of some modern fixtures, the room seems to have changed little since 1942. At the New York Palace Hotel, I took a series of digital photographs and videos to document my visit. In particular, I tried to recreate the photographs taken by Schiff and Newman, which have been included here along with an exterior shot of the mansion.

Footnote Return20. Kachur, 187.

Footnote Return21. Ibid., 176, image caption 4.3, indicates this work as one by Robert Motherwell. It is not, however, El Miedo de la Obscuridad (1942), the Motherwell work reproduced in the First Papers of Surrealism catalogue. That it is even by Motherwell seems questionable. Kachur also identifies in this photograph works by Paul Klee, Ernst, Marc Chagall, Alexander Calder, and Pablo Picasso. In the other photograph by Schiff, reproduced on page 176, Kachur identifies works by Picasso, Yves Tanguy, René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, and Jean Arp.

Footnote Return22. For an animated illustration of how the works combine into a single whole, see Greg Alvarez’s video at http://www.marcelduchamp.net/stoppages.php.

Footnote Return23. It was actually Duchamp himself who fired a gun at the wall. See Martica Sawin, Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 222-6.

Footnote Return24. A debate has arisen regarding this cheese, particularly what exact type is shown. See Stephen E. Hauser, “Marcel Duchamp Chose Emmentaler Cheese (1942),” Tout-Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, Issue 3, 2003 (27 November 2006).

Footnote Return25. Janis letter.

Footnote Return26. Ibid.

Footnote Return27. “Surrealists Open Display Tonight.”

Footnote Return28. Janis letter.

Footnote Return29. Kachur, 202.

Footnote Return30. Thomas Singer claims in “In the Manner of Duchamp, 1942-47: The Years of the ‘Mirrorical Return,’” Art Bulletin 86, no. 2 (June 2004) 346-69 that the origins of Etant donnés can be traced to In the Manner of Delvaux. His analysis, however, does not closely consider the work’s reproduction in the First Papers of Surrealism catalogue. Furthermore, while the conclusion drawn by Singer is correct—that the collage relates to Etant donnés—his argument is confusing. His study overemphasizes the importance of infrathinness, forgery, and mirrors, but does not discuss the striking visual similarities between a peephole and the cropping of In the Manner of Delvaux as it is reproduced.

A Problem With No Solution

click to enlarge

Figure 1
Julien Levy Gallery’s Exhibition
Announcement for Through the Big End
of the Opera Glass, 1943
In 1943, Marcel Duchamp was asked by the gallery owner Julien Levy to design the announcement for an exhibition to be called “Through the Big End of the Opera Glass.”(1) As the title implies (adapted, as it was, from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass), the show was to feature unusually small-scale work. Years later, Levy explained that the idea for the exhibition came from having seen an example of Duchamp’s valise, in which the artist had packed miniature reproductions of his work into a portable suitcase.(2) The show was to include not only work by Duchamp, but by two other artists as well: the French Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy, and the American collage and assemblage artist, Joseph Cornell. Within the announcement (Fig. 1), Duchamp reproduced a black-and-white layout by Cornell featuring the titles of Cornell’s work printed in a variety of expressive type faces surrounded by a collage of images referring to them, while Tanguy was represented by a drawing of one of his characteristically biomorphic three-dimensional shapes, accompanied, in this particular instance, by an opaque black shadow that curiously overlaps it. 

click to enlarge

Figure 2
Marcel Duchamp, Cupid, Collection of the
Honorable Joseph P. Carroll
For his own contribution, on the back cover of the announcement Duchamp provided the image of a cupid with a stretched bow and arrow in his hands, but the figure is inexplicably reproduced upside down, for the artist’s signature—which is oriented legibly—streams off to one side at the level of the cupid’s head. At first glance, knowing that Duchamp often appropriated imagery for whatever purpose was required—in the fashion of culling images readymade—one might easily conclude that the cupid was clipped from some printed source and collaged into this position. However, the original layout for this announcement was recently discovered among the effects of Julien Levy, and it is now known that Duchamp painstakingly drew the cupid himself in pen and ink (Fig. 2). It is likely that he took the time to render this image because he could not find the reproduction of a cupid fixing his arrow in this precise direction, a detail that, as we shall soon learn, is critical to his intent, for the significance of the cupid’s aim can only be understood when the announcement is unfolded and fully opened.  

Figure 3
Detail of Julien Levy Gallery’s Exhibition Announcement for Through
the Big End of the Opera Glass, 1943
The paper stock Duchamp selected for this ephemeral publication was a translucent sheet folded in quadrants, forming a booklet. The first thing the recipient would have seen upon removing the announcement from its envelope was the title page, providing the name of the exhibition, its dates and its location. Upon opening the booklet, he would find Cornell’s layout opposite Tanguy’s drawing, and, on the back cover, Duchamp’s cupid. Closer examination of the cupid would reveal that something is printed on the opposite side of the paper: below Duchamp’s signature, in red ink, one can faintly read the words: “White to Play and Win” (Fig. 3). To chess enthusiasts, this phrase can mean only one thing: one is being presented with a chess problem to solve in which white is instructed to move first and eventually go on to win the game. Indeed, just above it, one can discern the faint outline of a chess board with pieces in various positions, printed, like the writing below it, on the opposite side of the sheet. If, at this point, someone is compelled to unfold the sheet and examine the opposite side, Duchamp provided additional instructions: “Look through from other side against light.”

For those already familiar with Duchamp’s work, these words might well bring to mind the elaborate title that he gave to a work on glass from 1918: To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour (The Museum of Modern Art, New York). The comparison may not have been a simple coincidence of wording, for if an attempt were made to solve the chess problem, even grand masters would likely need more than an hour to solve it. If we follow Duchamp’s instructions and “look through from the other side against light,” we will see the layout of a chessboard from the proper position (with a white square in the lower right corner), each player with a king, a pair of pawns, and a single rook. We will also see the cupid he drew on the other side, the arrow from its bow pointing down the white knight’s file (or “B” file in algebraic notation), suggesting that the next best possible move for White would be to advance its pawn. One who studies this endgame problem at any length, however, would determine that this move would not attain a win for white. Indeed, virtually any move by white seems to result in a draw, even though there are a few compelling scenarios that—until properly analyzed—give the false impression that white has a chance to win (see analysis in boxed insert).  


Diagram A

Diagram B
At first glance, the endgame chess problem that Duchamp devised (see Diagram A) gives the impression that White could play and win, for White has a pawn on the seventh rank and a quick promotion would seem inevitable. Black has two isolated pawns that could also advance, but they are farther from promotion and look as though they could easily be attacked by White’s rook. The following scenario seems plausible, as was suggested to me thirty years ago by international grandmaster Larry Evans:(I) 

  • 1.
  • White
  • Black
  • 2.
  • Ke4!
  • h4
  • 3.
  • Kd5
  • h3
  • 4.
  • Kc6
  • h2
  • 5.
  • Rg7+
  • Kf3
  • 6.
  • Rh7
  • Kg2
  • 7.
  • Kc7
  • Rxb7+
  • 8.
  • Kxb7
  • h1=Q
  • 9.
  • Rxh1
  • Kxh1
  • 10.
  • Kc6
  • f5
  • Kd5 and wins
  • (see Diagram B)

Diagram C

Diagram D

Diagram E
This variation, however, misses a possible move for Black, one that would not only extend play, but would eventually result in a draw.(II) After the white king moves to c7 (the sixth move), the pieces are in the position and shown in Diagram C.

At this point, Black is forced to move his rook (otherwise, the white king will capture it on its next move). If he captures the white pawn and checks white’s king at the same time, the result will be a win for White (as Evans demonstrated above). But if Black moves his rook to g8 (6. … Rg8), he is in a far better position. There, if White promotes on the next move, he can capture the promoted piece (as indicated in Diagram D).

On the very next move, the white king will capture the black rook. The white rook will then capture the black pawn when it promotes, and the black king will, in turn, take the white rook, leaving a pair of kings and isolated pawns on each side of the board, a position that results in a draw.

There is another scenario that would allow White to continue play even further. After 6. … Rg8, if White does not promote his pawn on the 7th move, but, rather, advances his other pawn one square forward (7. b6, in the direction indicated by the Cupid’s arrow), play would continue as follows:

  • 7
  • h1=Q
  • 8
  • Rxh1
  • Kxh1
  • 9
  • b8=Q
  • Rxb8
  • 10
  • Kxb8
  • f5 draws

Diagram F

Diagram G
In this position, it may appear that White will win, since his pawn seems closer to promotion. When played out, however, this leads to Diagram G (discussed below), resulting in another book draw. A number of other possible scenarios were later suggested by Larry Evans. In the initial position, he strongly encouraged investigation of moving the white king to e3, or advancing the trailing pawn to b6 (as suggested in Duchamp’s design by the direction of the Cupid’s arrow).(III) This latter suggestion (1. b6) eventually transposes to Diagram E. Following the strategy that I had proposed—of Black moving his rook to g8—Evans also suggested that White promote right away on b8, followed by a black rook capture (thereby eliminating White’s pawn that was threatening to promote). White’s king would then capture the black rook on b8, followed by the promotion of Black’s pawn, which would, in turn, be captured by the white rook. The black king would then capture the white rook, leaving the position found in Diagram F. If we compare the final positions in Diagrams E and F, we discover that they are very similar and transpose into each other. They both lead to Diagram G, which ends in a classic draw (as explained below). In position F only, the white pawn would queen, leaving the black king protecting a pawn that is about to promote (see Diagram G). The position leads to perpetual check, or stalemate.

The way a stalemate is achieved (from Diagram G) is that White starts a series of checks leading to the following position: White Kc7, Qg4 (check); Black: Kg2, f2. Then after … Kh1, Qf3+ Kg1, Qg3+, Black does not protect his pawn with … Kf1 (because then the white King steps back up the board, followed by a series of checks and King moves again, leading to eventual mating position), but instead plays … Kh1! Then if the white Queen takes the pawn with Qxf2, it is a stalemate; but meanwhile, Black is threatening to promote. So White has to give perpetual check or allow stalemate.(IV)
The way a stalemate is achieved (from Diagram G) is that White starts a series of checks leading to the following position: White Kc7, Qg4 (check); Black: Kg2, f2. Then after … Kh1, Qf3+ Kg1, Qg3+, Black does not protect his pawn with … Kf1 (because then the white King steps back up the board, followed by a series of checks and King moves again, leading to eventual mating position), but instead plays … Kh1! Then if the white Queen takes the pawn with Qxf2, it is a stalemate; but meanwhile, Black is threatening to promote. So White has to give perpetual check or allow stalemate

Figure 4
Black & White photograph of Larry Evans playing
chess with Marcel Duchamp (Larry Evans is on
the left and Marcel Duchamp is on the right)
Larry Evans—who had played chess with Duchamp on more than one occasion (Fig. 4)—was sufficiently intrigued by this problem that he graciously accepted my request to publish it in his monthly column in Chess Life & Review.(V) At the time, I offered a $15 reward for its solution, not realizing that I would be inundated with responses, a number of which came from prison inmates who demanded immediate payment of the reward. Phone calls from several of these individuals were all the intimidation I needed to send checks, even though none of their solutions were actually convincing. The most thoughtful and detailed responses came from regular readers of Chess Life & Review, specialists in endgame strategy who proposed a variety of intriguing possibilities, all hoping that theirs was the ultimate solution (although I do not believe that any of them actually were). I have since subjected this problem to the most powerful computer programs available to me, and no solution has yet been found. I am now all the more convinced that this is a problem that cannot be solved. Duchamp has given us, in effect, a problem with no solution.(VI)

I. In an effort to solve this problem, I wrote to E. B. Edmondson, then executive director of the American Chess Federation. He passed on my inquiry to Larry Evans, who responded to me in a letter dated June 2, 1976.
II. I presented these alternatives to Mr. Evans in a letter dated June 4, 1976.
III. Letter from Evans to the author, June 5, 1976.
IV. The analysis of this final position was generously provided by Allan G. Savage, author of
Reconciling Chess: a Marcel Duchamp Sampler (Davenport: Thinkers’ Press, 1998), and who is in the process of writing the fourth volume of the series published by Moravian Chess, The Chess Biography of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), which is scheduled for publication in 2008.
V. “Larry Evans on Chess,” Chess Life & Review (October 1976), p. 580.
VI. I have provided copies of the present analysis to several experienced chess players: Jennifer Shahade, Ralph Kaminsky, Allen G. Savage and Malcolm H. Wiener. These individuals are familiar with standard chess analyses and, although they agree with my general conclusion (that the problem has no solution), they believe my analysis to be redundant and—in comparison to professional analyses— somewhat amateurish. Nevertheless, I am grateful to all of them for having taken the time to review my text, and for having provided various recommendations for its improvement.


The rigor and intensity of this endgame problem stands in sharp contrast to the means by which Duchamp presents us with a hint of its solution: a cupid aiming his arrow toward the ground (or into the sky, if we consider that the cupid is presented upside-down). Cupid is, of course, the mythological god of love, and his arrow is usually aimed in the direction of an amorous target; a direct hit can cause the recipient to fall deeply and blindly in love. Knowing this, and knowing that when Duchamp designed this brochure he had recently met and fallen in love with Maria Martins— a Brazilian sculptor, married with three children, and in almost every respect, unattainable—one is tempted to speculate that Duchamp might have had a personal situation in mind when he decided that a cupid should indicate the path to follow in pursuing a solution to this vexing problem. Duchamp was well known for having said: “There is no solution, because there is no problem.”(3) In the end, the problem that he faced with Maria Martins was insurmountable, demonstrating that in both chess and life— and perhaps in art as well—there are, indeed, problems without solutions.


This article first appeared in The Sienese Shredder no. 1 (Winter 2006-2007), pp. 180-87. At the time when it appeared, I was unaware of the fact that Grandmaster Pal Benko had published an analysis of this same endgame problem, concluding—as I did—that there was no solution (see “Duchamp Solved!?,” Chess Life [August 2005], p.588). I am grateful to Ralph Kaminsky for having drawn this article to my attention.

1. The date of this exhibition has been given variously, as either 1943 or 1948. Julien Levy consistently gave the date as 1943 (see his autobiography, Memoir of an Art Gallery [New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977], p. 309, as well as the reference contained in the following note). For reasons that are unclear, however, in all editions of his otherwise reliable catalogue raisonné of work by Marcel Duchamp, Arturo Schwarz gives the date as 1948 (see The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp [New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1969], cat. no. 329, page 523; revised and expanded edition [New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 1997], cat. no. 530, p. 793, and descriptive bibliography 71, page 904). The date of 1943 cannot be challenged, however, for the show was reviewed in The New York Times on December 12, 1943 (I am grateful to Ingrid Shaffner for bringing this citation to my attention).

2. See the statement provided by Julien Levy for a brochure published on the occasion of “Through the Big End of the Opera Glass II,” a recreation of the original 1943 show at the Joan Washburn Gallery, New York, February 15 -March 12, 1977 (the brochure contained a facsimile reprint of the original fold-out catalogue).

3. This comment seems to have been quoted for the first time in Harriet and Sidney Janis, “Marcel Duchamp: Anti-Artist,” View, series V, no. 1 (March 1945), p. 24; it is repeated again in Winthrop Sargeant, “Dada’s Daddy,” Life, vol. 32, no. 17 (April 28, 1952), p. 111.

Fig. 1-3, © 2008 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris.
Authorization to publish this article was provided by the author, Francis M. Naumann and The Sienese Shredder.

Cinq petites choses à propos de L.H.O.O.Q.


click to enlarge

Figure 1
Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q.

Tentant tardivement de préciser quand, en 1919, a été “fait” L.H.O.O.Q., Marcel Duchamp fournira deux dates: au début 1953, dans ses entretiens avec Sidney, Harriet et Carroll Janis, il dira décembre(1) ; en juin 1966, dans ses entretiens avec Pierre Cabanne, octobre(2) .

Ceci, autant en regard des faits rapportés que de la lecture qu’on peut en faire, n’est pas sans conséquence.

Du début août au 27 décembre 1919, en effet, Duchamp habite, avenue Charles-Floquet (Paris 7e), chez Francis Picabia et Gabrielle Buffet (cette dernière enceinte d’un quatrième enfant de lui, qui naît le 15 septembre). Picabia, lui, a emménagé depuis quelques jours ou semaines déjà rue Émile-Augier (Paris 16e), chez Germaine Everling, sa maîtresse (également enceinte de lui, et dont l’enfant naîtra le 5 janvier 1920(3)). Il faut déduire de cette situation particulière que, durant ce séjour de presque cinq mois, les contacts Duchamp-Picabia n’ont été que très épisodiques, sinon inexistants (sauf, selon toute vraisemblance, vers la fin du séjour), cela permettant d’ “expliquer” pourquoi L.H.O.O.Q. n’est pas publié dans les n 9 (novembre 1919), 10 (décembre 1919) ou 11 (février 1920) de 391, la revue de Picabia, mais bien, dans une version Picabia intitulée Tableau dada par Marcel Duchamp(4) , dans le n 12 (mars 1920). Michel Sanouillet ajoute sur ce point une précision: “Picabia lui demanda par lettre l’autorisation de “refaire” une Joconde pour 391, autorisation qui fut naturellement accordée. Mais Picabia, qui n’avait conservé de l’oeuvre de Duchamp qu’un souvenir imprécis, se borna à dessiner la moustache(5).” Picabia, en effet, ne reprend sur le coup que “L.H.O.O.Q.”, l’inscription qui deviendra le titre du readymade(6), l’inscrivant à son tour, verticalement et sans les points, sur l’une de ses toiles, Le double monde(7), datée de [décembre] 1919 et exhibée sur scène par André Breton lors du Premier vendredi de (la revue) Littérature, le 23 janvier 1920, première manifestation de Dada à Paris.

À cause de son titre (Tableau dada par Marcel Duchamp), la version Picabia passera pour l’original pendant plusieurs années, cet original n’étant montré pour la première fois qu’en mars 1930 à Paris, en même temps qu’une réplique agrandie (faite fin janvier ou début février 1930(8)), lors de l’exposition intitulée La peinture au défi et préfacée par Aragon.

Pour un poète, romancier et critique comme Aragon, un readymade n’est pas, dès cette époque, qu’un objet industriel, déplacé de son contexte et détourné de sa fonction utilitaire.


Il faut préciser que la reproduction en couleur qui en est la base n’est pas une carte postale, malgré que tant de gens l’aient dit ou écrit(9). Il n’y a qu’à regarder le verso, publié par Arturo Schwarz dès 1969 dans la 1re édition de son catalogue, pour constater qu’il n’y a pas le dispositif habituel de la carte postale avec la place pour l’adresse et le timbre (à droite), pour le “message” et la légende de l’illustration (à gauche), mais plutôt, par Duchamp, telle indication technique (au crayon) sur comment photographier le recto, et, plus tard, par dessus la précédente, telle déclaration officielle devant notaire (à l’encre) comme quoi il s’agit bien de l’original(10). Ce petit palimpseste, au verso, n’ayant d’égal, au recto, que cette mine (de crayon ajoutant les moustaches et la barbiche(11)) sur la mine (de la Joconde).

Mais où Duchamp s’est-il procuré cette reproduction en couleur? Le plus vraisemblable, comme il le raconte aux Janis en 1953, est qu’il l’a achetée dans quelque boutique installée près du Louvre, rue de Rivoli, afin de vendre à bon marché telle ou telles reproductions des grandes oeuvres de ce musée, façon de faire bien connue dans toutes les grandes villes où il y a d’importants musées. Faut-il rappeler qu’en avril 1911 le déjà très célèbre tableau de Léonard, peint au début du XVIe siècle, a été volé au Louvre et que, parce qu’on pouvait le croire disparu ou détruit (il ne sera retrouvé qu’en décembre 1913), on en a massivement diffusé, durant ces années ou immédiatement après, diverses reproductions couleur, photos retouchées ou non, dont certaines au format d’une carte postale(12). Sans doute sait-on également qu’en 1919 c’est le 400e anniversaire de la mort du peintre. Il est fait allusion à ces deux événements (telle perte peut-être irrémédiable et tel anniversaire) dans le choix de Duchamp.

Quand Duchamp demande par lettre (New York, 9 mai 1949) à son ami Henri-Pierre Roché d’aller acheter une ampoule de sérum – devenue ampoule d’Air de Paris – pour remplacer celle, actuellement cassée, qu’il a rapportée de Paris, fin décembre 1919, à ses amis Louise et Walter Arensberg, il écrit:

Pourrais[-]tu aller dans la pharmacie qui est au coin de la rue Blomet et la rue de Vaugirard (si elle existe encore, c’est là que j’avais acheté la première ampoule) et acheter une ampoule comme celle-ci: 125c.c. et de la même dimension que le dessin […]
— Si pas rue Blomet ailleurs, mais autant que possible la même forme, merci.(13)

La simple consultation d’un plan de Paris nous indique tout de suite qu’il n’y a pas de coin Blomet-Vaugirard, ces deux rues (15e) étant parallèles! Je rappelle cet exemple pour indiquer qu’une indication précise, même venant de l’auteur, peut être tout simplement inexacte, voire erronée. Ainsi en est-il de L.H.O.O.Q., carte postale.

Et quand Duchamp, dans “Apropos of Myself” (1962-1964), décrit cette reproduction en couleur comme étant “a cheap chromo”, il faut préciser qu’en français comme en anglais chromo est l’abréviation de chromolithographie “image lithographique en couleur” (Petit Robert I), chromolithograph “a color print produced by chromolithography”(The American Heritage of the English Language). En français, cependant, chromo, maintenant au masculin (et non plus au féminin), a un sens péjoratif: “toute image en couleur de mauvais goût”. Ce sens supplémentaire, qui met en scène le goût, fait intervenir la question esthétique, voire artistique, ce qui n’est pas le cas en anglais, cheap signifiant dans cet exemple “of poor quality” (dont la reproduction est de mauvaise qualité), mais surtout “inexpensive” (qui est bon marché(14)).


Quand Duchamp, dans ses entretiens de 1966 avec Cabanne, parle de Picabia et de L.H.O.O.Q., il en profite, si je puis dire, pour ajouter:

Une autre fois Picabia a fait une couverture de 391 avec le portrait de [Georges] Carpentier; il me ressemblait comme deux gouttes d’eau, c’est pour cela que c’était amusant. C’était un portrait composite de Carpentier et de moi.(15)

Cette autre fois, c’est l’été 1923, quand Georges Carpentier, le boxeur, est venu chez Picabia, au Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, le petit village où il habite depuis 1922, et que ce dernier a fait son portrait de profil; le boxeur, alors, a même signé le portrait. Quand Picabia, plus d’un an plus tard, a décidé de mettre ce portrait en première page du dernier numéro de 391 (n 19, octobre 1924), il a barré incomplètement cette signature (qu’on peut lire sous la rature) et a ajouté “Rrose Sélavy / par Picabia”, frappé après coup par la ressemblance entre Carpentier et Duchamp (dont Sélavy est le pseudonyme depuis 1920)(16). Duchamp ne faisant qu’entériner, en 1966, cette “interprétation” de Picabia.

De la même façon, si, par contiguïté, ce “portrait composite” désigne aussi L.H.O.O.Q., il faut en déduire que Duchamp rappelle, en 1966, sa déclaration de 1961 à propos de ce readymade:

La chose curieuse à propos de cette moustache et de ce bouc est que, lorsque vous regardez le sourire, Mona Lisa devient un homme. Ce n’est pas une femme déguisée en homme, c’est un vrai homme; voilà ma découverte, sans qu’à l’époque je le réalise.(17)

En 1919, une femme (La Joconde dans L.H.O.O.Q.) est aussi un homme comme, en 1920-1921, un homme (Marcel Duchamp en Rose, puis Rrose, Sélavy) est aussi une femme.


Sans vraiment entrer dans l’interprétation du célèbre readymade, il peut néanmoins être remarqué que ce 400e anniversaire a pu être non seulement un déclencheur (en tant qu’anniversaire), mais aussi une contrainte (en tant que chiffraison), le 4 disant qu’il ne faut utiliser que quatre lettres, les 00 suggérant que l’une d’elles, qui doit être un O, soit redoublée(18). Ces quatre lettres, comme Duchamp le dit dans “Apropos of Myself”, étant, comme on peut ici aussi le constater après-coup, dans l’ordre alphabétique – H, L, O, Q – dans le nom de la rue (cHarLes-flOQuet) où il habite alors. Mais aussi dans le nom du procédé à la base de cette reproduction: elle est cHromoLithOgraphiQue.

Et il me plaît de constater qu’à New York la notaire choisie par Duchamp et qui, signant, certifie, le 22 décembre 1944, qu’il s’agit de l’original (“This is to certify that this is the original “ready made” L H O O Q Paris 1919”(19) ), se nomme Elsie Jenriche(20): comment ne pas voir qu’elle est là aussi parce qu’elle a ce nom (qui, de ce fait, revient métatextuellement sur l’un des enjeux de l’oeuvre), mixte de “je” (I en anglais ou Ich en allemand) et d’”autre” (else), et qu’il y est question de “genre” (jenre), else rimant avec le féminin (elle: La Joconde, La Gioconda) qui rime avec le masculin (L: Léonard, Louvre), elle étant devenu il!

Enfin, si l’on trace une ligne verticale à angle droit avec le haut de l’oeuvre et qu’on passe par le centre des moustaches, on voit bien que, à cause de l’angle du visage, on longe le nez, à gauche, du personnage femelle et désormais aussi mâle et qu’on arrive, “down below” (comme dira Duchamp en 1961), exactement entre “L.H.” et “O.O.Q.”. Ce redoublement du O est alors, une fois de plus, désigné.


Footnote Return1. Toujours inédits, les entretiens avec la famille Janis (Sidney, le père, Harriet, la mère, et Carroll, le fils) ont été faits à l’occasion de la préparation, par Duchamp, du catalogue et de l’accrochage de l’exposition Dada 1916-1923 à la Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, 15 avril-9 mai 1953. Dans la chronologie intégrée du catalogue Joseph Cornell / Marcel Duchamp… in resonance Joseph Cornell / Marcel Duchamp… in resonance, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 8 octobre 1998-3 janvier 1999, et The Menil Collection, Houston, 22 janvier-16 mai 1999, Ostfildern-Ruit, Cantz Verlag, 1998, p. 277, Susan Davidson, sans dire d’où elle tire cette précision, retient également le mois de décembre.

Footnote Return2. Pierre Cabanne, Entretiens avec Marcel Duchamp, Paris, Belfond, 1967, p. 114.

Footnote Return3. C’est un jour après la rencontre d’André Breton, invité là, et douze jours avant que, le 17 janvier, Tristan Tzara n’arrive là pour y habiter, ce séjour coïncidant avec le début de ce que Michel Sanouillet a appelé “Dada à Paris”: voir sa somme, Dada à Paris, Paris, Pauvert, 1965. Le siège du “MoUvEmEnT DADA, Berlin, Genève, Madrid, New York, Zurich”, dit le papier à lettre qui arbore cet en-tête, est maintenant à Paris. Par ailleurs, je note la coïncidence (qui n’en était peut-être pas une en 1919, étant donné l’état des connaissances sur l’oeuvre de Léonard): lorsque Duchamp est à Paris cette année-là, les deux femmes (l’épouse et la maîtresse) de Picabia sont enceintes de garçons; lorsque Francesco del Giocondo, au printemps 1503, passe une commande à Léonard pour qu’il fasse un portrait de son épouse, celle-ci lui a déjà donné deux garçons (en mai 1496 et en décembre 1502). Voir, autre somme, Daniel Arasse, Léonard de Vinci. Le rythme du monde [1997], Paris, Hazan, 2003, p. 388-389. La rime, ici, dans les deux cas: Joconde / féconde.

Footnote Return4. À Cabanne, Duchamp dit Tableau dada de [sic] Marcel Duchamp.

Footnote Return5. Michel Sanouillet, Francis Picabia et “391”, tome II, Paris, Losfeld, 1966, p. 113. (Le tome I est, en fac-similé, la réédition de 391 [1917-1924] augmentée de divers documents inédits, Paris, Losfeld, 1960.) Duchamp étant à New York depuis le 6 janvier et le no 12 de 391 ne paraissant (précise Sanouillet) qu’à la fin mars, on peut penser que Duchamp, interviewé par Schwarz (The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, New York, Abrams, 2e édition, 1970, p. 476), se souvient erronément de ce qui s’est passé à l’époque (je retraduis): “Mon original n’est pas arrivé à temps et, afin de ne pas retarder indûment l’impression de 391, Picabia a dessiné lui-même la moustache sur la Mona Lisa mais a oublié la barbiche.”

Footnote Return6. Je dis “l’inscription qui deviendra le titre du readymade” car, dans le catalogue-affiche de l’exposition chez Sidney Janis, Duchamp écrit: “La Joconde, postcard with pencil”. Ce n’est qu’à partir du premier catalogue de l’oeuvre duchampienne, celui de Robert Lebel (Sur Marcel Duchamp, Paris, Trianon Press, 1959), que ce readymade a L.H.O.O.Q. comme titre. Et ce n’est qu’à partir du catalogue Schwarz (Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, New York, Abrams, 1re édition, 1969) qu’on a les dimensions exactes dudit readymade: 19.7 x 12.4 cm ou 7¾ x 4⅞ pouces.

Footnote Return7. Les deux O de “L H O O Q”, eux-mêmes au centre de deux autres O qui ont la forme de ficelles formant des 8 ou encore la forme des pales d’une hélice, mais d’une hélice sans axe et molle, courbée par le vent, sont également – et doublement – les O de “double” et de “monde”. Le petit manque, en haut à gauche, dans l’un de ces autres O n’a d’égal, en bas à droite, que le petit manque dans le À de “À DOMICILE”, une autre inscription, et que le petit supplément – la queue – du Q de “L H O O Q”. Façon de faire coïncider ironiquement spéculations mathématiques (topologie) et spéculations marchandes (livraison “à domicile”, c’est-à-dire au logis).

Footnote Return8. “J’ai fait juste avant de quitter Paris une Joconde pour Aragon […] / Man Ray a la 1ère Joconde” (lettre de Duchamp à Jean Crotti, Villefranche-sur-mer, 6 février 1930, dans Affectionately, Marcel. The Selected Correspondance of Marcel Duchamp, édition de Francis Naumann et Hector Obalk, traduction de Jill Taylor, Gand et Amsterdam, Ludion Press, 2000, p. 171).

Footnote Return9. Trois exemples: Duchamp lui-même en 1953 (voir note 6); Ecke Bonk, Marcel Duchamp, The Box in a Valise. Inventory of an Edition, New York, Rizzoli, 1989, p. 241; Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp. A Biography, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1996, p. 221.

Footnote Return10. Faut-il ajouter que Duchamp, dans les répliques ultérieures, n’a jamais utilisé une carte postale.

Footnote Return11. J’utilise ici le pluriel, comme Duchamp en avril 1942 lorsqu’il indique à l’encre, au bas de la maquette de l’une des deux versions Picabia (celle qui est reproduite dans 391), “Moustaches par Picabia / barbiche par Marcel Duchamp”. En français, on dit indifféremment, par exemple, ciseau et ciseaux (car il y a deux lames), pantalon et pantalons (deux jambes), moustache et moustaches (deux joues ou, simplement, deux côtés au visage). Je note par ailleurs que l’indication technique, inscrite par Picabia sur deux lignes au crayon verticalement à droite de la reproduction, commence par deux liaisons – celle qui amorce le 1 de “1 cliché” sur la première ligne et celle qui amorce le s de “sans” sur la deuxième ligne – qui n’ont d’égal que l’extrémité des moustaches! Pour une reproduction et des commentaires, voir Francis Naumann, The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, catalogue de l’exposition chez Achim Moeller Fine Art, New York, 2 octobre 1999-15 janvier 2000. Si le voyage à Paris fait par Arp en avril 1942 est bien celui durant lequel il entre en possession de ces deux versions, la rencontre Arp-Duchamp (qui se connaissent depuis 1926) ne peut avoir lieu qu’en zone inoccupée (à Grasse où habite Arp, à Sanary où habite Duchamp, avant le départ de ce dernier pour les États-Unis le 14 mai).

Footnote Return12. Voir les deux cartes postales, datées 1914, reproduites dans Roy McMullen, Les grands mystères de la Joconde [1975], traduction d’Antoine Berman, Paris, Éd. de Trévise, 1981, p. 223.

Footnote Return13. Affectionately, Marcel, ouvr. cité, p. 272.

Footnote Return14. C’est d’ailleurs la traduction, par Michel Sanouillet, de ce passage: “un chromo […] bon marché” (“À propos de moi-même”, dans Duchamp du signe, Paris, Flammarion, 1975, p. 227). Naumann emprunte exactement la même voie: “an inexpensive chromo-lithographic color reproduction” (The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, ouvr. cité, p. 10).

Footnote Return15. Pierre Cabanne, Entretiens avec Marcel Duchamp, ouvr. cité, p. 115.

Footnote Return16. Voir Michel Sanouillet, Francis Picabia et “391”, ouvr. cité, p. 166. On peut voir (391, ouvr. cité, p. 127) la signature de Carpentier et l’ajout de Picabia sous quelques-unes des lignes imprimées en caractères typographiques au bas de la page.

Footnote Return17. Herbert Crehan, “Dada”, Evidence, Toronto, n 3, automne 1961. Je traduis.

Footnote Return18. Ces deux “O.” ne sont pas sans évoquer aussi, par la rime “O.” / eau, le lac de montagne et le lac de plaine dans le célèbre tableau, respectivement en haut à droite et un peu plus bas à gauche dans le paysage dominé par la loggia où est le modèle, Lisa. Et que dire du chemin sinueux venant du lac de plaine, répercuté dans la queue du “Q.” (calligraphié par Duchamp)?

Footnote Return19. Une phrase présentative dans une autre, le référent de “This” (Ceci, comme dans “Ceci est mon corps” ou dans “Ceci est une oeuvre d’art”) étant cataphorique (c’est-à-dire qu’il suit le pronom): dans le premier cas, c’est “the original “ready made””; dans le second cas, c’est l’ensemble de la proposition formant le premier cas.

Footnote Return20. Dans son bref article, ““Desperately Seeking Elsie”. Authenticating the Authenticity of L.H.O.O.Q.’s Back” (Tout-Fait, New York, vol. I, n 1, décembre 1999), Thomas Girst nous apprend que cette dame, installée à l’Hotel St. Regis, New York, de 1943 à 1945, est une sténographe publique.

The Bachelor Stripped Bare by Cabri Geometre, Even

1.1. The Bride stripped bare by her Bachelors, even

The Bride stripped bare by her Bachelors, even commonly known as The Large Glass (or simply The Glass) is the masterwork of Marcel Duchamp, and it is also one of the most representative and influential works of art of the 20th century. Duchamp spent several years completing his project, but the work was left unfinished in 1923. The actual execution of the work starts in 1915, but the first ideas date back to the Summer of 1912.

Duchamp planned each detail of this complex work, and left a huge corpus of notes, sketches, and blueprints, documenting not only his intentions and the desired final outcome, but also the different executive techniques for each single part of the Glass. These notes were published by Duchamp himself in three main collections.

The first one, edited in 1914, commonly known as The 1914 Box (Fig. 1) (because of the Kodak box containing the reproductions of the originals) contains sixteen notes and drawings; the second collection, dated 1934, is known as The Green Box (Fig. 2) (because of the green color of its binding) and contains a larger group of notes and sketches; finally, the third collection, named A l’infinitif but commonly known as The White Box, (Fig. 3) edited in 1966, contains for the most part a quantity of notes regarding mathematical
speculations on the fourth dimension, directly related to the Glass and other works. Duchamp asserted that this huge apparatus of notes must be considered an integral part of the Glass.
click to enlarge

  • The
    Figure 1
    Marcel Duchamp, The Box of 1914,

  • The Green Box
    Figure 2
    Marcel Duchamp, The Green Box,

  • The White Box
    Figure 3
    Marcel Duchamp, The White Box,


Bride’s Domain, in the Large Glass
Figure 4
Marcel Duchamp, Bride’s Domain, in the
Large Glass(detail), 1915-23
Bachelors Apparatus
Figure 5
Marcel Duchamp,Bachelors Apparatus, in the
Large Glass (detail), 1915-23

Two main parts constitute the Glass: the higher and the lower ones. The higher part is the realm of the Bride, (Fig. 4) and according to Duchamp’s intention, it depicts the 2D
projection of a 3D shadow of a 4D Bride. Thus, the realm of the Bride is intended to be a true 4D realm, which however cannot really be seen, since it is as depicted on a 2D support (the sheet of glass). The lower part is the realm of the Bachelors (Fig. 5) or the Bachelor apparatus (or utensil). In contrast with the Bride’s realm, the Bachelor’s realm is a 3D world. Thus it is imperfect in comparison with the 4D higher realm. In a note belonging to the White Box (but already issued with some minor variants in the Green Box), Duchamp wrote:

Principal forms, imperfect and freed
The principal forms
of the bachelor apparatus or
utensil are imperfect:
Rectangle, circle, square, parallelepiped, symmetrical handle; demisphere.-i.e. these forms are mensurated (interrelation of their actual dimensions and relation of these dimensions to the destination of the forms in the bachelor utensil.)
In the Bride – the principal forms will be more or less large or small, no longer have mensurability in relation to their destination: a sphere in the Bride will have any radius (the radius given to represent it is “fictitious and dotted.”)

Likewise, or better still, in the Pendu Femelle parabolas, hyperbolas (or volumes deriving from them) will lose all connotation of men-surated position. (1)

Thus, the two parts of the Glass represent two distinct realities. The lower realm is imperfect and only tries to emulate the higher dimensionality of the Bride’s realm by means of expedients and tricks (very effective, as we shall see).

These tricks are largely based on perspective representations and on elementary geometric transformations. These transformations will gradually become more and more general, and, as we pass through the threshold of the horizon (the area which divides the two parts of the Glass) from the lower half into the 4D realm of the Bride (following the pathway described by Duchamp), we finally reach a world where, abandoning any metrical trait of the objects, only more general geometrical transformations take place: the topological ones. The subject is already thoroughly discussed by scholars (2).

Perspective is not only the drawing system used by Duchamp to compose the lower part of the work, but also (and better) perspective in itself is one of the most important themes of the Glass. Indeed, we have quite explicit statements by Duchamp, such as the following,
given during a famous interview with Pierre Cabanne, that supports this contention:

Duchamp: […] In addition, perspective was very important. The “Large Glass” constitutes a rehabilitation of perspective, which had then been completely ignored and disparaged. For me, perspective became absolutely scientific.

Cabanne: It was no longer realistic perspective.

Duchamp: No. It’s a mathematical, scientific perspective.

Cabanne: Was it based on calculations?

Duchamp: Yes, and on dimensions. These were the important elements. […] (3)

Scholars largely speculated (and still speculate) on the meaning of such a rehabilitated perspective, no longer having a realistic purpose, being instead a mathematical and
scientific procedure.

Duchamp’s authoritative biographer Calvin Tomkins wrote for instance:

Vanishing-point perspective, which gave the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface, had been abandoned by modern artists who wanted their art to be a real thing rather than an imitation of reality. Why, then, did Duchamp, who certainly shared that ambition, choose to master such a discredited device? Was he looking for a mathematical formula through which he could actually evoke the presence of a fourth dimension? Whatever serious ambition he may have had along these lines he abandoned soon enough.(4)

Rhonda Roland Shearer suggests that Duchamp could have used a complex technique based on the overlapping of several different perspectives at once. According to her, such
a technique could explain both some strange features in the historical photos of the readymade and the difficulties one encounters as he or she tries to recreate the perspective of the lower half of the Glass, starting from its original blueprint (plan and elevation)(5). She says for instance:

Most Duchamp scholars have either accepted or praised Duchamp’s perspective skills. The problem remains, however, that I and a few other scholars have actually made 3-D models from Duchamp’s plans
— and none of us can find any one perspective projection view that matches Duchamp’s perspective drawings! Moreover, the process of trying to recreate the Large Glass perspective drawing from what a viewer would see of the 3-D model via perspective (equivalent to what one eye or camera lens sees) quickly becomes maddening. When you fit one part of the Large Glass model to its projection in Duchamp’s perspective drawing (say; part A, the ellipse in one wheel of the Chocolate Grinder, for example — see illustration 49A), the rest (parts B through Z) immediately fall out of place. We lose the fit of part A, and all the other parts C through Z, once part B is matched — etc.(6)

A few lines above, we also read:

My discovery that the strangely distorted Chocolate Grinder uses the same systematic characteristic approach also found in the hatrack, coatrack and urinal (and a large set of other examples not discussed in this essay) returns us to Duchamp’s words that I used at the beginning of this essay — a quotation that now bears repeating. (7)

Shearer shows a complete map of “at least” 43 different viewpoints which could have been used by Duchamp for the perspective of the Glass. Unfortunately, Shearer’s article is mainly focused on Duchamp’s readymades. The procedure used to inspect the Glass’s perspective is only briefly described, and only supported by means of 3D animations.

In the present paper, I will describe with some details the procedures I used to check the perspective of the Bachelor apparatus and will present and briefly discuss the outcomes reached.

In addition, considering some serendipitous discoveries I made by moving the elements of the Bachelor, as a further thesis, I would like to point out that the internal motions of the Bachelor apparatus (carefully planned and described in the Notes by Duchamp himself)
could be considered ways that permit the Bachelors to emulate the higher dimensionality of the Bride.


1.2. General procedures and remarks

Cabrì Géomètre II(8) is the software I
used to reconstruct the perspective of the Glass. It is a world wide known pedagogical software, commonly used to teach geometry in high schools, thus it is not specifically oriented to graphic applications or to professional 3D rendering, but instead it is aimed at building geometric objects (even very complex) which can be dynamically transformed according to well defined geometric constructions and rules.

The basic objects that Cabri furnishes are the basic geometric elements of Euclidean geometry, as usually taught at school, such as points, straight lines, segments, angles, polygons, conics, and so on.

Cabri works essentially on the plane, but following the rules of projective geometry, it makes it possible to represent 3D objects in perspective (or even higher dimensional objects, such as a hypercube, for instance).

Just such a feature interested me, as I intended to verify Duchamp’s statement about his mathematical, scientific use of perspective. Indeed my concern was to reconstruct the correct perspective of the Glass, starting from the detailed and precise metric information we read in the autograph sketches of the elevation and plan of the Bachelor apparatus (Duchamp carefully gave us even the exact position of the vanishing point).

As a second step, I intended to compare the aseptic geometric drawings obtained with Cabri, with the reproductions of the actual Glass and of its parts. To do that, I used a second tool developed for using Cabri in Internet-like environments: CabriJava(9).

This program allowed me to superimpose Cabri figures on the corresponding reproductions by Duchamp and to adjust them in a continuous way until the figures and the reproductions matched (or did not).

Here is the key question: Which kind of adjustment is allowed in order to state that Duchamp’s perspective matches the mathematical construction?

To answer that question, let us consider the perspective construction of a simple parallelepiped. Once we have the metric values for both the plan and the elevation of the parallelepiped (refer to Applet 1)and once we choose the vanishing point VP and the ground line (i.e. the elements given by Duchamp with the sketches of the plan and the elevation of the Bachelor apparatus), a degree of freedom still remains: following the standard perspective rules, we have to choose a couple of corresponding straight lines r and r’, for example the diagonal AC and the corresponding diagonal A’C’ (10).

depicts the situation. You can drag the straight line r’ to modify the figure, but always obtaining a perspective consistent with the given data, i.e., the metric of the parallelepiped, its position in the space, and the position of the vanishing point and the ground-line.

Perspective constructions and adaptations of Duchamp’s originals have been made for the overall view of the Bachelor apparatus and for each of its main elements. We shall discuss them later with some details.Fig. 6 shows how Duchamp’s elevation and plan sketches were inserted in Cabri.(11).

Fig. 7 and Fig. 8 illustrate the two basic steps followed to construct the perspective rendering of an A point in the plan sketch, passing through the A’ image of A on the ground-plane, and then elevating it at the A’’ position, according to the position of A in
the elevation sketch.

click to enlarge

  • Duchamp’s elevation and plan sketches
inserted in Cabri
    Figure 6
    Duchamp’s elevation and plan sketches
    inserted in Cabri

  • construction of the perspective rendering of a single point
    Figure 7
    Two basic steps illustrating the construction of the perspective rendering
    of a single point, given its position in plan and elevation sketches

  • construction of the perspective rendering of a single point
    Figure 8


2.1. The overall view

Let us start with the perspective of the overall view.

To make pictures more suitable for the internet (therefore with not too heavy files) the elements of the Bachelor apparatus are inserted schematically, just to check the correctness of their mutual positions according to the rules of perspective. The corresponding details for each inserted element are checked in separate figures.

click to enlarge
 The Bride stripped bare by her Bachelors
Figure 9
Marcel Duchamp, The Bride stripped
bare by her Bachelors, Even
, 1913
The straight line r’
Figure 10
The straight line r’

The overall perspective is compared with both the Glass and the preparatory sketch of 1913 named The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, like the Glass itself. We shall refer to it simply as the 1913 Sketch (Fig. 9).For the lower part of the actual Glass, see below Applet 2 and Applet 3). This double superimposition is necessary because the important element called the Toboggan, one of the most difficult pieces to render in perspective, is actually absent in the Glass (remember that it was left unfinished by Duchamp) while it is present in the 1913 Sketch.

In both Applet 2 and Applet 3, CabriJava has some problems in displaying the ellipses of the Water Mill, which indeed are incomplete, and in addition an unexpected straight line is drawn starting from them. The same problems still remain for some curves of the Toboggan. However, despite these problems, I think that Applet 2 and Applet
will help understand the overall perspective.

Why? Look at the straight line r’ in Fig. 10

r’ is the perspective correspondent of the straight line r in the plan, which passes through the bottom-left point of the so called Chariot (the parallelepiped containing the Water Mill) and through the centre of the circle representing the Chassis of the Chocolate Grinder. The choice of line r’ is free, but according to that choice we obtain different perspectives. Thus, by dragging the blue line in Applet 2 and Applet 3, you will see how the perspective could change accordingly, always remaining consistent with Duchamp’s data (12).

Anyway, the problems of the applets are definitely overcome with Fig. 11 and Fig. 12 (which are static), where the geometrical perspective of Cabri is correctly displayed on the background of Duchamp’s originals.
click to enlarge


  • The geometrical perspective of Cabri
    Figure 11
    The geometrical perspective of
    Cabri correctly displayed on
    top of Duchamp’s original
    1913 sketch and the lower half of the Large Glass
  • The geometrical perspective of Cabri
    Figure 12
    The geometrical perspective
    of Cabri correctly displayed
    on top of Duchamp’s original
    1913 sketch and the lower half of the Large Glass

Look at Fig. 11. The major discrepancies between 1913 Sketch and the Cabri figure are on
the right side of the picture:

one of the blades of the Scissor (the lower on the right) doesn’t match perfectly with its counterpart(13);

The right Sieve (the Sieves are the conical shapes just under the Scissor) is slightly in a lower position relative to the Cabri figure;

the Toboggan (the spiralling line on the right) is slightly shifted down.

In contrast, the left part of the 1913 Sketch matches quite well the remaining elements of the Cabri figure particularly the ellipses of the Chocolate Grinder. The left Sieve also matches perfectly the one in the Cabri figure.

In my opinion, some trivial explanations can be considered for the mismatches: maybe the reproduction of the 1913 Sketch used here is slightly rotated in the clockwise sense, around a centre located somewhere near the centre of the Chariot; this could explain why the
most evident discrepancies are on the right half of the picture, whereas the better matching is on the left. A second explanation could be that the sheet used by Duchamp for the 1913 Sketch could be somehow deformed. Indeed the squaring of the drawing (as I saw in all the photos I could examine, including the one used here) is not perfect.

Consider now the singular shape of the Toboggan. It is a strange mix of semicircles and semiellipses disposed on oblique planes: its correspondence with the Cabri figure, even though imperfect, is quite shocking; remember, indeed, that Duchamp drew it by hand;
it means that the drawing was made point per point. The exact placement of even just one of those points (starting from its position in plan and elevation) can be considered a very difficult task for anyone having only an intuitive knowledge of projective geometry.

click to enlarge
Possible construction lines of the Toboggan
Figure 13
Possible construction lines of the Toboggan

To have the right idea of such difficulties look at Fig. 13 which displays the construction lines necessary for just one point for each of the four arcs forming the Toboggan (thus multiply these construction lines al least 4-5 times).

Consider now Applet 3 and the corresponding static Fig. 12, which superimposes the Cabri
figure on the lower part of the actual Glass.

Look at Fig. 12. The reproduction of the Bachelor apparatus matches quite well the Cabri
figure: look especially at the Scissor and the Sieve on the right, which fit a lot better with Cabri figure than the ones of 1913 Sketch. Also, the ellipses circumscribing the Water Mill seem to match it perfectly.

Consider finally the supports of the Chariot named the Runners with their four semicircular shapes. They scarcely match the Cabri figure. Note however that the Runners were not
yet present in the sketches of plan and elevation, thus we have no measures for them. I simply used four semi-circumferences without making any attempt to recreate the correct image.

In conclusion, the inspection of the overall perspective seems to suggest that the reciprocal positions of the main elements of the Glass are consistent with the hypothesis that Duchamp correctly used the rules of perspective. It is worth noting in particular his skill in managing very complex constructions such as the one for the Toboggan, especially considering that he was self-trained in perspective.


2.2. The Chariot with the Water Mill, the Capillary Tubes and the Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries

The simplest solid to render with perspective is the parallelepiped with edges parallel and perpendicular to the horizon: it is the case of the Chariot. Not equally trivial is to draw the wheels of the Water Mill contained in the Chariot. Nonetheless the perspective rendering of this elements is almost perfect.

Applet 4 shows how the geometric construction fits the corresponding detail of the Glass. Because of some possible problems with CabriJava in displaying objects, we shall refer to Fig. 14, which is static, but displays the picture correctly.Here is a problem: the overall framework of the Chariot is made by rods which actually have thickness and width, whilst in Duchamp’s preparatory sketches of plan and elevation they are considered as pure linear elements without thickness and width. This implies a quite arbitrary superimposition of Cabri figure on the Glass picture (unless one considers a number of different possible assumptions regarding the passage from the sketches to the actual Glass, which I didn’t).

Apart from this problem, the perspective created with Cabri matches quite well the parallelepiped of the Chariot.

Observe now the wheels of the Water Mill.

click to enlarge
Detail of the Glass
Figure 14
Static image
showing how the
construction fits
corresponding detail of the Glass

First, let us consider the ellipses circumscribing the Water Mill (in red in Fig. 14): they touch exactly the peripheral points of each paddle (as we already noticed in the overall perspective of the Bachelor apparatus), except for the paddle in the foreground. But there is no error here: indeed, Duchamp preferred to clip the parts of the paddles which fall beyond the limits of theChariot.

Look now at the ellipses (in blue) touching the internal points of each paddle. Duchamp didn’t insert them in the sketches of plan and elevation. Therefore, we don’t know the actual radius of such circles. Just for this reason, I inserted in Applet 4 the red large point. As the user drags it vertically, the radius of the internal Water Mill wheels varies accordingly. The match with the Glass is satisfactory.

Consider now the eight spokes of the Water Mill wheels. I drew them under the assumption that they formed a regular octagon, and placing two of them along a vertical line. They also perfectly match the originals.

Some minor mismatching are there with the paddles of the Water Mill, but they are not severe, in any case.
Let us finally consider the perspective of the nodes of the so called Capillary Tubes, from which the 9 Malic Moulds hang, forming the so called Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries.

In the sketches of the elevation and plan, the positions of the 9 numbered nodes are present, but, unfortunately, some measures are missing, namely those necessary in the plan sketch. Therefore I deduced them by measuring and scaling the distances directly on the sketch. The outcome displayed in Applet 5 is quite unsatisfactory. In particular, the nodes (and accordingly the Uniforms) nos. 2, 3, and 7 are clearly misplaced, whereas the remaining ones are only approximately right. Even by dragging the red diagonal (which modifies the perspective viewpoint), the drawing remains wrong (at least with respect to the preparatory sketches).

In conclusion: the perspective of the Water Mill shows some minor mismatches with the Cabrifigure; namely: some paddles seem to be not properly drawn. For the rest, the geometric construction easily fits the corresponding parts of the Glass.

In contrast, the nodes of the Capillary Tubes are misplaced. We must consider however, that the sketches are quite reticent regarding this detail, and we cannot rule out the possibility that the Capillary Tubes were more carefully planned before the execution of the actual perspective of the Glass.


2.3. The Chocolate Grinder

The Chocolate Grinder is often said to have the most problematic perspective. Indeed, it seems “strangely distorted” according to Shearer(14).In a second, stimulating essay, written in collaboration with Stephen Jay Gould, it is argued that:

Scholars have simply and uncritically accepted Duchamp’s claim that he rigorously used these principles in his major works. Ironically, however, no one who actually attempted the experiment has ever been able to render the bachelor machinery of the Large Glass under classical perspective, unless they alter Duchamp’s own drawings and therefore conclude that he was not, after all, a very accurate geometer. The Chocolate Grinder, especially, does not seem properly drawn, and no one has been able to show how the device might turn without the wheels interpenetrating and thus, to make the metaphor literal, grinding to a halt.(15)

click to enlarge
 Chocolate Grinder
Figure 15
Marcel Duchamp, Chocolate Grinder, No. 2 ,
Chocolate Grinder, No. 1
Figure 16
Marcel Duchamp, Chocolate Grinder, No. 1 ,
Chassis and the 
Figure 17
Geometric features of the Chassis and the

The second and definitive painting of the Grinder (namedChocolate Grinder, No. 2 (Fig. 15), dated 1914) is quite different relative to the first one (dated 1913) (Fig. 16), not only because it openly shows its second important identity (connected with electromagnetism and wireless telegraphy), discussed by Linda Henderson(16), but also because (as we shall see further on in this section) it acquires well-defined perspective construction, unlike the first version, whose perspective is quite problematic.

The first problem to solve in order to check the perspective of the Grinder, is to understand its geometry. Indeed, the sketches of plan and elevation are quite incomplete.

Essentially the Grinder is formed by three rollers (which seem to be frusta of a cone) placed on a Chassis (a cone with altitude much smaller than the radius of its base).

Duchamp’s sketches give us the complete measures necessary to reconstruct the Chassis, but for the roller, only two measures are given: the diameter of the circle of the major base and the length of the generatrix. No measures of angles are given. Reconstructing the rollers without additional assumptions is thus impossible.

At first I thought that the roller had to roll without sliding on the Chassis, and (of course) always rotating on theChassis itself, without leaving it. Geometrically speaking, this implies that the vertexes of the cones of each roller must coincide with the vertex of the cone of the Chassis; but looking at the actual Grinder we immediately understand that it is not the case: their vertexes clearly lay far beyond the vertex of the Chassis(Fig. 17). Thus the rollers grind the chocolate by sliding on the Chassis. Thus the assumption about the kind of friction of the rollers on the Chassis was wrong (17).

If we start from the measures of the roller given by Duchamp (radius of the major base and length of the generatrix), accepting their conical shape, and giving the angle the major base forms with a horizontal line, then the frustum of the cone is completely assigned (see Fig. 17).

In order to find the exact value for the measure of the unknown angle, I inserted in the Cabrifigure a corresponding further degree of freedom, allowing the user to drag the line corresponding to the major base of the roller in the elevation.

click to enlarge
Contact lines of the rollers with
the Chassis
Figure 18
Contact lines of the rollers with
the Chassis

Duchamp’s sketch of the plan doesn’t contain information about the mutual positions of the rollers and the exact positions of the contact points of the rollers with the Chassis. Thus, further assumptions must be made. Fig. 18 shows the simplest assumption (plan view of theChassis): the axes of the rollers form 120° angles, and one of them is parallel to the ground-line of the perspective. This hypothesis will prove exact (except for minor mismatches indicated below).

Finally let us examine Applet 6, which superimposes Cabri figure of the Grinder onto the 1914 picture Chocolate Grinder (No.2). I used the 1914 picture instead of the actual Grinder of the Glass, because we know that the latter was obtained by simply transferring on glass the former; thus using the 1914 picture I avoided considering those mismatches possibly derived from the transfer on glass, maintaining instead the focus on possible true perspective mismatches.

The outcome is once again unexpected, because the matching is almost perfect.

Applet 6 allows the user to see that:

The two ellipses corresponding to the Chassis and to the Necktie match well the Cabri figure (the ellipses of the Chassis are slightly smaller than the corresponding ones in the Cabri figure). The blue point on the top of the Grinder axis (or Bayonet) over the Necktie also matches well the point where the handle of the Necktie intersects the axis of the Grinder.

So good is the matching of the fixed parts of the Grinder with the Cabri figure that we see even the same very small portion of the Chassis visible in its higher part between the rollers!

Let us consider now the rollers. The grey line in the elevation, running along the major base of the roller allows the user, by dragging it, to choose the better unknown angle we talked about above (my best estimate is 81,9°).

The vertexes of the equilateral triangle (in the little circle under the Grinder) indicate the positions of the rollers (namely their contacts with the Chassis). The green point can be dragged in order to rotate the roller, and to test its matching with the original picture for each of the three positions.

In two cases (the two rollers in the background), the matching is almost perfect, whereas the roller in the foreground shows a minor mismatch, because the ellipse corresponding to its major base is slightly larger than in the Cabri figure.

In particular, note the blue points that indicate the center of the bases of the frustum of the cone. In the case of the roller to the right, the blue point coincides exactly with the insertion point of the roller on its axis. In the case of the roller in the foreground, one of the blue points matches perfectly the center of the major base of the roller.

click to enlarge
Louis XV legs
Figure 19
Tentative position
of the Louis XV legs
as vertex of an
equilateral triangle
One only visible leg
Figure 20
One only visible leg
under the
assumption of
Fig. 19

Let us now consider the Louis XV legs of the Chassis. At first I thought that, because of the equilibrium of the whole device, the three legs had to be placed at the vertices of an equilateral triangle. Accordingly, the vertex corresponding to the leg in foreground is such that the exact position of the equilateral triangle must be as in Fig. 19.
Look now again at Applet 6. The three grey vertical segments and the corresponding cyan extremities indicate the position of the legs of the Chassisin case the legs were planned to be positioned as in Fig. 19. The background legs are clearly misplaced, whatever was their planned shape. The only visible leg in the perspective drawing would be that in foreground, whereas the others would be covered by the Chassis, as in Fig. 20.

Fig. 20 shows the Grinder with one only leg: even though appropriate for both the equilibrium and the perspective, it makes the whole Grinder seem to be supported by one only leg, which, of course, would be impossible.

The addition of the background legs makes the drawing acceptable for the eyes, but wrong for perspective. Indeed, in order to make the perspective we see in Chocolate Grinder (No.2), the background legs wouldn’t be placed according to Fig. 19 (the only disposition ensuring the equilibrium of the device): they have to be slightly shifted forward, which however makes the equilibrium impossible.

So far we have faced something paradoxical: if you pay the tribute required by the retina, you will obtain a thing which cannot stand up (a quite Duchampian statement, we have to acknowledge). Here I emphasize the Duchampian key concept of instability. Interestingly, a similar kind of paradox between retinal and mental data, with similar conflict between equilibrium and instability concepts, has been already discussed in terms of the Bicycle Wheelby Shearer(18).

click to enlarge
Perspective project in the 1913 Sketch
Figure 21
A further investigation of the perspective project
in the 1913 Sketch

A further investigation of the sketches makes things clear. In both the 1913 Sketch and the elevation, we can see the legs actually drawn (see Fig. 21). In fact nothing tells us that they are disposed as an equilateral triangle; this misleading assumption was made because the visible legs are three, but very probably they actually are four, disposed as a square, like in Fig. 21. Indeed three of them are clearly visible in both of Duchamp’s sketches, whereas the fourth would-be leg (the posterior one) couldn’t be seen in neither of them: in the elevation because it is exactly behind that one in the foreground, and in 1913 Sketch because it is hidden by the Chassis. But this fourth leg is necessary for the equilibrium. According to this new assumption Duchamp’s perspective would turn out to be correct, and the equilibrium of the device would be safe. On the other hand, no actual datum contradicts this hypothesis of four legs, which in my opinion is thus confirmed. In conclusion: the perspective rendering of the legs is correct.

Consider now the threads sewn through canvas in the Chocolate Grinder, (No. 2) then carefully reproduced in the Glass.

Applet 7 shows the roller completed with similar threads, and helps check the correctness of their orientation. It proved to be consistent with the adopted perspective in two cases (the right and the foreground rollers) but also revealed some minor mismatching in the third case (the roller in background). In my opinion just the wrong perspective of the threads of the background roller makes the overall perspective of the Grinder difficult to be accepted for the eye.

To convince that what we said about the perspective of the Grinder No. 2 holds its validity in the passage to the Glass, look at Applet 8, which displays the Cabri figure superimposed on the actual Grinder of the Glass. Once again the matching is almost perfect.

Before concluding this section, I want to say a few words comparing the perspective rendering of both the first and the second version of the Grinder.

Applet 9 clearly shows that the perspective of the first Grinder is definitely wrong (at least accepting the measures of Duchamp’s sketches and the assumptions I declared above). The user can try to adapt the Cabri figure to the picture of the first Grinder, by dragging either the red diagonal or the green point (which have the same meaning as in Applet 6), but the outcome will be in any case unsatisfactory. Particularly the Necktie and the rollers seem to be totally wrong.Thus we can say that the passage from the first to the second version of the Grinder shows an extraordinary leap in Duchamp’s perspective skill.

In conclusion we can say that despite its strangely distorted view, and in spite of its intrinsic difficulty, the Grinder is one of the best executed elements in the perspective of the Glass. In any case the mismatches revealed above are consistent with the hypothesis that Duchamp drew the Glass according to the ordinary rules of perspective.

Recall Gould’s and Shearer’s statement that : «…no one has been able to show how the device might turn without the wheels interpenetrating…». Look now at Animation 1(19). It shows theGrinder in action. Definitely, the rollers do not interpenetrate as the device is grinding.

Please refresh the page, if the animation stops
The Sieves or Parasols
Animation 1
2.4. The Sieves or Parasols

click to enlarge
The Yport sketch
Figure 22
The Yport sketch, 1914

The Sieves (or Parasols) are the conical shapes that are disposed in semicircle behind the Scissor.

Unlike other elements of the Glass, we have detailed sketches which describe not only the measurements and the position of the cones, but also the detailed perspective procedures followed by Duchamp. We can see such perspective sketches and projects in the Green Box. (20) But the most important sketch, drawn at Yport during the summer of 1914, is not published in any of the cited collection of notes. We shall refer to it as the Yport sketch. (Fig. 22)

Particularly, we note the following shortcut Duchamp used to speed his work.

Once the drawing of the base-circle of the first cone was executed by interpolating 8 reference points (clearly visible in the sketch), Duchamp exploited the semi-circumferences where the corresponding points of the other cones lay, and divided them with the vertices of the inscribed dodecagons (which is a quite simple and speedy procedure). As I worked with Cabri, I used the same procedure.

click to enlarge
Geometry of the Sieves
Figure 23
The actual geometry of the Sieves

The Yport sketch also clearly shows a further detail: the declared altitude of each single cone (we read twelve cm in the elevation sketch) was probably modified by Duchamp on the basis of the geometry displayed in Fig. 23, in turn based on Yport sketch.

The shared altitude CH of the cones is such that the perpendicular to the base AB of the first cone intersects the base of the second one exactly at point C (and similarly for the others as well). Thus, the involved angle being of amplitude 30°, and being OH=23 cm, the measure actually used for the Sieves is CH=13.28 cm.For construction of the Sieves, I followed the geometry of Fig. 23, instead of using the measurements given in the elevation sketch.

Look finally at Applet 10. It shows that, once the best inclination of the diagonal (the red one) is chosen, the matching is perfect.

2.5. Some conclusion about the perspective of the Glass: the static viewpoint

Duchamp composed the Glass by hand and, above all, used absolutely unconventional media, which required him to invent ex novo appropriate techniques of execution. In general, we must suppose that drawing on glass is not as easy as drawing on paper or on canvas, especially if one of the main goals was precision, as in the case of the Glass.Just to have a correct idea of what this could mean, read the following description, regarding the execution of a preparatory study for the Chariot:

His first idea was to etch the design on the glass with fluoridic acid, a powerful corrosive used by commercial glass workers. “I bought paraffin to keep the acid from attacking the glass except where I wanted,” he said, “and for two or three months I struggled with that, but I made such a mess, plus the danger of breathing those fumes, that I gave it up. It was really dangerous. But I kept the glass. Then came the idea of making the drawing with the lead wire – very fine lead wire that you can stretch to make a perfect straight line, and you put a drop of varnish on it and it holds. It was very malleable material, lovely to work with.” (Duchamp used fuse wire, a coil of which was a staple in Paris apartments then.) (21).
We also already reminded that Duchamp was substantially self trained in perspective. In a note of the White Box we read:

See Catalogue of Bibliotèque St. Geneviève
The whole section on Perspective :
Niceron, (Father Fr., S.J.)
Thaumaturgus opticus (22)

The note suggests that while Duchamp was working at the library of Sainte Geneviève (1913-14) he read the whole section on perspective, and particularly (at least so we may assume from the note) the treatise on perspective and optics by mathematician Jean-François Niceron (1613-1646), titled Thaumaturgus opticus (23).

Thus, in the years Duchamp was composing the first elements of the Glass, he also was concluding his education in perspective.

We can obtain the exact measure of his progress in perspective skill in those years by comparing the two versions of the Grinder (dated 1913 and 1914), as we did in section 2.3.

On the other hand, regarding now my reconstruction of the perspective, remember that procedures and tools I used are quite non-professional:

– the used software is perfect to study and teach geometry, but in general not for 3D rendering;

– the reproduction used are photos whose reliability is not certified (think for instance about possible parallax errors or perspective deformations);

– the photos were in addition reduced or enlarged to match the scaled measures I used withCabri, and such adaptations could be imperfect…

These considerations surely reduce each pretension of precision, but at the same time they also reduce the relevance of the minor mismatches revealed above.

Let us finally reconsider the perspective elements of the Glass that we have examined, in order to answer to the question: is the perspective of the Glass canonical (and/or correct)? Are there elements which permit us to hypothesize a non-canonical (and/or incorrect) use of perspective?In my opinion, the only mismatch one can consider a true error, or possibly as a non-canonical use of perspective, is the one regarding the nodes of the Capillary Tubes. For the rest the execution of perspective is quite stunning, especially for some elements such as the Grinderand the Toboggan.I believe that the matching between the geometrically reconstructed perspective and the actual perspective of the Glass is in general good or even perfect in some cases.Let us then reconsider Shearer’s argument. She describes the minor mismatches between computer aided designs and Duchamp’s originals

When you fit one part of the Large Glass model to its projection in Duchamp’s perspective drawing (say; part A, the ellipse in one wheel of the Chocolate Grinder, for example — see illustration 49A), the rest (parts B through Z) immediately fall out of place. We lose the fit of part A, and all the other parts C through Z, once part B is matched — etc.

Her statements can be discussed at two different levels.

At the level of single parts of the Glass, such as the Grinder, the Chariot, and so on (the micro level), I think that her statement is substantially wrong. With the exceptions of the nodes of theCapillary Tubes, the mismatches revealed by the inspection above are completely acceptable and consistent with the hypothesis that the Glass was drawn according to the usual rules of perspective, and must be considered as absolutely minor imprecisions due to Duchamp’s free-hand execution. I believe this conclusion holds unless a unitary theory can be formulated that explains all the mismatches at once.

Shearer proposes a unitary theory of this kind about the perspective of the historical photos of the readymade, but there are no explanations about the way that theory could be extended to theGlass.

Let us pass now to the higher level (the macro level), that of the overall view. Some further preliminary considerations are needed.

I executed Cabri figures in different sessions by separating the principal elements of the Glass.

This procedure risks creating a trivial error: choosing different and mutually inconsistent diagonals (possible diagonals are, for instance, the straight lines r and r’ in Fig. 10) for different figures can generate mistakes (remember that Duchamp’s measures allows such a degree of freedom). This implies the possibility of an overall perspective inconsistency, even if each individual element was rendered in correct perspective. In other words, choosing inconsistent diagonals would be equivalent to choosing different viewpoints. (This possibility agrees to some extent with Shearer’s proposal concerning the presence of several, different viewpoints in the perspective of the Glass).

The same considerations I did for the computer aided reconstruction of the perspective, could be applied to the execution of the actual Glass by Duchamp: remember indeed that the elements of the Glass were added by him one by one (even because each piece had to be executed with an appropriate technique) through successive and separate steps, which could expose Duchamp himself to the same risk of error I was exposed to.

Thus, it was very important to verify the mutual consistence of the details. In the contrary case, it would have been an important evidence for applying Shearer’s theory of multiple viewpoints to the perspective of the Glass (but, in such a case, there would be no evidences for an intentional choice by Duchamp, and consequently we couldn’t rule out the possibility of a simple mistake).

Now, in order to verify the perspective consistence of the single details with the overall view there were two possible ways:

either choosing every time the same couple of diagonal lines (which sometimes was very inconvenient), or choosing different couples of corresponding line, but verifying that they were consistent to each other.

I chose the second way. The check for consistency was done by comparing in each figure the position of the same straight line, namely r’ (refer to Fig. 10).

The check returned a positive response: each diagonal r passing trough the left lower point of the Chariot and the centre of the Chassis in the plan, corresponds to a straight line r’ in the ground plane of perspective, forming the same angle (16.3°) with the ground line. Hence, the details are perspectively consistent with each other and with the overall view.

Definitively, Duchamp used the canonical perspective rules, and mastered them at the highest level.

What is then the meaning of his mathematical, scientific perspective?

Often people think of mathematics as something which deals essentially with numbers. If there are no numbers there is no mathematics.

Remember for instance that after Duchamp’s claim about the mathematical use of perspective, Cabanne asked: «Was it based on calculations?» (we shall consider Duchamp’s interesting reply below), or even recall what Tomkins told about a possible formula.

Now, geometry is mathematics, and I think that Duchamp meant (among other things) that he used thoroughly projective geometry. Try to execute the perspective of the Toboggan to understand how much projective geometry he used.

Let us return to Cabanne and Duchamp dialogue.

Cabanne: Was it based on calculations?
Duchamp: Yes, and on dimensions. These were the important elements.

A few lines below we also read:

I almost never put any calculations into the “Large Glass” (24)

but again, a few lines below:

At the same time I was doing my calculations for the “Large Glass” (25)

I think that Duchamp used here the word calculations in the more general meaning of mathematical (namely geometrical) operation, construction, deduction: the only true calculations actually necessary for the drawing were the proportions possibly necessary for scaling the measures and a few minor operations (26); for the rest there are only geometrical constructions.

Here, I want to emphasize the second element of Duchamp’s answer: that of dimensions, which of course refers to the fourth dimension.
Remember the already-cited Tomkins’ statement:

Was he looking for a mathematical formula through which he could actually evoke the presence of a fourth dimension? Whatever serious ambition he may have had along these lines he abandoned soon enough.

In other words Tomkins says that, even admitting the attempt to find the mathematical key which could open the door of the fourth dimension, Duchamp soon abandoned it, possibly (I’m hypothesizing) in favor of speculation on non-Euclidean geometry. I don’t agree with Tomkins. Not to diminish the importance of non-Euclidean geometry, but to emphasize the importance of the concept of higher dimensions in relation to perspective.

So far, we regarded Duchamp’s perspective from an eminently static viewpoint, and (consequently, I say) no reference to higher dimensions were highlighted.
The main goal of the remaining part of this article is just to establish a connection between the perspective of the Bachelor apparatus and the emancipated spatiality of the Bride realm, by introducing a new important element: that of motion.

3.1. The Chariot in the fourth dimension

In the introduction I argued that the Bachelor apparatus emulates the higher dimensionality and the topological properties of the Bride realm by coupling perspective with motion.

click to enlarge
Glider Containing a Water Mill
Figure 24
Marcel Duchamp, Glider
Containing a Water Mill (in
Neighboring Metals), 1913-15

Let us start our course along this strand with the demonstration of a subject already widely discussed by scholars, regarding the Chariot (27). In the years 1913-15 Duchamp worked at a preparatory study of the Chariot, named Glider Containing a Water Mill (in Neighboring Metals). (Fig. 24)It is the same element of the Glass, executed on a semicircular hinged panel of glass, which can rotate.

Applet 11 shows the situation. The red point on the bottom can be dragged to rotate about its hinge the plane where the Chariot is drawn. To simplify the drawing, the Water Mill is missing, to better focus the attention on the essential details.

The actual Chariot is drawn on a 2D support (the sheet of glass), and emulates its own status of 3D object by means of perspective. Accordingly, the 2D sheet of the glass emulates the ordinary 3D space. Hence the rotation of the Glider around its hinges suggests the rotation of a 3D object in a 4D hyperspace. Notice that just the sheet of glass used as support of the drawing allows to complete correctly the metaphoric turn in the fourth dimension: indeed just the transparency of the glass allows us to see the Chariot specularly reversed, as it reaches its final position. In fact we face an inverse congruence between two figures; just the exit from the 3D space and the rotation into the hyperspace allows two 3D figures inversely congruent to overlap on one another.

This idea is clearly presented by Duchamp in a note of the White Box and is widely discussed by Adcock (28).Returning now to the applet, we can see a strong optical effect (also known as the Necker cube inversion), which can be described as if the Chariot would turn inside out as if it were a glove. Just this effect can be considered as a mental turn into the fourth dimension(29).

We can understand the variety and the subtlety of the game that Duchamp plays here, by comparing the rotation of the Glider with many other rotations of planes, everywhere present in the Bachelor apparatus. Consider for instance the rotation of the plane which ideally sustains the first Sieve (which we can actually see in the Yport sketch). Applet 12 allows the user to see this rotation by dragging the red point. Here we face a plane which rotates in a 3D space, giving rise to cones (which are 3D shapes) directly congruent with the starting one; on the contrary the glass plane of the Glider, which is 2D but perspectively simulates a 3D space, rotates in a true 3D space which accordingly simulates a 4D hyperspace, and gives rise to a second Chariot, inversely congruent to the starting one.

Now we can understand why Duchamp chose just the reproduction of the Glider as the cover of the White Box: remember indeed that the notes of this collection are mainly focused on the fourth dimension and its properties.

In short, with the Glider Duchamp suggests a rotary motion which allows the observer to look at two different Chariots, the one being the specular reversed image of the other, with the involvement of the fourth dimension concept we presented above.

Now, consider that the same thing can actually be done with the whole Glass, by simply walking around it. Once again the transparency of the glass permits the observer to look at two different Bachelor apparatuses, specular one to another, with analogous involvement of the fourth dimension concept. The motion of the observer around the Glass corresponds to the rotary motion of the Glider about its hinge as the observer stands still.

We shall exploit similar relative exchanges in motion (observed object rotating about its hinge and fixed observer vs. fixed object and observer moving around it) especially with the Sieves(in section 3.3.) and we shall consider the notes which carefully describe this inversion.

3.2. A new possible identity of the Grinder

One of the most important innovations of the 1914 painting Chocolate Grinder (No.2) are the threads directly sewn on the canvas; they obviously recall the coil-winding of an electromagnet.

Consider now a new possibility. The threads could also be related to the geometric concept ofruled surface.

A ruled surface is one which can be obtained by a straight line moving in the ordinary 3D space and leaving wherever it passes its trail: the ruled surface.

A note of the Green box, usually considered as the only one of this collection directly related to the theme of the fourth dimension (30), also describes rotational motions of lines considered as generatrix; in addition the note contains ubiquitous suggestions of moving lines which leave a sort of trail forming surfaces; also, the note connects such a practice with the idea of circularity:

The right and the left are obtained by letting trail behind you a tinge of persistence in the situation. […]
And on the other hand: the vertical axis considered separately turning on itself, a generating line at a right angle e.g., will always determine a circle in the 2 cases 1stturning in the direction A, 2nd direction B. –
As there is gradually less differentiation from axis to axis., i.e. as all the axes gradually disappear in a fading verticality the front and the back, the reverse and the obverse acquire a circular significance […] (31)

Further examples possibly related to the idea of ruled surface can also be found in the White Box, such as the following:

On an infinite line let us take two points, A and B. Let us rotate AB about A as hinge. AB will generate some sort of surface, i.e. either curved, broken or plane (32)

or even this one:

Elemental parallelism: repetition of a line equivalent to an elemental line (in the sense of similar at any point) in order to generate the surface. (33)

click to enlarge
Sad Young Man on a
Figure 25
Marcel Duchamp, Sad Young Man on a
, 1911
Nude descending
Figure 26
Marcel Duchamp, Nude descending a Staircase no. 2, 1912

The formula of Elemental parallelism was not a sterile speculation, but one of the most important conceptual foundations of a whole creative period: we know that Duchamp used it for capital painting, such as Sad Young Man on a Train(1911) (Fig. 25) or Nude descending a Staircase (no. 2) (1912).(Fig. 26) He carefully explained it in the dialogue with Pierre Cabanne (34).
As an example of how a ruled surface can be generated, imagine a luminescent straight thread moving about in the darkness; also imagine a camera with the shutter opened, to capture the luminous trail left on the film by the moving thread. This trail could be an example of ruled surface. The example is not chosen by chance: this explicative metaphor is used by E.J. Marey in one of his photography books (35). Duchamp was interested in similar photographic experiments (chronophotography), and scholars already related the painting of 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) to chronophotography(36).
Thus, for a moment let us think of the threads of the Grinder as a suggestion of straight lines moving about, while the rollers are grinding, generating trails corresponding to several kind of ruled surfaces.

The connection between the glued threads of the Grinder and the duchampian concept of elemental parallelism has been already stressed by Craig Adcock, who also recalled that Duchamp spoke of the threads as generatrices(37)

Let us start with the simpler example: what is the geometric locus of the diametric threads of the circular bases of the rollers, as they rotate around the axis of the Grinder, without rotating around their own axis? Animation 2(38) shows a rotating roller. The surfaces described by the diametric blue lines are one-sheeted hyperboloids.

Animation 3 : shows that as the diametric lines vary their inclination, the hyperboloids gradually change their shape, giving rise to the degenerate case.

  • Animation 2
    Animation 2
  • Animation 3
    Animation 3

The genesis of a single-sheeted hyperboloid by means of a rotating straight line is also displayed by Marey in his already cited photography book which Duchamp surely knew (Fig. 27).

click to enlarge
The genesis of a
single-sheeted hyperboloid
Figure 27
The genesis of a
hyperboloid displayed
in Marey’s book
Two single-sheeted hyperboloids
Figure 28
Two single-sheeted
hyperboloids forming a
special type of gearing
Coffee Mill
Figure 29
Marcel Duchamp,
Coffee Mill ,

Look now at Fig. 28: being the single-sheeted hyperboloids (doubly) ruled surfaces, it is possible to use them to create a special type of gearing. The interest of Duchamp in similar devices is documented by a painting which can be considered as the most direct antecedent of the Grinder: the Coffee Mill (1911),(Fig. 29) which clearly displays the gearing machinery allowing the device to work.

We already recalled that Linda Henderson thoroughly documented that theChocolate Grinder is strongly related to electromagnetism and wireless telegraphy: it is its second identity, after the first one as both a true and metaphoric grinder (connected with the autoerotic activity of the Bachelor, resumed with the slogan: The bachelor grinds his chocolate himself(39)). Now, I like the possibility of a third identity of the Grinder, as a geometric device to generate ruled surfaces.

Maybe it can be seen as a flight of fancy, but not so much, after all; read indeed once again the Green box note about the geometric properties of theBachelor apparatus:

Principal forms, imperfect and freed
The principal forms
of the bachelor apparatus or utensil are imperfect:
Rectangle, circle, square, parallelepiped, symmetrical handle; demisphere.-i.e. these forms are mensurated (interrelation of their actual dimensions and relation of these dimensions to the destination of the forms in the bachelor utensil.)
In the Bride – the principal forms will be more or less large or small, no longer have mensurability in relation to their destination: a sphere in the Bride will have any radius (the radius given to represent it is “fictious and dotted.”)
Likewise, or better still, in the Pendu Femelle parabolas, hyperbolas (or volumes deriving from them) [emphasis mine] will lose all connotation of men-surated position.

The question is: where are those hyperbolas and volumes deriving from them (and the corresponding surfaces, we could add) which, once passed into theBride realm will lose their connotation? Are they maybe the ones generated by the Grinder? It is possible.

Accepting this hypothesis, let us take some further step.

What happens if, while rotating around the Grinder axis, the roller also rotates around its own axis? Applet 13 will help visualize the possible resulting surfaces for such a composition of motions.

The different possible outcomes depends on the different sliding component in the motion of the rollers (remember indeed that in their motion rollers also slide on the Chassis). It means that, once a complete turn around the Grinder axis is completed, the rollers also turn around their own axis by a certain variable angle ω, whose amplitude depends on the sliding component.

Look finally at Applet 13(40): at its opening, the parameters are fixed in order to have the roller making a half turn around its own axis, while making a complete turn around the axis of theGrinder.

The surface described by the diametric line of the major base of the roller is a Moebius band.
At the bottom of the figure you find two green points which can be dragged.

By dragging the upper one the roller will rotate and make a complete turn around the Grinderaxis: you can see that the diametric line actually rules the band. As you drag the lower green point you simply modify the ω parameter and accordingly the locus surface will gradually change its shape, giving rise to more complex bands.

A further step could be taken by observing the surfaces obtained by the longitudinal lines of the rollers as generatrices. Applet 14 visualizes them. Once again the two green points can be dragged, with the same meaning as before.

Now the question is: accepting the present hypothesis about the Grinder, what could be the meaning of the surfaces generated by it, in the general project of the Glass? In my opinion surfaces such as the Moebius band, with their topological properties, could be a means for theBachelor to emulate the higher and more complex space of the Bride; it could be a sort of bridge, between the Bachelor and the Bride realms: remember indeed that the Bride is characterized by topological properties where the metrical traits governing the lower half of theGlass lose their meaning. The same holds (all the more reason) for the more complex bands obtainable with the Grinder.
To be precise, I don’t mean that Duchamp thought exactly of the Moebius band (or of similar and possibly more complex surfaces), but it is possible that he could imagine similar figures, maybe knowing neither their name nor their status of well-defined and studied geometrical objects. Possibly he guessed some of their strange properties; after all we have a number of evidences of its astonishing geometric imagination. Jean Clair already discussed some works of Duchamp referring them to well defined topological objects (such as the Kleinian bottle). Also Clair informs us that in the 60’s Duchamp discussed the properties of such topological objects with the French mathematician Le Lionnais. Following this suggestion I discussed other possible examples, referable to the properties of both the Kleinian bottle and the Moebius band(41).

In conclusion we could think of the Grinder as a ruled surfaces generator, or better, as a true surfaces grinder. The complex surfaces generated by Grinder’s motion could emulate the topological essence of the hyperspace of the Bride realm in the higher part of the Glass. The thesis is supported by some facts:

1. Notes from both the Green Box and the White Box (cited above) prove that Duchamp knew and used the concepts of ruled surface and quadric surfaces (at least on a qualitative level);
2. The idea of ruled surface is strictly connected with the practice of chronophotography which Duchamp praised and in a way used;
3. The surface of the rollers is carefully ruled by the threads sewn on the canvas, and as theGrinder is supposed to work, they rotate moving about in several complex ways; and, above all, the Grinder actually works as a surfaces generator;
4. It is proved that (at least) in the 60’s Duchamp knew at some qualitative level both the Moebius band and the Kleinian Bottle;

3.3. The Sieves’ perspective: a possible antecedent of Duchamp’s optical devices
Let us now consider the Sieves (or Parasols) and their function in the Bachelor apparatus. TheGreen Box notes describe the process which produces the so called Illuminating gas; as it leaves the Capillary tubes, it is then cut into bits, called spangles, which must run through the circular pathway of the Sieves:

As in a Derby, the spangles pass through the parasols A,C D.EF…B. and as they gradually arrive at D, E, F, … etc. they are straightened out, i.e. they lose their sense of up and down ([more precise term]). – The group of these parasols forms a sort of labyrinth of the three directions. –
The spangles dazed by this progressive turning. Imperceptibly lose [provisionallythey will find it again later] their designation of left, right, up, down, etc, lose their awareness of position.(42)

By this way, the spangles, straighten out

[…] like a sheet of paper rolled up too much which one unrolls several times in the opposite direction (43)

lose their sense of space. The way it happens is described as a loss of distinction between left, right, up, down, etc. as they pass through a labyrinth of three directions.
The following note from the Green Box makes clear that in Duchamp’s thought the identifications left-right, front-back, hi-low and so on are connected with the suggestion of a higher dimension::

[…] the front and the back, the reverse and the obverse acquire a circular significance: the right and the left which are the four arms of the front and back. melt. along the verticals.
the interior and exterior (in a fourth dimension) can receive a similar identification.(44)

Hence we can think that the circular pathway through the Sieves and the consequent loss of distinction between opposite orientations could be somehow connected with the suggestion of a higher dimension.
The pathway followed by the Spangles is strictly circular, because the seven Sieves (originally they were six and semi spherical) have nine holes (originally eight) which repeat exactly the shape of the polygon connecting the nine (originally eight) Malic moulds, where they come from.

The sieves (6 probably) are semispherical parasols, with holes. [The holes of the sieves parasols should give in the shape of a globe the figure of the 8 malic moulds, given schematic. by the summits (polygon concave plane). by subsidized symmetry](45)

Thus the Sieves convey the Spangles according to well defined circular trajectories.
Applet 15 shows the pathway of 5 possible Spangles, assuming for simplicity five arbitrary convenient positions of the holes. The blue point can be dragged to move the Spangles through the Sieves. The actual course of the Spangles is semicircular, but Applet 15 displays a complete turn, in order to emphasize some aspects we will discuss as we shall go along.
Applet 15 helps understand why the dazed spangles lose the sense of up-down and left-right (follow for instance the course of the blue one); in addition it displays a strong depth effect due to perspective rendering of the Spangles in motion.

click to enlarge
Five semcircumferences
Figure 30
Five semcircumferences used by
Duchamp to perform the
perspective drawing of the cones
Points A, B, C
Figure 31
Because of the perspective,
the arcs are not concentric:
their centers are the points A, B, C.

Let us now return to the perspective of the Sieves. Particularly let us consider the Yport sketch of 1914. The following Fig. 30 summarizes those, among its features, relevant in this context.

We clearly see five semcircumferences used to perform the perspective drawing of the cones. Four of them were used to rotate four diametric points of the first ellipse, in order to easily obtain the corresponding transformed points of the remaining ellipses; the fifth arc was used to obtain the centers of each ellipse, starting from the first. Maybe other circumferences were used, also considering how perfectly the ellipses are drawn; however the sketch doesn’t show any trace of possible further arcs. Note that, because of the perspective, the arcs are not concentric: their centers are the points A, B, C, visible in Fig. 31, which also displays the complete circumferences.
I used for convenience just these circumferences as circular pathways of the spangles in Applet 15; according to the original project by Duchamp, nine similar circumferences must be used (one for each of the nine holes).
The White Box contains notes which specifically connect linear perspective with circular shapes, by means of the concept of gravity:

Gravity and center of gravity make for horizontal and vertical in space3
In a plane2 – the vanishing point correspond to the center of gravity, all these parallel lines meeting at the vanishing point just as the verticals all run toward the center of gravity.(46)

This association between perspective and gravity (which interestingly and meaningfully was made in the same way by Klee(47)) leads Duchamp to the following conclusion:

Resemblance –
Between a perspective view and a circle –
The vanishing point and the center –
To what in a perspective view would the
Circle itself correspond?

Elsewhere in the White Box we also read:

Difference between “tactile exploration” or the wandering in a plane by a 2-dim’l eye around a circle, and of this very circle by the same 2-dim’l eye fixing itself at a point. Also: difference between “tactile exploration,” 3-dim’l wandering by an ordinary eye around a sphere and the vision of that sphere by the same eye fixing itself at a point (linear perspective).(49)

Here Duchamp adds the motion as a further key ingredient in the perception of higher dimensions of space. Perspective representation and vision must be integrated by the motion of the eye in order to reach a better representation and understanding of higher dimensional objects:

A 3-dim’l tactile exploration, a wandering around, will perhaps permit an imaginative reconstruction of the numerous 4-dim’l bodies, allowing this perspective to be understood in a 3-dim’l medium.(50)

Perhaps, the rotational motion of the Spangles through the Sieves may be intended as a suggestion of a wandering or tactile exploration of the space surrounding the Sieves, or, in general of the medium which the Glass is immersed in.
Following this course, the next step seems to be quite obvious: maybe the same effect could be reached if, instead of the wandering around an object, this very object could turn in front of the observer which remains in a fixed position.
In our case, what happens if the circumferences conveying the Spangles rotate around a fixed center (not necessarily one among points A, B, C in Fig. 31 in front of us?
Applet 16 illustrates the outcome: a set of seven eccentric circles (which I used before for the perspective construction) rotate around a center near to their own centers, which however doesn’t coincide with any of them. Use the blue point to fix the center of rotation into the desired position; drag the red point to shift the set of circumferences backward or forward; finally drag the green point to rotate the set of circles.
The depth effect is quite remarkable, and is further reinforced if the circles are colored, like in the following Animation 4.

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  • Animation 4
    Animation 4



Thus we passed from a true 2D plane to the illusion of a 3D space. Hence, once again we have the emulation of the higher dimensionality of the Bride realm.
Only speculations? Possible, but it is exactly what Duchamp did a few years later with the filmAnemic Cinema (1925) (Fig. 32) and especially with the optical devices such as the Rotary demisphere (1925) (Fig. 33) and the Rotorelief (1935). (Fig. 34)

click to enlarge


  • Anemic Cinema
    Figure 32
    Marcel Duchamp, Anemic Cinema, 1925
  • Rotary demisphere
    Figure 33
    Marcel Duchamp, Rotary demisphere, 1925
  •  Rotorelief
    Figure 34
    Marcel Duchamp, Rotorelief, 1935



There Duchamp used once again sets of eccentric circumferences, which while rotating produce remarkable effects of depth (see for instance Animation 5, where a facsimile of the optical disc named Verre de Boheme, 1935 produces the effect of a three dimensional stemmed glass). The effect of depth produced by the Rotorelief has no relation with the stereoscopic vision; on the contrary it is even more surprising if seen with a single eye.

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  • Animation 5Animation 5

Interestingly scholars generally don’t consider the connection of the Rotorelief with the previous efforts of Duchamp in perspective, but I think it is an important element to consider, as Adcock already carefully stressed(51). Let us look once again at Animation 5. We see a 3D stemmed glass rotating in front of us, and it happens also because our mind perceives the set of circles as a Gestalt, and this can be possible all the more reason if the circles have some perspective consistence. Duchamp himself makes clear this point talking about his Rotorelief :

Thanks to an offhand perspective, that is, as seen from below or from the ceiling, you got a thing which, in concentric circles, forms the image of a real object(52)

Thus, once again we have a strict correspondence between rotary motion, perspective, and suggestion of higher dimensions, with the optical illusion of depth, known as stereokineticeffect.
Indeed the rotating circles were drawn on the same sheet of paper (the Yport Sketch) and implicitly are present on the same sheet of glass; thus they actually belong to a plane; however in the perspective fiction they belong to different planes (parallel to each other) which determine a 3D space. Now, if the stereokinetic effect allows us to pass from the 2D plane to a 3D space, then according to the perspective fiction in the meantime we also pass from the ordinary space to a hyperspace.
Concluding this section, we shall consider an additional interesting feature of the Sieves which is to be stressed.
With their semicircular course, the circular bases of the conical Sieves ideally generate an half torus.

click to enlarge
Kleinian bottle
Figure 35
If we identify the
diametrical points of a torus,
the surface we obtain
is a Kleinian

With reference to Fig. 35, consider for a moment the whole torus, and its centre of symmetry C; also consider the couples of symmetric points of the torus, such as P and P’, or Q and Q’ and so on; call the points of such couples diametrical points. The loss of distinction (described above) between left-right, up down and so on, can be expressed in terms of identification of diametric points of our torus. Now, it is known that if one identifies the diametrical points of a torus for each possible couple, the outcome is a surface topologically equivalent to the Kleinian bottle. For those interested in the subject, it is clearly and simply presented in a classic text of David Hilbert (53).
Thus let us reconsider the notes dealing with the Spangles and their run through the Sieves, which I reported at the beginning of this section. The loss of distinction (or identification) between left and right, up and down, interior and exterior already interpreted in terms of reference to higher dimensions, can also be interpreted in terms of possible reference to the topological properties of a Kleinian bottle.
The different possible interpretations are not in conflict; on the contrary, they are somehow related, if we think that only in the fourth dimension the Kleinian bottle could be properly built.
Hence we can think of the Sieves machinery of the Bachelor apparatus as a further emulation of the topological properties of the Bride realm.
In conclusion I suggest three things:
first, we have some further evidences that coupling perspective and rotary motion allows theBachelor apparatus to emulate the higher dimensionality of the Bride realm;
second, the perspective construction of the Sieves could be seen as the most direct and relevant antecedent of the successive optical devices;
third, the Sieves could be thought of as a sort of topological apparatus which returns objects with non ordinary properties (such as the Kleinian bottle); thus the Sieves could also be considered as an apparatus emulating the topological properties of the Bride realm.

3.4. Rotating the Water Mill: an unexpected further bridge toward the fourth dimension
The Water Mill perspective offers a further unexpected surprise.
Let me start with the description of the course which led me to the serendipitous discovery about the Water Mill that I will describe in this section; indeed I think this very course contains in itself some insight about the way one could possibly approach the Glass in particular and Duchamp in general.
Once the perspective of the Water Mill was obtained with Cabri, it was only a question of few additional contrivances, to allow the wheels to rotate, thus I did it.
In order to better appreciate the rotary motion of the Water Mill wheels, I filled the polygons corresponding to the eight paddles (which originally were transparent) with a solid grey color.
The unexpected outcome is displayed in Applet 17. What kind of motion was there? What happened to the Water Mill? Was it turning forward or backward?
Along with the widely explored category of the 3D impossible objects, do we deal here with a new category, that of the impossible motions?
After a few moments I realized what the problem was:
The grey filling color is opaque, and if there is overlapping of paddles, each new filling operation causes the covering of the previously filled paddle. As the animation is running, for each frame Cabri repaints the screen, and the paddles are repainted accordingly, following the same order used to fill them the first time. So, it happens that from time to time, the order followed by Cabri for filling the paddles can be the right or the wrong one. If it is right, the paddles are drawn consistently with their position and with the forward motion (the foreground upon the background ones). In the contrary case the filling order is wrong, so that paddles which actually must be in background, are filled as they were in foreground and vice versa, and the global outcome is the perception of a backward motion. In addition, consider that originally the paddles were filled by chance, without a precise order, so that the animation actually shows a continuing and unpredictable change of direction.

click to enlarge

Impossible Water Mill wheel
Figure 36
Impossible Water

Now look at the static picture of the Water Mill in Fig. 36 (it is a single frame captured from Applet 17). In spite of its correct perspective, we face an impossible 3D object, similar to that of Escher’s print Belvedere, based on the Necker cube. Indeed Fig. 36 shows a similar situation, namely the simultaneous presence of two different and inconsistent versions of the same object.
The first version is based on the perspective shortening of the background paddles compared with the major ones in foreground.
The second version of the Water Mill wheels is based on the reciprocal coverage of the elements: in our mind the element which covers another isover, and the covered element is under.
Thus our perception continuously oscillates between two different possible choices, each one corresponding to a different orientation of the Water Mill.
These two possible simultaneous orientations of the same object are specular: it means that no rigid motion inside the ordinary 3D space allows us to overlap these figures, which are inversely congruent. To physically obtain this result, we would have to rotate the figure in the forth dimension. Thus, once again the mental effort we make to invert the figure corresponds to a rotation in the fourth dimension.(54)
The interesting thing is that the key element to achieve such a result is just the rotary motion, coupled with the perspective rendering of the wheels with their paddles, and not the coverage order of the paddles (which however propitiated the discovery) as we shall see.
Indeed, if you look at the static Fig. 20 and try to do the mental inversion of the object, is a lot harder than do that by observing the animated Applet 17.
The following applets are intended to enable the reader, step by step, to progressively lay aside the coverage order of the paddles, but always maintaining the optical effect of inversion.
Using Applet 18, you will learn to follow a single paddle (the red one, in this case) and to perform a stable mental inversion each time the paddle reaches its higher and lower positions.
Applet 19 will help you fix a single paddle (the one with the red border) but laying aside the coverage order, because the paddles are drawn transparent.
Finally Applet 20 shows a transparent Water Mill which you can invert without any help.
Use it to convince yourself that just the rotary motion of the paddles allows you to easily invert the object: stop it by passing with the mouse over its area and then leave it. Try now to invert the static frame. Once again it is a lot harder than with the moving picture.
With patience you will obtain a surprising result (even though only for a few instants at once):at the same time the wheels will rotate forward and backward, the paddles will be over and under, in front and back, the view point being both from the left and the right of the wheels.
This meaningfully agrees with some details of Duchamp’s speculations about the fourth dimension. Remember the already-cited note from the Green Box:

[…] the front and the back, the reverse and the obverse acquire a circular significance: the right and the left which are the four arms of the front and back. melt. along the verticals.
the interior and exterior (in a fourth dimension) can receive a similar identification.(55)

As a further detail consider the Green Box describing how the Water Mill works(56): one of its interesting features is that the rotation of the water wheels determines the onanistic left-right motion of the whole Chariot (which sustains the water wheels): this motion in fact could propitiate the left-right shifting of the viewpoint from where the wheels are viewed.
As a matter of fact, if you look at Applet 20 by shifting to the left and the right your head according to the rotation, it is a lot easier to make the required mental inversions than holding the same fixed position.
Now the question is: did Duchamp think of the Water Mill as a machinery allowing the observer to make possible these inversions, thus to make possible a turn into the fourth dimension? To be honest I don’t believe it, at least specifically for the Water Mill: we have no evidences that he thought of or planned what I said above.
However some objective data remain:
– the Water Mill wheels were planned to rotate;
– among other results, the infinite rotary motion of the water wheels was intended to enable the onanistic left-right motion of the Chariot (which sustains the wheels); the left-right motion of the Chariot with the Water Mill could be somehow connected with the specular inversions of the wheels, which accordingly seem to be viewed from the left or from the right;
– by means of the Glider (discussed in section 3.1.) Duchamp suggested us to specularly reverse just the Chariot and the Water Mill as a trick to make somehow visible the fourth dimension;
– and, especially, just a rotary motion (of either the observed object or the observer) makes possible such an inversion.
As a final objective datum to be added, consider now that using the water wheels and that mix of further ingredients, one obtains the outcome described by the applets above, which perfectly agrees with Duchamp’s speculation on fourth dimension.
By this way I don’t mean that Duchamp exactly thought about what the applets showed above, but simply that Duchamp’s recipe (that of mixing perspective and rotation in order to emancipate the spatiality of the Bachelor realm) does work effectively!

3.5. Further conclusion about the perspective of the Glass: the dynamic viewpoint
Let us return to Tomkins’ statement already cited:

Was he looking for a mathematical formula through which he could actually evoke the presence of a fourth dimension? Whatever serious ambition he may have had along these lines he abandoned soon enough.

We already said that Duchamp’s execution of the perspective drawing is absolutely canonical. As Tomkins suggests, no special mathematical formulas were used to carry out neither calculations nor geometrical constructions, but simply Duchamp carefully and thoroughly applied the rules of projective geometry.
However I think Duchamp didn’t abandon his ambition about evoking the presence of higher dimensions. Higher dimensionality being one of the declared (and most important) subjects of the Glass, he couldn’t abandon, because it meant to abandon the very project of the Glass, which he actually didn’t; the Glass was left unfinished, but after a period which covers more than ten years, not to consider Duchamp’s activity around the Glass in the years after his decision to leave it unfinished (thus he didn’t abandon soon enough).
I think that he behaved according to his claims: perspective effectively was one of the main ingredients in order to reach the illusion of the fourth dimension.
But, on the other hand we demonstrated that no special perspective tricks were used to modify what the canonical rules prescribe. And, of course, no special or magic effects are there inlooking at the Glass. The key is in thinking of the Glass, as Duchamp recommended, by stating the primacy of the grey matter over the retina.

Duchamp: I was mixing story, anecdote (in the good sense of the word), with visual representation, while giving less importance to visuality, to the visual element, that one generally gives in painting. Already I didn’t want to be preoccupied with visual language…
Cabanne: Retinal.
Duchamp: Consequently, retinal. Everything was becoming conceptual, that is, it depended on things other than the retina(57)

In fact we have to consider the Glass as a continue and stimulating invitation to use the grey matter; this is one of the reasons for conceiving the notes as integral part of the Glass: they often are the starting point for successive mental activity, or even they are further integrations or suggestions to complete ideas born somewhere else.

I wanted that album [the Boxes] to go with the “Glass,” because, as I see it, it must not be “looked at” in the aesthetic sense of the word. One must consult the book, and see the two together. The conjunction of the two things entirely removes the retinal aspect that I don’t like. It was very logical.(58)

We know that the range of speculations underlying Duchamp’s notes (and works) is wide enough to cover a plenty of different disciplinary fields. As an evidence of that, look at the monumental volume of Henderson(59) which however deals only with the scientific and technological humus from where the Glass took origin.
Why this digression on the disregard of Duchamp for the retinal, and consequently the accentuation of the importance of the notes? It is to stress that we have not to limit ourselves to the visual data we are facing. The Glass is not only the sheet of glass we can see at Philadelphia Museum but also that multilayered stratification of meanings that Duchamp himself suggested by means of the notes.
Thus, no surprise if I talk about a perspective which has to be moved to be fully understood, whereas the actual Glass is definitely static.
Indeed we already saw that the Glass was conceived in perpetual ubiquitous motion, with a particular inclination for circuital courses. We also have a number of claims about Duchamp’s attraction for circular motions:

Always there has been a necessity for circles in my life, for rotations. It is a kind of narcissism, this self-sufficiency, a kind of onanism. The machine goes around and by some miraculous process that I have always found fascinating, produces chocolate.(60)

As a further reinforcement of the importance of rotary motions in Duchamp, I like also to remember here the extraordinary analysis which Stephen Jay Gould did of an historical photo representing (probably) Duchamp as a sort of ghost, surrounded by a myriad of suggestions of circular motions and shapes (61).

click to enlarge
Rotary Glass Plates
Figure 37
Marcel Duchamp, Rotary Glass Plates (Precision
, 1925

If the Glass contains only suggested virtual motions, Duchamp also inserted actual rotary motions in the optical devices, starting from theRotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics) (1920, thus the execution of theGlass was still ongoing). (Fig. 37)
Thus I think that it is absolutely acceptable to consider the importance of mobile perspective in the Glass even though its exterior appearance is static.
After these necessary preliminary remarks, the thesis I presented in the third part of the present article can be resumed as it follows:
It is well known that the Bride belongs to an actual 4D realm (which we can see only by means of a 2D rendering of her 3D projected shadow). Also, her realm is characterized by the absence (or by the loss of meaning, which is the same) of the metric traits: the spatiality of the Bride realm is governed by more general topological (or even non-Euclidean) laws, where things no longer have mensurability (to use Duchamp’s word).
Also, it is known that the Bachelor realm is a true 3D domain, and its forms are imperfectobjects belonging to the standard Euclidean geometry (such as rectangles, parallelepipeds, circles…): the Bachelor can only try to emulate the higher dimensionality and the topological and non-Euclidean properties of the Bride realm(62), to make possible his (impossible) conjunction with the Bride.
Here the examples I presented in the third part of the article come into play. To emulate the emancipated spatiality of the Bride, the Bachelor can only use tricks and contrivances.
The key elements allowing such an emulation of higher dimensionality are:
and (rotary) motion.
Indeed just moving (rotating) the perspective elements of the apparatus, drawn on a transparent medium, we can reach the illusion (pay attention: just only the illusion) of a higher and emancipate spatiality.
Basically, the examples regarding the Chariot (see 3.1. and 3.4.) rise from a simple reasoning led by analogy: if two figures laying on the same plane (2D) are inversely congruent to one another (the one is specular to the other), no rigid plane motion allows to overlap them: to reach the result, a rotation into space (3D) is necessary to invert the congruence and allow the overlapping. By analogy, two spatial figures (3D) inversely congruent have to rotate in a 4D medium in order to overlap.
In the first example, the rotation of the Glider about its hinges allows the Chariot to turn inside out as if it were a glove (allowing, in fact, the identification left = right).
In the second example the rotation of the Water Mill wheels help us conceive (at least for a moment) the identification of both the specular version of the same 3D object and the contrary motions back and forth of the wheels.
Similarly, in the most part of the notes about the fourth dimension Duchamp led the reasoning by analogy: he observed what happens in the passage from 1D to 2D, or from 2D to 3D, and then extended the reasoning to the next passage from 3D to 4D.
But he clearly understood the limitations of such contrivances:

Will the passage from volume to 4-dim’l figure be produced through parallelism? Yes. But this elemental parallelism being a geometric process requires an intuitive knowledge of the 4-dim’l continuum [emphasis mine]. One can give the following definition for a 4-dim’l continuum. (By analogical reasoning, it is an enumeration of a few characteristic common to all the n-dimensional continuums rather than a definition): A representation of the 4-dim’l continuum will be realized by a multiplication of closed volumes evolving by elemental parallelism along the 4th dimension. Of course one has still to define by intuitive knowledge the “direction” of this 4th dimension [emphasis mine].(63)

This note stresses Duchamp’s discontent, because, apart from giving a first possible key in guessing about higher dimensionality, it is sterile unless one has an intuitive knowledge of the“direction” of the fourth dimension.
Possibly Duchamp looked for other solutions.
The example regarding the Grinder (3.2.) could be seen as a possible alternative to analogical reasoning. The Grinder is based on a double rotary motion (around its own axis and around the axes of the rollers). On the one hand, the resulting ruled surfaces are connected with previous experiments concerning so-called elemental parallelism (thus, the Grinder looks backward). On the other hand those surfaces show interesting and unexpected topological properties, allowing the space of the Bachelor apparatus to expand (thus, at the same time, the Grinder looks forward).
The example regarding the stereokinetic effect applied to the Sieves (3.3) could be seen as a further different solution, involving perspective and rotary motion.
Also, the motion of the Spangles through the Sieves establishes a direct connection with the topological properties of a Kleinian bottle, which, in turn, is another way for the Bachelors to emulate the higher spatiality of the Bride.
In conclusion, we can say that the emancipation of the freed forms of the Bachelor apparatuspass through a dynamic perspective.
Duchamp did not abandon his ambition to make visible the presence of higher dimensions.



I want to express my thanks to Prof. Silvia Pianta, for some clarifications about the hyperboloids, and to my friend Paolo Mazzoldi, who checked the article for the linguistic correctness.




Footnote Return 1. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (eds), The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Da Capo Press, 1989), 83.
For the corresponding note issued in the Green Box see also pp. 44-45.    

Footnote Return 2. See for instance:
Craig Adcock, Marcel Duchamp’s Notes from the « Large Glass » : An N-Dimensional Analysis, (Ann Arbour: UMI Research Press, 1983).
Jean Clair, Marcel Duchamp et la fin de l’art (Paris: Gallimard, 2000).
For some further details see also:
Roberto Giunti (a), “R. oS. E. Sel. A. Vy” in Tout-Fait, Vol. 2, Issue 4 (January 2002): Articles.
Roberto Giunti (b), “Complexity Art” in Tout-Fait, Vol. 2, Issue 5 (April 2003): Articles.

Footnote Return 3. Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padget, (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 38.

Footnote Return 4. Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp, A Biography, (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 128.

Footnote Return 5. Sanouillet and Peterson [1], 40, 41.

Footnote Return 6. Rhonda Roland Shearer, et al., “Why the Hatrack is and/or is not Readymade: with Interactive Software, Animations, and Videos for Readers to Explore” in Tout-Fait, Vol. 1, Issue 3 (December 2000): 9.

Footnote Return 7. Roland Shearer, [6], 9.

Footnote Return 8. Cabrì Géomètre II, The Interactive Geometry Notebook, by Jean Marie Laborde and Franck Bellemain. Cabrì Géomètre II is a trademark of Université Joseph Fourier.

Footnote Return 9. Information on CabriJava and free download of the software at this site:

Footnote Return 10. Of course the choice of such couple of corresponding lines determines the position of the viewpoint, or, equivalently, the distance of the observer from the picture. The matter was already known in the Renaissance. See for instance Tony Phillips, who carefully and simply explains it at


Footnote Return 11. Note that the plan sketch is symmetrically reversed upside-down with respect to Duchamp’s original orientation. This was done to allow simpler prospective procedures with Cabri
Footnote Return 12. Be patient with dragging, because the applet must recalculate the entire perspective; it requires up to tens of seconds, according to the speed of the used processor. Also, drag only by a little step at a time.

Footnote Return 13. In addition, the blades of the Scissor in Cabri figure are shorter than the original; but in this case we cannot speak of mismatch, simply because Duchamp’s sketches don’t include the exact measure of the length of the blades.

Footnote Return 14. Roland Shearer [6], 9.

Footnote Return 15. Gould, Stephen Jay and Rhonda Roland Shearer “Drawing the Maxim from the Minim: The Unrecognized Source of Niceron’s Influence Upon Duchamp” in Tout-Fait, Vol. 1, Issue 3 (December 2000): News.

Footnote Return 16. Linda Henderson, Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works(Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1998).
Footnote Return 17. Anyway this wrong assumption could perhaps be useful, at least to clarify a minor detail about the Grinder. We know that Duchamp saw such a machine in the window of a confectionary shop in Rouen. See for instance the entry for March 8, 1915 in:
Jennifer Gough-Cooper and Jacques Caumont, and Pontus Hulten, ed. ‘Ephemerides on or about Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy, 1887-1968’, in P. Hulten, ed., Marcel Duchamp: Work and Life (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993).
We still have a hatching of that window, showing the very machine seen by Duchamp; we can clearly see the three rollers which are very elongated, and this shape could indicate that their vertexes coincided with that of the basement; thus maybe they rolled without sliding. However Henderson (in [16], 59) points out that similar grinders standardly have only two rollers, and shows a hatching of such a grinder (fig. 67 of her book): here the rollers slide on their basement, because their vertexes lay far beyond the centre of it. I’m not an expert in grinding chocolate, but maybe we could have an explanation for everything: if there is no sliding (as we could suppose for the Rouen grinder) a minor power is required to rotate; on the contrary, if there is sliding (which gives a better grinding) higher power is required to rotate, and in addition there is the risk to break the machine for the higher friction; the solution could be to remove one roller, to diminish both required power and risks of breaking.

Footnote Return 18. Roland Shearer, Rhonda: “Why is Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle wheel shaking on its stool” <http://asrlab.org/articles/why_bicycle_wheel.htm>

Footnote Return 19. In general I inserted Animations instead of the usual Applets if (as in the present case) the visualization is too complex to be rendered correctly with CabiJava.

Footnote Return 20. Sanouillet and Peterson [1], 55.

Footnote Return 21. Tomkins [4], 137.

Footnote Return 22. Sanouillet and Peterson [1], 86.

Footnote Return 23. In the stimulating article cited in [15] Stephen Jay Gould and Rhonda Roland Shearer doubt that theTaumaturgus could have influenced Duchamp, and as a further support of their hypothesis they stated:
At least three scholars well versed in the science of Duchamp’s interests in optics and perspective (Jean Clair, Linda Henderson and Craig Adcock) have followed Duchamp’s literal instruction, and searched Thaumaturgus opticus to locate the influence of classical works upon Duchamp’s understanding of perspective. But they found nothing beyond the undoubted status of Thaumaturgus as a good and standard text for its time.
In short, Gould and Roland Shearer argue that the Thaumaturgus is a quite conventional book, which academically resumes the standard knowledge then available on geometric optics and perspective; it was written in highly formal Latin and with academic purpose. His spirit is quite far from Duchamp’s personal style. Thus the Authors suggest a possible different influence of Niceron upon Duchamp: La perspective curieuse, ou magie artificielle des effects merveilleux, published in 1638; it is a shorter and amusing handbook, written in French, in a very different style (“chatty and irreverent”, say Gould and Roland Shearer) than the opus maior. A number of tricks (based on optics and perspective) are presented, which undoubtedly could better match Duchamp’s interests. Particularly, some of them were in fact used (or projected to be used) by Duchamp, for instance the now called Wilson-Lincoln effect, present in the project of the Glass (see Sanouillet and Peterson [1], 65).

Footnote Return 24. Cabanne [3], 40.

Footnote Return 25. Cabanne [3], 41.

Footnote Return 26. To have an example of similar necessary and very trivial calculations, consider the project of the Tobogganin the elevation sketch. Starting from the overall altitude of the Toboggan (26 cm), Duchamp divided it into four parts, three of them measuring 7,73 cm, and one of 2.78 cm. Notice however that 7,73X3+2.78 gives 25,97 instead of 26. Other similar minor mistakes in calculations can be found elsewhere in the project.
Footnote Return 27. See for instance Henderson [16], 82-83; and Adcock [2], 176-77.

Footnote Return 28. See Sanouillet and Peterson [1], 97 and Adcock [2], 164-65, 177.

Footnote Return 29. On the Necker cube inversion, and its meaning with reference to the fourth dimension, see particularly:
Rudy Rucker, The Fourth Dimension. A Guided Tour of the Higher Universes, (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston Massachusetts, 1984).
Footnote Return 30. Henderson [16], 82.

Footnote Return 31. Sanouillet and Peterson [1], 29.

Footnote Return 32. Sanouillet and Peterson [1], 96.

Footnote Return 33. Sanouillet and Peterson [1], 92.

Footnote Return 34. Cabanne [3], 29, 34-35.

Footnote Return 35. E. J. Marey, Le Mouvement (Paris: G.Masson, Editeur, 1894)

Footnote Return 36. See Henderson [16], 9; See also Cabanne [3], 34:
Cabanne: Didn’t films influence the “Nude Descending a Staircase?”
Duchamp: Yes, of course. That thing of Marey…
Cabanne: Chronophotography.
Duchamp: Yes. In one of Marey’s books, I saw an illustration of how he indicated people who fence, or horses galloping, with a system of dots delineating the different mouvements. That’s how he explained the idea of elementary parallelism. As a formula it seems very pretentious but it’s amusing.
Footnote Return 37. Adcock [2], 188-189.

Footnote Return 38. The same remark of note [19] holds.

Footnote Return 39. Sanouillet and Peterson [1], 68.

Footnote Return 40. In general the red surfaces are displayed only for the first turn of the roller around the Grinder axis. The geometric loci displayed in Applet 11 are quite complex, and the same applet could work not perfectly and too slowly.

Footnote Return 41. Clair [2]; Giunti [2a]

Footnote Return 42. Sanouillet and Peterson [1], p. 49

Footnote Return 43. Ibid., 50.

Footnote Return 44. Ibid., 29.

Footnote Return 45. Ibid., 49.

Footnote Return 46. Ibid., 87.

Footnote Return 47. Roberto Giunti, “Analysing Chess. Some deepening on the chaos concept by Klee”, VisMath, Vol. 4, No. 3 (2002), http://www.mi.sanu.ac.rs/vismath/pap.htm

Footnote Return 48. Sanouillet and Peterson [1], 87.

Footnote Return 49. Ibid., 88.

Footnote Return 50. Ibid., 88.

Footnote Return 51. Adcock [2], 183.

Footnote Return 52. Cabanne [3], 72.

Footnote Return 53. David Hilbert and S. Cohn-Vossen, Geometry and the Imagination (New York: Chelsea, 1999).

Footnote Return 54. See once again Rucker [29]

Footnote Return 55. Sanouillet and Peterson [1], 29.

Footnote Return 56. Ibid., 57-59.

Footnote Return 57. Cabanne [3], 38-39.

Footnote Return 58. Cabanne [3], 42-43.

Footnote Return 59. Henderson [16].

Footnote Return 60. Tomkins [4], 125.

Footnote Return 61. Gould’s analysis is contained as a separate box inside the already cited article of Roland Shearer [6]

Footnote Return 62. It is well known that the Capillary Tubes (alias the Standard Stoppages, the starting point of the whole machinery of the Bachelor apparatus), sound like a non-Euclidean axiom, but they seem to be unable to generate something emancipated, maybe because of the mechanic gearing of the parts of the apparatus, which in turn recalls a too rigid (non-emancipated) logic.

Footnote Return 63. Sanouillet and Peterson [1], 92.
Fig. 1-5, 9, 11-12, 14-16, 20-22, 24-29, 32-34, 37 © 2007 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris.

Modernist (Im)mobilities: Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, and the Avant-Garde Bike

“He rides penny-farthings, tandems, tricycles, racing bikes—
and when he dies at the end, he rides on his bike up a sunbeam straight to heaven, where he’s greeted by a heavenly chorus of bicycle bells.”
Dylan Thomas, Me and My Bike

Hamm: Go and get two bicycle-wheels. Clov: There are no more bicycle-wheels.
Hamm: What have you done with your bicycle? Clov: I never had a bicycle.
Hamm: The thing is impossible.
Samuel Beckett, Endgame

The bicycle offered unsuspected possibilities for the depiction of the raised skirt.
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Introductory Observations

• The bicycle tends to arouse sexual desire or excitement.
• The bicycle is a traditional narrative usually involving supernatural or imaginary persons and embodying popular ideas on natural or social phenomena.
• The bicycle is commonplace.
• The bicycle is an unmarried man.
• The bicycle is a branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being.
• The bicycle gets you nowhere.

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Figure 1
Leonardo da Vinci, Bicycle Drawing,
Codex Atlanticus
(f. 133v)

In 1966 the monks of Grotto Ferrata, near Rome, discovered a sketch-apparently by Leonardo da Vinci, or by one of his pupils-depicting a bicycle-like machine complete with pedals, cogs, and chain mechanisms. (Fig. 1) The sketch was found alongside some caricatures, as well as some pornographic drawings. This scene could also be described as the collected works of Marcel Duchamp and Samuel Beckett.

Beside an Olympic skating oval, a world-class athlete (unable to ride outside because of the ice and snow) trains indoors on a real bicycle. The wheels, however, are set on soundless steel rollers: allowing the tires and rims to spin freely (at significant speeds) while keeping the bike and its rider stationary. We count this powerful, impotent spectacle as technology reversing technology (rollers unroll wheels), caught in a ceaseless loop of motionless motion. The avant-garde, too, can make modernity stand still-by moving it/stopping it yet again. Krzysztof Ziarek contends that “art is avant-garde to the extent to which it keeps unworking the technologization of experience by showing how, in order to reinscribe experience within the order of representation, it effaces historicity” (90).

The bicycle is very simple.

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Henry James
Figure 2
Henry James

Leaving his fine suite in the Osborne Hotel, on Hesketh Crescent, feeling radiant and fresh after his hot morning bath, Henry James (Fig. 2) hopped on his bicycle and toured the sites of Torquay. Imagine it! Modernity takes shape in, and as, The Master’s black and yellow bruises-of which he was so proud.

Consider Renoir’s broken arm and Toulouse-Lautrec’s lonely, longing gaze at the velo-drome. (The pride of a sling; and legs too short to reach pedals?)

It sucks to write about bicycles. In that: it is much better to ride bicycles. Duchamp ride (Fig. 3): I would be doing lascivious things with my sprockets. Beckett ride (Fig. 4): I would be pedalling backwards and shitting on the saddle.

Artistical-historical (bland): the bicycle, the bicycle wheel (Fig. 5), and the objects of the bicycle are powerful symbols in the work of Duchamp and Beckett.

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  •  Marcel Duchamp riding the bike
    Figure 3
    Photo of Marcel Duchamp riding the bike
  • bike Molloy
    Figure 4
    Samuel Beckett, drawing of the bike Molloy
  • Bicycle Wheel
    Figure 5
    Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913/1961

The presence of any technology that at once facilitates and complicates mobility is an interesting presence. Second thought: all technology simultaneously facilitates and complicates mobility. If the bicycle falls to this side of the modernist road then it lands in the ditch-water, if it falls to that side of the road it ends up in pasture. The modernist road has space for all mobilities: pedestrians, pedestrians on bicycles, pedestrians in motorcars, and even pedestrians in aeroplanes (emergency landings). But there is nothing more beautiful than a bicycle descending a hill by itself: ghost-rider.

The bike is a gender machine.

The modern is a technology machine?

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F.T. Marinetti
Figure 6
Image of F.T. Marinetti

In the climactic scene of F.T. Marinetti’s original Futurist manifesto-“The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism 1909”-Marinetti (Fig. 6) and his car (the beautiful shark) are famously flipped into the maternal ditch only to be born again in the metallic, celestial muck of industrial modernity. The newly baptised Marinetti, now a begrimed singer-apostle of all things dangerous, violent, machined, and frenetic, is literally tossed into his modern-technological epiphany by an older, slower mode of transportation. He recalls, “¡¦ I spun around with the frenzy of a dog trying to bite its tail, and there, suddenly were two cyclists coming towards me, shaking their fists, wobbling like two equally convincing but nevertheless contradictory arguments. Their stupid dilemma was blocking my way- Damn! Ouch! . . .” (20). The moment is significant, it seems to me, not as some elegiac snap-shot depicting the obsolescence of the bicycle and thus the triumph of the age of the automobile, but rather the exact opposite: Marinetti’s tale constitutes a vision of the stubbornness and presence (the stupid dilemma) of the bicycle itself. Marinetti’s manifesto, caught in a Keystone-cop-like loop, is indirectly documenting the very complexities, ironies, and even impossibilities of mobility in the modern moment. It shows the tragic-comic intermingling of technology with technology, and technologies with the modern subject. For me, the image of these wobbling, contradictory bicycles, despite the fact that they lack the throaty roars of Marinetti’s racing cars, is profoundly moving, because the bikes are curious, hybrid machines: both connotative of the past and yet apparently crucial (if annoying) fixtures on this future, avant-garde road.

Mikael Hard explains that “Facing a world of tanks and assembly lines, and using telephones and automobiles, ‘modern’ men and women were forced to differentiate the uses of technology from the abuses. The proliferation of the machine into ever more areas of social and economic life led to a need to interpret its meanings in a much more comprehensive way than in the past” (2). These transformative technologies of the modern period gave rise to new economies, new cities, new narratives of progress and anxiety and thus, necessarily, new bodies. The modern technologies of the plane, train, and automobile, for example, are not only devices that enhance the mobility of the modern subject, but also contraptions that transform the subject’s relationship to landscape and being itself.

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Alfred Jarry on bike
Figure 7
Alfred Jarry on bike
Wassily Chair
Figure 8
Marcel Breuer,
Wassily Chair
, 1925

Bicycles are a central contraption in the tropics of the avant-garde. From Alfred Jarry’s bicycle obsession (Fig. 7) (he slept with his bike at the foot of his bed), to Picasso’s uncanny handlebar bull-hornism to Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair (Fig. 8), inspired by the tubular steel of his brand-new Adler bicycle, the machine haunts avant-garde experimentation. And this is particularly the case in the works of two exemplary avant-gardistes, Marcel Duchamp and Samuel Beckett. While there has been some critical attention paid to the place of bicycles in the texts of Samuel Beckett (notably Hugh Kenner’s work), there has been rather scant focus on the place of the two-wheelers in Duchamp’s corpus and nothing, as yet, that expressly pairs the two artists’ fascination with the bicycle as modern machine. What I argue in this essay is not only that the bike is a crucial facet in the experimental work of both Beckett and Duchamp (allowing one to glimpse significant aesthetic parallels across genres) but specifically that the bike, in their works, comes to represent a crisis of mobility in the modern moment. My contention is that, for both artists, this crisis plays out most tangibly in the fields of language and subjectivity so that the act of “being” in modernity, for Beckett and Duchamp, comes to be playfully linked to the problems of the modern self in interaction with technology. This essay explores the nuances of this interaction by interrogating the place of habit, language, desire, and daily experience in both the avant-garde and modern environments.

The Ride

Any study of the Duchampian/Beckettian bicycle swiftly transports a reader/viewer into the neighbourhoods of ontology, eroticism, bachelorhood, gender, myth and its relationship to the modern everyday. In using the symbol of the bicycle, Duchamp and Beckett illustrate the tragic-comic bind of the modern subject: the body is at once liberated by technology and yet also dangerously dependent on, if not indentured to, its power. (The same scenario exists, generally, for the artist in relation to technology; in relation to the technologization of both the artist and the art in modernity). For the modernist avant-garde then, the question is how to respond to the technological revolution of the everyday environment, which necessitates a grappling with the revelation that technology and reality are mutually constitutive.(1) In other words, something lies beyond the simple bind of liberated/indentured in reference to modern art and the birth of the technological everyday. The avant-gardiste is clearly implicated, perhaps more explicitly than the non-artist, in the invention of the new: in the construction of his or her own unique aesthetic technologies. Therefore, the avant-garde artist becomes and is obsessed with the relationship between making and power; invention and history; progress and immobility. This suggests that the technologization of art and the artist is not just a one-sided narrative about cameras or cinema affecting painting and sculpture and novels. Rather, one sees-in Duchamp and Beckett most powerfully-that a toaster or a bicycle is also an art object, a site of desire, a mechanical conveyance, a glyph.

In this way, the technologization of art and the artist, plus the tragic-comic bind of the modern subject, is one way of discussing a competition of realisms: if there is no set trajectory for any given object then what results is either (or both?) experimental art or something like official status. The goal of the avant-gardiste may be to rethink history, rethink the experience of how one (a culture) gets to a confusion of signifiers, a multiplicity of meanings-and then to rework or restate or re-inscribe that otherwise blanked-out narrative, but to do so always provisionally (this can mean humour). The technologization of anything can therefore be the habitualization of anything, too, and so, in the hands of the experimental artist, the resulting “defamiliarization” is also always a new form of technology. Art restores order through disruption: we see that a bike can also “work” mounted on a stationary stool or that it does not need, as in Beckett’s Mercier and Camier, a chain to actually work. This implies that the avant-garde artist is declaring that no function is absolute and all functions are historically contingent. Perhaps modernity or modernism quite simply means: there is no going back, which then electrifies the present. Modernity (time) captures modernism (“time”) as modernism captures modernity. Modern art is implicated-as the Frankfurt school writers, most notably Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, have already shown-in the workings of industrial culture and this is an aesthetic boon of sorts but also a dilemma.

Krzysztof Ziarek’s recent work The Historicity of Experience: Modernity, the Avant-Garde, and the Event, boldly challenges earlier theories of the avant-garde-including the important work of Peter Burger, Andreas Huyssen, Jurgen Habermas, and Rita Felski-by insisting that discussions of modernist experimentation must move beyond a simple art/life dialectic. Ziarek proposes that the avant-garde be understood not as something outside or “other” to everyday existence (avant-garde art merely transforming the everyday through representation) but rather as something directly temporal. In both Duchamp and Beckett, the bicycle often morphs into a corporeal, body-like presence-one that profoundly questions the stability of definitions of the modern, human subject. Duchamp’s and Beckett’s appropriations of the bicycle are also knowing disruptions of the everyday “sense” or use-value or art-value of the modern technological object and consequently serve to challenge more general, conventional (modern) notions of mobility. These two artists thus lend credence to Ziarek’s, as well as Kornelia von Berswordt-Wallrabe’s, theories of the avant-garde which stress that the classic avant-garde work tends to disrupt an object’s “stream of function” (von Berswordt-Wallrabe) and also then refigure the (ostensibly evacuated of history, transparent) everyday moment as a vital and fluid setting of the “Event.”

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Rover safety bicycle
Figure 9
Rover safety bicycle, 1885
Figure 10

The bicycle is a new genre, a radically unique object. It is at once a device that enhances human speed and propels the body through a landscape, and yet it is not so fast that the body is ever removed from the intimate motions of its immediate surroundings. The bicycle, for all its metallic presence, is a comfortable citizen of the back road, the country field, even the mountain pass. It has a relationship to the movement of the wheat as well as to the airy dips of the birds. As a nostalgia-contraption, it is predictably a locus for memories and childhood. As I discuss later on in the essay, the modern bicycle (the “safety” bicycle (Fig. 9), which very closely resembles our contemporary bicycles, was perfected around the late 19th century) has its technological roots in the 1790s’ French children’s hobby-toys called celerifere or velocifere (Fig. 10). From their beginning, then, bicycles have seemed to connote newness but also, perhaps more palpably, nostalgia and the vanished moments of youth.(2) Cranking the pedals, or even just gliding down a hill, powers on the film of the past, a kind of Proustian recreation in which every new ride is always a tour backwards into time-lost. The bicycle is forever patient, too. Its simplicity is magnificent, how it waits against a shed, for example-not as a car sulks in a driveway or lurks beside the curb, but with a kind of Zen-like, friendly abandonment. The bike can look lonely, to be sure, but unlike other technologies of mobility (cars, planes, trains) it seems reconciled to melancholy; without ever being indifferent to, or utterly consumed by, its singularity. The poetics of the bicycle is infinite if only because-along with the complete entity known as “the bicycle”-each part of the machine (pedals, wheels, horn, handlebars, fenders, lugs, hubs, sprockets) resonates with particular, symbolic force.

The bicycle, importantly, is not just a double-sided object. It is multi-dimensional and it is therefore too reductive to state: “the bicycle has another side¡¦.” Yet the bicycle does exist-despite its halcyon glitter-as a protean modern object: it literally comes from (within) modernity. And quite possibly the bicycle can be seen as bringing modernity with it, pulling it out of the Victorian moment toward a late capitalist present. In the conventional cultural-historical narrative of European modernity-a tale that includes the spectacular entrance of planes, trains, and automobiles; the dramatic growth of metropolitan centres (and the elaboration of imperial networks); the birth of photography and cinema; not to mention the inventions of the telephone, typewriter and even tape-machine-the bicycle is a rarely-discussed, almost quaint participant. But for all its romantic-nostalgic energy, moving harmoniously through the ambience of sun-touched, pre-modern country lanes, the bicycle also helped create our modern/urban economies of mass consumption. Avram Davidson, in his short story “Or All the Seas with Oysters,” plots a brilliant, if idiosyncratic, evolution for the bicycle suggesting that safety pins are the larval and coat hangers the pupal stage of the machine’s gestation. What is fascinating about Davidson’s hypothesis is its mingling of the bicycle with other vital, but often overlooked, technologies of the modern. It seems to me it is precisely the apparent insignificance of the everydayness of the safety pin and the coat hanger that also gives the bike its power and poetics-all of these items are the overlooked, invisible dynamos of modernity.

The bike functions as a childhood emblem, then, but is emblematic too of Coca-Cola, Levi’s Jeans, MTV (Figs. 11, 12 and 13). Science historian Sharon Babaian explains that “The bicycle helped to forge the link between advertising and the mass consumption of luxury goods. It was the first expensive, non-essential product to be sold in such numbers-over 1.2 million bicycles per year where produced in the U.S. in the mid-1890s. Also, the bicycle industry was among the first to introduce annual model changes as a way of selling more products” (97). The bicycle, to use Raymond Williams’ term here, is “magical” but only as a revolutionary marketing tool-as a discovery, namely that within modernity a non-essential object could be engineered, mass-produced and sold for significant profit. The bicycle industry prefigured the automobile industry and thus anticipated the latter’s (soon to be more complete) construction and manipulation of appetites of mass consumption. And this was not only the case with the automobile industry but also with the aeronautics business. The Wright brothers, most notably, were originally a cycle firm. Moreover, Wiebe E. Bijker argues that by the turn of the century “Weapon makers, sewing machine manufacturers, and agricultural producers were only too happy to shift their production to bicycles” (32). And so the bicycle is a key protagonist not only in the narrative of mass transportation but also, and more expansively, in the drama of modern marketing, everyday consumption, modern technology, and the diversification of industrial technology.

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  • Coca-Cola logo
    Figure 11
    Coca-Cola logo
  • Levis jeans label
    Figure 12
    Levis jeans label
  • MTV Logo
    Figure 13
    MTV Logo

The bicycle, as both modern symbol and modern technology, is hence deeply embedded in a grander narrative of progress and use-value. To some extent the avant-garde is the manifestation of the retooling of such narratives-a practice of functional dysfunction and, like the everyday itself, much of the avant-garde’s power (force) resides in the play with context and referentiality. Ziarek writes.
Duchamp’s urinal or bicycle wheel ¡¦ stand the ordinary on its head, disconnecting everyday tools from their functional context and, thus, bringing into the open the invisible regulative force with which technicity forms modern being . . . In other words, the concept of the ordinary as immediate, as a place of common knowledge or a sphere of prelinguistic experience, sheltered from the influence of technology and mass culture, has to be called into question. The ordinary is already mediated, it is enframed technologically and functions as a font of availability, as resource or Bestand. (113)

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studio showing the
Figure 14
Photograph of Duchamps
studio showing the
Fountain (1917),
studio showing the
Bicycle Wheel
Figure 15
Photograph of Duchamps
studio showing the
Bicycle Wheel
(1913-14), 1917-18

The urinal or the bicycle wheel (Figs. 14 and 15) are revealed (as opposed to made) by the avant-gardiste as displaced, even suspended, artefacts of the everyday. They are recontextualized and thus undergo a number of-by now very well documented-changes. First, their use-value is confused as soon as they are “noticed” as art. Part of the enduring aesthetic, even revolutionary, energy of the Duchampian urinal, for example, lies in the crisis it creates for the viewer, forcing one to wonder as if for the first time: “what is a urinal? what is an art object? do I associate art with piss? do I now piss in art?” Perhaps the urinal never asked to be viewed before either. The avant-garde’s use of everyday objects is necessarily a radical play with the technologization of sense, use-value and function. Berswordt-Wallrabe explains that Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel “had its roots in the artist’s ability to distance himself from the intended utilitarian purpose of the object and thereby to interrupt the existing stream of function, diverting the object or parts of it into an entirely different stream of function” (19).(3) The “other dimensions” of the everyday object are all contained within the art object itself; it is the context-shifting that here brings them into view. (Uselessness, nonsense, suspended function, purposeless play-these are, incidentally, the adjectives also applicable to the characteristic bodies and modes of Beckett’s fiction.) If the everyday object is removed from the everyday (or at least becomes embossed on the template of the everyday), is the same-but in reverse!-true of the art itself? In other words, is part of the crisis that the avant-garde inaugurates that of necessarily returning art to the setting of prosaic, modern being? A curious “cycle”?

Beckett 1

In considering the richness of Samuel Beckett’s numerous bike riders, Hugh Kenner famously surmises in his 1962 monograph, Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study, that Molloy, Moran, Malone, Mercier & Camier et al are representations of “Cartesian Centaurs” (121). Kenner understands this centaur-subject to be guided by rational intelligence yet ever and necessarily obeying the mobile, irrational wonder of the bicycle’s own motion and desire. The Cartesian Centaur is therefore a compliment of mind and body, but also and most importantly of body and machine: “Cartesian man deprived of his bicycle is a mere intelligence fastened to a dying animal” (124). The Beckettian bicyclist, however hopelessly, utilises the bike as a substitute body: one that, if not deathless, at least presents the illusion of delaying or denying mortality.

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French childrens
late 18th
Century hobby horses
Figure 16
French childrens
late 18th
Century hobby horses
cherubim riding on similar contraptions
Figure 17
cherubim riding on similar contraptions

Kenner’s Centaur is also interesting because, as aforementioned, the earliest known bicycles are thought to have derived from French children’s late 18th Century (1790s) hobby horses (Fig. 16). These proto-bikes were unsteerable and pedalless (very Beckettian attributions!), but equipped with two wooden wheels which would allow a rider to propel (push) themselves with their own leg power, or easily coast down a hill. The celeriferes(4) bear an interesting resemblance to certain medieval church iconography in which cherubim and seraphim are shown riding on very similar contraptions.(5) (Fig. 17) These early bicycle images suggest a complicated, if curious, history for a poetics of the modern bicycle. The self-propelled, wheeled vehicle is-from its earliest representations-aligned with the sacred, and specifically with images of ascension and purity. At the same time, these medieval proto-bikes are of course excessively, necessarily earthly machines: the wheels themselves most obviously requiring the stability of the ground, the real. The fundamental tension of the bicycle, perhaps, and one that Beckett exhaustively mines, is that which exists between its angelic and corporeal symbology: it strives dynamically upward and yet is, unfailingly, a mortal vehicle.(6) The discrepancy between virtuous potential and practical, ignominious fact fully articulates the tragic-comic grey space of Beckett’s fiction.

The bicycle first appears in Beckett’s work in his early 1934 collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks. In the “Fingal” tale, the young lovers Belacqua and Winnie head off from Dublin for a romantic afternoon in the country. Their relationship is decidedly cool and characterised by defensive, droll repartee that is further ironized by the arch, omniscient narration. To confirm the subversion of the romance story, Belacqua is inflicted with “impetigo,” the knowledge of which compels Winnie (post-smooch) to thoroughly clean her mouth. And so it is not surprising-in this context of diseased, contaminated “romance”-that the destination of the love-jaunt in the country soon turns out to be the Portrane Lunatic Asylum (“she having a friend, he his heart, [there]”) (26).

On their way, however, Belacqua discovers something in the grass: “They followed the grass margin of a ploughed field till they came to where a bicycle was lying, half hidden in the rank grass. Belacqua, who could on no account resist a bicycle, thought what an extraordinary place to come across one. The owner was out in the field, scarifying the dry furrows with a fork” (27). The context of Belacqua’s discovery-especially in light of this being the first appearance of a bicycle in Beckett’s work-is significant in that the bicycle is riderless. The bicycle, lying abandoned in the rank grass, cannot help but be read as a kind of object counter-part to Belacqua’s own melancholy subjectivity. In particular, Belacqua’s interest in the bicycle is described in relation to his desire: he could, on no account, “resist” a bicycle. In this way, too, the bicycle is the clear, if wry, substitution of or for Winnie and, indeed, the scene mimics the encounter just previously in which the two lovers had been lying on the grass. What is clear here is that the bicycle is Belacqua’s discovery, and so his relationship to the machine is vaguely illicit and, at the very least, works to further his own solitude. Janet Menzies points out in her discussion of the scene that the encounter of the bike is “faintly disturbing” (99). One reason for this uncanny feeling is presumably that the bicycle and Belacqua seem to become indistinguishable. “Fingal”‘s narrative power rests not only in its rather flawless balance of aloof omniscience with caustic dialogue, but also with the mysterious anxiety that the discovery of the bicycle produces. The bicycle takes on a kind of “being” and seems to wordlessly, eerily compete with the superficial intentions of the love story.

This eerie competition is compounded by Belacqua’s developing connection, almost a homosocial alliance, with the bicycle owner and, of course, with the bike itself. The narrative makes it quite clear that Belacqua and the bicycle owner are aligned on the level of their shared masculinity. They both agree, for example, that “it needed a woman to think [the logistics of efficient travel] out” (28). Moreover, as Belacqua and Winnie move away from the man, we read that “Belacqua could see the man scraping away at his furrow and felt a sudden longing to be down there in the clay, lending a hand” (28). This moment happens two short paragraphs after an extended allusion to Hamlet: “The tower began well; that was the funeral meats. But from the door up it was all relief and no honour; that was the marriage tables” (28). If Belacqua is vaguely figured as the dispossessed son here and the bicycle owner as the ghostly father-figure, then Winnie is by default or implication a representation of Gertrude. Regardless, “Fingal” is to some extent a condensed and energetic reworking of the Hamlet themes of madness, diseased desire, and homosocial longing. Indeed, Winnie is evidently also the Ophelia representation here as she and Belacqua seem to be perpetually replaying a modernist version of the get-thee-to-a-nunnery exchange.

As Belacqua and Winnie sit and watch the “lunatics” taking their recreation on the grounds of the asylum, the bicycle owner (apparently an inmate of the asylum himself) comes running towards the lovers. “Belacqua rose feebly to his feet. This maniac, with the strength of ten men at least, who should withstand him? He would beat him into a puddle with his fork and violate Winnie” (30). Beckett’s narration is so comically convincing here because it completely undermines all the “masculine” labour that has previously sought to align Beckett and the bicycle owner. Now Belacqua is positioned less as a modernist Hamlet hero and more as a pathetic-neurotic anti-protagonist. Importantly, the bicycle owner not only runs innocently by the lovers but-crucially-leaves his bicycle behind him, unattended in the grass: “the nickel of the bike sparkled in the sun” (31). The alliterative, consonance clucks of the k’s alone in this sentence work to distinguish the bicycle as a glorious, exquisite signifier (and align it with Belacqua’s own clicky appellation). Thus Belacqua-all things working in his favour-manages to pass Winnie off on her friend Dr. Sholto while he promises to rendez vous with them “at the main entrance of the asylum in, say, an hour” (31). Belacqua, of course, takes a route back to the resplendent machine:

It was a fine light machine, with red tires and wooden rims. He ran down the margin to the road and it bounded alongside under his hand. He mounted and they flew down the hill and round the corner till they came at length to the stile that led into the field where the church was. The machine was a treat to ride, on his right hand the sea was foaming among the rocks, the sands ahead were another yellow again, beyond them in the distance the cottages of Rush were bright white, Belacqua’s sadness fell from him like a shift. (31-2)

Only the interaction with the bicycle seems to allow the narrative to mobilize, so to speak, its most romantic descriptions. Belacqua’s ride literally shakes off his melancholy and it is quite clear that the bike represents both a metaphysical escape from his sadness as well as a physical flight from Winnie. It seems significant, too, that Belacqua’s depression falls from him like a shift, as if the action of the ride is also sexual or (perhaps less carnally) at least cleansing and perhaps feminizing, too-returning him to a first, innocent, and naked moment. Belacqua, of course, never keeps his promise with Winnie and Dr. Sholto and the climax of the story depends on his callous departure. Sholto and Winnie, left waiting, are forced to inquire of another bicyclist entering the asylum if he has seen a person resembling Belacqua: “‘I passed the felly of [that description] on a bike’ said Tom, pleased to be of use, ‘at Ross’s gate, going like flames.’ ‘On a BIKE!’ cried Winnie. ‘But he hadn’t a bike.'” (34). The “going like flames” is a hilarious insertion that contrasts even more comically with Winnie’s slapstick, higher-case exclamation. Her position here, terribly outside the narrative asides, is now confirmed and her innocent “but he hadn’t a bike” comment renders her character charming but slow. Belacqua’s escape is, indeed, complete as the tale closes by revealing that he was “safe in Taylor’s public-house in Swords, drinking” (35). The bicycle, in its first Beckettian mode, is truly a remarkable bachelor’s conveyance: a reliable escape machine, something that can be literally discovered in the grass.(7)

Duchamp 1

“Fingal” can be read as a type of onanistic bachelor’s allegory and, as such, it has (of course!) much in common with Marcel Duchamp’s corpus-especially his celebrated, pioneering ready made Bicycle Wheel. In a 1955 letter to his acquaintance Guy Weelen, Duchamp writes:

My recollections as to the apparition of a bicycle wheel mounted on a kitchen stool in 1913 are too vague and can only be treated as a posteriori reflections. I only remember that the atmosphere created by this intermittent movement was something analogous to the dancing flames of a log fire. It was as if in homage to the useless aspect of something generally used to other ends. In fact, it was a ready made “before the event” as the word only came to me in 1914. I probably accepted the movement of the wheel very gladly as an antidote to the habitual movement of the individual around the contemplated object. (Letters, 346 June 26).

Like Beckett, Duchamp reveals the bicycle (or its components) as a clearly seductive object. If Belacqua’s bicycle scintillates like nickel and allows him to “go like flames,” then Duchamp’s 1913 Bicycle Wheel, too, adopts the erotic, hallucinatory rhythms of a log fire(8) Importantly, Duchamp’s recollection of the creation of this ready made is a characteristically paradoxical mixture of both elucidation and mystification. It is clever as well as strategic that Duchamp refers to the Bicycle Wheel’s construction as an “apparition.” Duchamp casually tinges his entire recollection of the Bicycle Wheel’s construction with the qualities of serendipity, not to mention ethereality. Also, that he offers that the sculpture was “a ready made ‘before the event'” is an audacious and sly manoeuvre in that Duchamp is actually depicting himself as anticipating himself. A fascinating confusion results because the Bicycle Wheel piece, on the one hand, seems to merely “appear” while, on the other, Duchamp’s sole responsibility as the magician behind its fantastic apparition is implied. Regardless of Duchamp’s brilliant, self-mythologizing prose, the letter also reveals that the Bicycle Wheel constitutes a sort of homage to “the useless aspect of something generally used to other ends.” This statement, in miniature, is a provisional definition for all experimental projects in that it indicates the fraught, necessary tension that exists in the avant-garde between function and dysfunction.

Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel is dependent on its general function, presumably, as a device in a larger piece of machinery that conventionally facilitates human mobility-a bike. It is also dependent, as a seeable piece of art, on highlighting the transparency of that original function while at the same time asserting or proposing an alternative (dis)application (here a wheel mounted upside down in a stool.)(9) What exists between the function and dysfunction are the inter-workings of the everyday (the minutiae of cultural history): the particularly intimate negotiations between objects and subjects. Nothing, it seems, is outside history, nothing is entirely bland, nothing is beyond power. Here modernity is the discovery that the human subject exists no less arbitrarily or perversely than its surrounding objects. Technology-in all its forms-is thus the dynamic crisis of human uselessness. Both Beckett (especially in Molloy as we will see) and Duchamp mobilize the bike to highlight the tragic-comic complications of this critical ontology.

Yet in Duchamp’s brief letter to Guy Weelen it is the last sentence that is arguably the most compelling. Duchamp states that, “I probably accepted the movement of the wheel very gladly as an antidote to the habitual movement of the individual around the contemplated object.” The habitual movement around the contemplated object could refer to the everyday activity in a kitchen. If so, then the wheel is arguably an anti-everyday object (anti-domestic and anti-materiality, on one level). In this way, and despite Duchamp’s characteristically oblique, ingenious phrasing (he “accepted” [“accepte”] the movement of the wheel), he seems to be indicating that the spinning wheel directly disrupts conventional aesthetic viewing patterns. While the bicycle wheel spins on top of a stool it is presumably fixing the viewer in one location. Duchamp implies that the Bicycle Wheel is an alternative sculpture because it is kinetic but also because it seems to invert the object/subject aesthetic relationship. In other words, there is a startling suggestion that the Bicycle Wheel is, in fact, looking back at (contemplating) the viewer. This looking-back-at-ness is not so much a result of a personification of the art-object, but rather more generally of how the Bicycle Wheel (and all ready mades) draw(s) attention to conventional modes of viewership and reception. More importantly perhaps, Duchamp links “contemplation” with mobility and habit.(10)

Beckett, too, in his later Texts for Nothing, finds in the bicycle wheel specifically a metaphor for the repetitive, often futile, work of memory. He writes, “What thronging memories, that’s to make me think I’m dead, I’ve said it a million times. But the same return, like the spokes of a turning wheel, always the same, and all alike, like spokes” (128). Duchamp’s letter to Weelen continues on to detail a kind of collision of movements-a clash of mobilities- within the field of vision. Herbert Molderings contends that, “The bicycle wheel with its fork pointing down and mounted on a stool is fundamentally a chronophotographic sculpture voiced in the language of the Futurists: a sculpture of movement” (150). The Bicycle Wheel, if not entirely “futurist,” is unarguably concerned with the seeing of movement (as opposed to a merely futurist-like glorification of the mobile). Moreover, for Duchamp, viewership and reception are also forms of mobility just as the new, ready made Wheel derives its force from a type of counter-movement. According to Duchamp, then, his ready made sculpture is, at once, an entrancing, lulling spectacle comparable to the dance of flames on a log and yet also an object that resists (is an antidote to) habitual forms of aesthetic contemplation.

click to enlarge
Man Ray, The Gift
Figure 18
Man Ray, The Gift, 1921
Bottle Dryer
Figure 19
Marcel Duchamp,
Bottle Dryer, 1914

But the Bicycle Wheel is only, it seems to me, half of the aesthetic story. The wheeled-sculpture depends crucially on its stool mounting. The Bicycle Wheel is hardly a ready made in the sense that Duchamp’s Bottle Rack or Snow Shovel are: these items qualify as “toute-fait” in that they require no elaborate aesthetic manipulation or intervention. The Bicycle Wheel, unlike its counterparts, does not merely await selection, it also demands assemblage and, to some extent, physical contact (spinning the wheel) from the viewer. The Bicycle Wheel is, above all else, a bizarre object because it defamiliarizes the everyday by blending typically aloof components of the everyday with each other. The avant-garde formula here is to add mundane objects (common technologies but technologies commonly not associated with each other) together in order to equal the experimental aesthetic machine. (Man Ray’s “Gift,” (Fig. 18) for example, a household iron with nails solder on its smoothing surface, would also be apposite here.) If the Bottle Rack (Fig. 19) is avant-garde because it is a prosaic, overlooked object that is then chosen, inscribed, and signed, then the Bicycle Wheel is radical both because it is not fully a stool (and the stool is not fully a bicycle) and because it now demands aesthetic contemplation. The Bicycle Wheel is still highly “artistic,” therefore, in the sense that it spotlights both the artist’s cleverness and his delectation (though Duchamp always and emphatically denied that his “selections” were aesthetically or “retina-lly” motivated). The Bicycle Wheel also introduces (at least) a double crisis: the viewer is incited to wonder not only ‘what is art?’-as is the case with the other ready mades-but also, more simply, ‘what is this?’(11)

Significantly, on the level of practical everyday objects, the Bicycle Wheel is a ridiculous and even useless machine: a subverted stool and a corrupted bike. Like the depictions of bicycles we discover in Beckett’s Molloy and Mercier and Camier, for example, Duchamp’s bicycle is a playful emblem of the comedic failure of (again, at least one kind of) mobility. A viewer, accustomed to that “habitual movement around the contemplated object,” is now fixed with a machine that moves elegantly, entrancingly, yet never, finally, goes anywhere.(12)

The maddeningly enclosed, even intensely self-regarding, circuit of contemplation that Duchamp’s Wheel inaugurates is arguably but another bachelor apparatus, specifically what we might call an onanism process. Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp’s English language biographer, points out that, as a verbal or visual image, the machine-onaniste [Duchamp’s phrase] comes up again and again in Duchamp’s work: . . .Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel and his obsession with circular forms; his optical machines whose spiral patterns oscillate in a pulsating, back-and-forth rhythm; his invention of Rrose Selavy, a female alter ego; and the very fact that in the Large Glass the unfortunate bachelors never do manage to strip bare the willing but imperious bride-all these can be seen as signposts in the life cycle of the solitary male” (276).

click to enlarge
Note from the
Green Box
Figure 20
Marcel Duchamp,
Note from the
Green Box (1934)

It is not clear whether Tomkins is intentionally punning on the “life cycle” of the male, but the Bicycle Wheel (with its erotic allure and circuit) is certainly symbolic of Duchamp’s dual fascination with the cyclical nature of delay and desire.(13) Indeed, Duchamp’s Green Box catalogue refers enigmatically to the “litanies of the Chariot: slow life, vicious circle, onanism” (Fig. 20) (np). The bio-mechanics or bio-morphism are incorporated by the symbol of the wheel (the vicious circle) and thus also by both the body and desire.

And beyond the particular narrative that highlights the desiring, self-gratifying bachelor, there is also an extra-textual and aesthetic onanism potentially at work. Amelia Jones, in her shrewd study of Duchamp’s relationship to postmodernism, suggests that Duchamp himself has come to stand-in for the ready mades, and vice versa. Postmodernist criticism has thus created a kind of art historical fantasy in which the object replaces the artist-and, in so doing, installs Duchamp as self-generating, ever-fecund patriarch. She writes, Duchamp’s significance as originating father is generally seen to be identical to the significance of the readymades in relation to postmodernism. As mass-produced objects rendered as art only by reference to their authorizing function, Duchamp, the readymades become Duchamp as we know him today. As paternal, theological origin, Duchamp is the readymades and the ‘readymade Duchamp’ comes to signify postmodernism. (8)

Thus Duchamp’s objects are always conflated with Duchamp’s subject-position and presumably every reading of the Bicycle Wheel, for example, is also a reading of a complex metonym for the artist himself. The crisis is most fascinating then in reference to the re-aura-ification of the work of art by way of granting a distinct “author” to an otherwise nameless object. Part of the force of Beckett’s and Duchamp’s mobilization of these everyday technologies lies in the way they draw attention to the radical anonymity of the objects’ function. Thus, if Jones is correct in asserting that the ready made and “the Duchamp” have become interchangeable, it is perhaps a result of a collective refusal (anxiety) to grant objects any serious, non-human identity and presence. Both Duchamp and Beckett illustrate that the everyday object is interesting precisely because there is no certain boundary between it and the human subject.

As Tomkins implies above, the Bicycle Wheel is also connected to Duchamp’s invention of his female alter ego, Rrose Selavy. And indeed, the Bicycle Wheel is a particularly Selavy-esque technology-a kinetic sculpture that can also be seen as an impish reference to women’s knitting wheels of the past. The bicycle is an important technology for modernity not just in the context of its inspiration of advanced capitalist marketing strategies, which were then adopted by numerous other companies, but also in terms of women’s emancipation and the New Woman specifically. As Patricia Marks elaborates, “These New Women, who wanted all the advantages of their brothers, asked for education, suffrage, and careers; they cut their hair, adopted ‘rational dress’, and freewheeled along a path that lead to the twentieth century” (1). Bicycles allowed women to not only escape the home and the obligation of the knitting wheel, they also crucially allowed women to be mobile and to be so without either a male or female chaperone.(14)

The bicycle was such a new technology that its effects on both the male and female body were a source of serious and continual concern. The Penguin Book of the Bicycle reports that, “Up till 1893 doctors had maintained that cycling was a notorious cause of illness. The medical profession worried deeply about ‘bicycle walk,’ ‘bicycle heart,’ or, most dreaded of all, kyhosis bicyclistarum, ‘cyclist’s hump,’ caused by strenuous pulling on the handlebars” (126). For women bicyclists, medical practitioners (including woman doctors) worried that bicycle riding would exhaust female riders’ vital, maternal energy and thus complicate, or even prohibit, child-birth (Marks, 174). The action of pedalling, in this instance, is a kind of anarchist threat to all normative gender and social systems. If the Bicycle Wheel is in fact a Rrose Selavy (might then Rrose’s wheel become “Roue C’est La Vie”?)(15) machine, then it is a bachelor apparatus ironized and nuanced by the contexts of both the gendered history of bicycle riding as well as that of domestic labour and public culture.

click to enlarge
Machine Acheter?
Figure 21
A French poster by
Jules-Alexandre Grun for
Whitworth Bicycles, “Quelle
Machine Acheter?”, circa 1897
Figure 22
A French advertising
poster by Edouard
Corchinoux for Cycles
Meteore, circa 1920

The modernity of the bicycle is inseparable from the advancement of women’s rights, but it is also directly linked to the objectification of the female, particularly as it figures a classical, feminine, mythic beauty as the ample spokes(!)-woman for this new technology. As if an extension of the early church-window cherubim straddling wheels of fire, the representations of women in early (late Victorian) bicycling advertisements are also strikingly iconographic. This lyrical idealization of the woman is an interesting contrast with the practical concerns for women’s safety, health, and sexuality. The woman, refracted through the medium of the bike, is both the angelic metonym for airy travel but also the latent threat of what that freedom might inspire. Consider the numerous advertisements collected in Jack Rennert’s 100 Years of Bicycle Posters in which turn of the century (late 1800s) women are depicted as bewinged, sylvan, naked, sword-wielding, flying, shield-carrying, wind-tussled beauties. (Figs. 21 and 22) One poster in particular, an 1897 Paris ad for Catenol bicycles, reveals a voluptuous, completely naked woman sitting on the edge of a stone well. The bucket mechanism for the well is apparently driven by a bicycle crank and pedal system. The woman is staring out at the viewer giving the “evil eye” hand-signal while her right ankle is chained to the well. The poster reads, “La Verite Assise!!!” or “the Truth is Seated/Established.” This bride stripped bare here reveals the bizarre, ever-erotic connotations of the bicycle. Perhaps because of its own mechanical nakedness, the bicycle is to some extent always obscene and thus connotative of erotic excess. That the woman here, with her simple but queenly(16) tiara showing an impish, cartoony smiling face in its centre, is literally chained to the “well of truth” is a useful reminder that the bike is unavoidably-if comically!-connected to both desire and mobility.
Beckett 2

click to enlarge
Cover of Molloy by Samuel Beckett
Figure 23
Cover of Molloy by Samuel Beckett

The Beckett novel in which bicycles (and thus desire at work as mobility) play the most significant role is Molloy (Fig. 23), the first section of Beckett’s celebrated trilogy. Molloy opens in a motherless mother’s room. The eponymous character tells the reader that a man comes every week to “take away the pages” (7). The novel is hard not to read as an allegory for the plight of the neurotic artist: boxed in his mother’s chamber, the writer can’t really be certain of anything. Molloy, however, despite this claustrophobic opening, is a grandiose journey story, or journey stories (Molloy is looking for his mother; Moran & son are looking for Molloy), which document(s) not (by now a Beckett critical cliche) the futility of progress but rather something entirely antithetical: the fact that motion, the need for mobility, is inevitable and intimately connected with both language and being. The Trilogy, and Molloy most abundantly, is a meditation on the inevitability of action, especially as action becomes confused and conflated with both dwindling speech and decaying physical presence. J.D. O’Hara reveals that, “Molloy progresses, so to speak, from one-legged bicycling at the start, and is about to set out on crutches at the end; Malone begins as a bed-ridden octogenarian and ends dead; the Unnamable, a weeping egg, conjures up surrogates who hobble on crutches or exists armless and legless in a jar” (10). For Beckett, it appears that all mobilities (verbal and physical) are complicated by their intimate dependence on each other, which thus serves to produce other competing, interactive binaries: silence and speech, for example, or death-rattles and long novels.

Visual artist Stan Douglas notes this unceasing energy in Beckett’s work and observes that, “Characters and voices in extreme situations of solitude seem to await silence or death but in fact seldom come to rest and even more rarely stop talking; persistent in their desire for something not yet said or not yet done” (11). Beckett’s characters, Molloy as an exemplar, are hardly despairing, existential party-poopers, but rather bizarrely dynamic entities: bodies and languages that utterly refuse to either rest or shut-up. Considering this manic context in Beckett’s work, the bicycle machine is an apposite device that condenses and contains his preoccupation with both mobility and speech.

Molloy appears to be uncertain of almost everything in his world other than his affection for the classic two-wheeler. Like Belacqua in “Fingal,” Molloy comes upon a bicycle as he ventures outside. Ludovic Janvier states that, “The bicycle, then, is an instrument of derisory super-power, of cheap super-lightness, to which the ‘hero’ trusts his destiny” (47). It seems to me that these Beckettian “bike-discovery scenes” (17)are comparable to the thrilling moment in Cervantes’ Don Quixote in which the narrator states that Quixote, “t[ook] whatever road his horse chose, in the belief that in th[at] lay the essence of adventure” (36) The bicycle, like the horse, embodies adventure and whimsy but also, and crucially, the power of both destiny and chance to shape being. Of course Molloy is on crutches, and so his ride is spectacularly distinct (even Quixotic?) from Belacqua’s going-like-flames style. This fact alone suggests the serious chasm separating Beckett’s original bachelor rider from his Trilogy-era one. While Belacqua is literally able to make his fiery escape to the local pub, Molloy is much more entangled with the technology.(18) Molloy explains, “This is how I went about it. I fastened my crutches to the cross-bar, one on either side, I propped the foot of my stiff leg (I forget which, now they’re both stiff) on the projecting front axle, and I pedalled with the other” (17).

To complicate matters further, Molloy’s bicycle happens to be chainless and one with a free-wheel-essentially an impossible machine. As Molloy becomes the bicycle, so to speak, the resulting visual (M. lashed to his self-propelled, chainless vehicle) is like a mirror of Beckett’s own appropriation of (self-fastening to) impossible language. In other words, as Molloy integrates with a superbly faulty machine so too does Beckett-throughout the Trilogy-blend with a severely and increasingly restricted (chainless) language, character and plot. Molloy thus sabotages the familiar technology of the bicycle by making it interchangeable with his own being. Molloy is a cyborg body (propped up with crutches, steel, and rubber) but also, and more simply, just a tangle of prosthetics: an ironic symbol of motion. Molloy’s impossible “mobility” is dependent, therefore, on an array of mobility-technologies and, as he is the symbolic author stand-in, his strange “mobility” is necessarily and always about the (im)mobility of writing and reading, too. So, Molloy’s technological reliance is a self-conscious staging of the avant-garde author-function-wanting and needing to move through an environment that is either hostile or indifferent to action.

After Molloy describes his mounting of the bicycle he becomes hilariously, beautifully absorbed in a description of his machine. He sighs, “Dear bicycle, I shall not call you bike, you were green, like so many of your generation. I don’t know why. It is a pleasure to meet it again. To describe it at length would be a pleasure. It had a little red horn instead of the bell fashionable in your days. To blow this horn was for me a real pleasure, almost a vice” (17). Molloy’s disquisition on the pleasures of bicycles (and horns) is then disturbed by his recollection of his true subject: that of “her who brought [him] into the world, through the hole in her arse if [his] memory is correct. First taste of the shit” (17). Again, as in “Fingal,” it is clear that the bicycle is inseparable from the question of gender-and specifically “woman.” As Molloy arrives in the world through the hole in his mother’s ass, it is a further reversal of traditional (in this case, biological) “technologies.” Molloy is literally a piece of shit, on the one hand, but he is also (though this is no doubt scant consolation) a resplendent symbol of inverted modern “production.” His bicycle exists in some ideal, pluperfect past while Molloy is left to narrate that past with, it seems, the “first taste of the shit” still (always) on his tongue. Thus Molloy’s “productions” are always, like his own birth, scatological “issues.”

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, in their own machine-obsessed text, Anti-Oedipus, wonder about the function of the bicycle in Beckett’s work, specifically asking what relationship the bicycle-horn machine might have with the so-called mother-anus machine (2). If, as they suggest, that “There is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together” (2) then the Beckettian avant-garde technology is located in that place in which function becomes actively blurred with form and vice versa. One can ask what things do in this scenario but one cannot ask what processes produce because they are always in flux. The avant-garde’s stake is therefore in the ing of the verb. Jean-Francois Lyotard contends that technology is traditionally founded on principles of optimum performance, and specifically that technology can be understood as a drama of efficiency (Postmodern Condition, 44). Technology is a game of mobility, a contest of speeds, in this reading: power is speed, finally. Powerful technology is anything therefore that does not complicate or obtrude motion. Infinite process (that which is not ever resolved-that which is always in the middle of doing something more) is hedonistic and even paradoxically unproductive as it looks only to be intent on motion, not resolution. The in-flux processes, the body technologies, in this case, consist of Molloy and his mother who, as he describes it, are thoroughly malleable as identities. Molloy is finally unsure, as he says, whether he is the father or the son in the relationship and even whether his mother is “Ma, Mag or the Countess Caca” (18). And when Molloy moves into the terrible but uproarious description of his improvised form of communication with his deaf mother (he has had to, he tells us, resort to knocking on her skull to get a yes or no answer) then the absurd possibilities of bodies is confirmed. Beckett does not, of course, endeavour to detail human potential on a sentimental scale, he instead illustrates the potential for subjectivity to be no different than objects. A mother, to some extent, is discovered as merely a machine you have to knock your knuckles against to “make work”; a son is a ridiculous prosthetic apparatus; while the bicycle itself is the ideal by which human potential is measured. Here the lyrical, human technology trumps the human altogether.

As Molloy sets off on his fantastic but everyday machine he, like Mercier and Camier, is soon stopped by a policeman. The convergence of Molloy and the law is Buster Keaton-like in its potential for slapstick and destruction, but also attains the gravely serious and melancholy. Beckett’s writing is, first of all, remarkably balanced-throughout Molloy-between ironic quips and perceptive, affecting human observation so that a reader must continually weigh Molloy’s digression on toilet paper (the policeman has asked for Molloy’s “papers”), for example, with the vivid lines that immediately follow it: “We took the little side streets, quiet, sunlit, I springing along between my crutches, he pushing my bicycle, with the tips of his white-gloved fingers” (21). The writing effect here is to produce a kind of delirious but always lucid collage-patching together both startlingly beautiful and hilarious elements. Molloy and the policeman are obviously caught in the gagster and the straight-man roles, but they also suggest the father and son team.

The bicycle takes on a charming, limpid modesty as it literally runs along beneath the tips of the gloved-fingers of both the policeman and of Beckett’s prose. As the bicycle, and the journey itself, is stalled by the presence of authority, Molloy slips into an elegiac reverie concerning his profound loneliness: While still putting my best foot foremost I gave myself up to that golden moment, as if I had been someone else. It was the hour of rest, the forenoon’s toil ended, the afternoon’s to come. The wisest perhaps, lying in the squares or sitting on their doorsteps, were savouring its languid ending, forgetful of recent cares, indifferent to those at hand. Others on the contrary were using it to hatch their plans, their heads in their hands. Was there one among them to put himself in my place, to feel how removed I was then from him I seemed to be, and in that remove what strain, as of hawsers about to snap? It’s possible. Yes, I was straining towards those spurious deeps, their lying promise of gravity and peace, from all my old poisons I struggled towards them, safely bound. Under the blue sky, under the watchful gaze. Forgetful of my mother, set free from the act, merged in this alien hour, saying Respite, respite. (21-2).

Molloy’s exquisite meditation on rest and relief, framed by his acute sense of his separation from other human beings, serves to also grant the bicycle the dual purpose of practical machine and metaphysical prism. Janvier states that in Molloy “The body is powerless to continue, but it must continue: the bicycle is this impatience” (47). Molloy’s journey is obviously one of grim longing-his search for his mother is also a more general, sentimental quest for human connection and so his bicycle comes to embody the pathos of his loneliness. When Molloy leaves the police barracks with his bicycle, the quality of fading sunlight affects him once again and he notices the play of shadows on the wall: Let me cry out then, it’s said to be good for you. Yes, let me cry out, this time, then another time perhaps, then perhaps a last time. Cry out that the declining sun fell full on the white wall of the barracks. It was like being in China. A confused shadow was cast. It was I and my bicycle. I began to play, gesticulating, waving my hat, moving my bicycle to and fro before me, blowing the horn, watching the wall. They were watching me through the bars, I felt their eyes upon me. The policeman on guard at the door told me to go away. He needn’t have, I was calm again. (25)

It is fitting that Molloy’s encounter with the law resolves in this moment of play and official supervision. If Molloy is sentimentally searching for some kind of community or companionship, Beckett reveals that it perhaps can only take place-and finitely-in this other-, shadow-dimension. “A confused shadow was cast” articulates the oblique, ontological ambience of the entire Trilogy. Molloy, already excessively distanced from his own surroundings and his own being, now divides himself once more by throwing his lightless reflection against the wall.(19) Molloy is indeed split but also re-unified here as well as the “I and my bicycle” become an “it.” For Molloy, the shadow play is obviously a semi-ecstatic event, as he concludes by grumbling that he “was calm again.” The shadow play also implies (“It was I and my bicycle”) how intimate Molloy is with his bike: the wall ostensibly integrates them both in a kind of ideal, wordless, Beckettian theatre until their independent forms are indistinguishable from each other.

But Molloy’s realism is precisely, if paradoxically, what makes his naivete so convincing. He tells the reader, “The shadow in the end is no better than the substance” (26). Molloy is an apparent amalgam of the hardened knowledge of cold experience and yet also the embodiment of radical optimism and innocence. Molloy follows his grim utterance above with a confession that if he ever thinks consciously about riding his bicycle then he invariably falls off. One of the joys of Beckett’s prose is that every line, so often pared down to its simplest, most honest form, yearns to be read allegorically. Molloy says, “I had forgotten where I was going. I stopped to think. It is difficult to think riding, for me. When I try and think riding I lose my balance and fall. I speak in the present tense, it is so easy to speak in the present tense, when speaking of the past. It is the mythological present, don’t mind it” (26). Molloy’s journey is obviously utterly complicated by memory and habit.

Importantly, Molloy’s speaking in the present tense is also-metaphorically-Beckett’s writing and so Molloy’s anxiety about the difficulty of “think[ing] riding” is also a potential pun on thinking writing. Of course, these lines are mobius strips of self-consciousness: Molloy and Beckett, like Duchamp’s Wheel, are caught in a circuit(20) of hyper-self-awareness so that the journey (the riding and the writing) are apparently compromised by the first-, second-, third-order consciousnesses at play. However, Molloy is also caught in a temporal paradox in which “it is easy to speak in the present tense, when speaking of the past.” This tense is more specifically “the mythological present” which proves Molloy’s ability to make ironic even his own more sage insights. Part of the problem of time that Molloy explores, in its dark Proustian way, is exactly the dilemma of how a subject ever speaks the history of the self. To think too much, in Beckett, is to lose your balance and fall but also-conversely-to give rise to the most telling (moving) diversions. What Molloy calls his “raglimp stasis” (26) begins to look, and read, like whirlwind activity-and vice versa. Whatever “balance” Molloy locates is thus an avant-garde one. Just as the “mythological present” logically cancels out (makes impossible) the very temporal moment it inaugurates by laminating it with the past, so too does Molloy find that not only can he never fully stop or start but rather that he is always doing both simultaneously.

The hilarious pacing of Molloy itself confirms its investment in the blending of the sublime and banal. Shortly after Molloy rides out of town he surmises that “the most you can hope is to be a little less, in the end, the creature you were in the beginning, and the middle” (31). In the next sentence we read, “For I had hardly perfected my plan, in my head, when my bicycle ran over a dog.” The clause, “in my head,” is a strange and even apparently useless qualification which is made, however, immediate and humorous by Molloy’s bicycle then running over a dog. The stunning shift in focuses-from nebulous or abstract in my head to concrete my bicycle ran over a dog-fully situates Molloy as an endearingly powerless entity. For, it is his bike, for example, that appears to be the true perpetrator of the dog murder; and all of the aspects of Molloy’s environment are thus imbued with a vaguely if hilariously “human” quality. It is almost as if Molloy’s own consciousness, his ability to lose himself in making plans in his own head, is what reduces his own human presence. In separating himself from his surroundings (in becoming a virtual, thinking object), his bicycle is forced to stand-in for his physical agency.

click to enlarge
Laurel and Hardy
Figure 24
Laurel and Hardy in
Towed in a Hole,
Hal Roach-MGM, 1933.
Gustave Dore,
Don Quixote,
Figure 25
Gustave Dore,
Don Quixote,

All technologies are both time-machines and space-machines. Lorenzo C. Simpson, in his work Technology, Time, and the Conversations of Modernity, argues that technology “is a response to our finitude, to the realization that we are vulnerable and mortal and that our time is limited” (14). Technology, to some extent, is always anxious and always bodily. This suggests that technology works paradoxically to both counter-act the fact of mortality (to conceal or deny it) but to also function as an anxious, strangely emphatic symbol of our very finitude. It is revealing then that in the second part of Molloy (after Molloy’s reverse-travels have taken him back, so to speak, from where he and the reader started), Moran begins his narrative-not unlike Molloy-by making reference to his immediate surroundings and by then stating that “I shall be forgotten” (84). This line is followed by the mention that Moran’s “report will be long” and so both parts of Molloy quickly figure their protagonists as writers.

If, as Edith Kern argues, “His [Molloy’s] trials served but to lead him to his ‘mother’s room,’ where writing is identical with existence and existence means writing” then Moran’s being, too, is described in direct relation to his obligation to produce a written, literary report. It seems to me significant, also, that Moran, like Molloy, is immediately preoccupied with what vehicle (car, motorcycle, bicycle) to take on his journey. The preoccupation is unnecessary, of course, because Moran and his son soon end up-after much digression-leaving on foot. Indeed, Beckett’s genius “pacing” in these initial scenes of Part Two depend on his idiosyncratic fascination with the minutiae of walking and travel. For Beckett, the spectacle of Moran and Son trying to make progress, trying to proceed, is of course a decidedly complex and seemingly inexhaustible, philosophically rich, affair. Moran recalls, “Get behind me, I said, and keep behind me. This solution had its points, from several points of view. But was he capable of keeping behind me?” (118) Beckett’s discovery here is to hollow out infinite possibilities behind even the most rational and apparently complete utterance. Moran’s prosaic, even boring decision (from a traditional narrative sense) to keep Jacques behind him is not only contingent but also, finally, a source of powerful narrative humour and speculation. The problem and suspense of the journey or the quest, then, is construed-like a Laurel and Hardy film or Don Quixote (Figs. 24 and 25) itself-more around issues of the absurdity of mobility rather than those of conventional heroic trials. Moran himself declares-in lines that Beckett must be said to be at least partly present within, too-that, “I have no intention of relating the various adventures which befell us, me and my son, together and singly, before we came to the Molloy country. It would be tedious” (121).(21)

What resolutely isn’t tedious, for either Beckett or Moran, is the description of bicycles. As Moran and his son wake up outside, and some vague distance from their objective, Moran prepares his son to travel to the next village in order to buy a bicycle. In the context of the Trilogy this is of course a decidedly fraught employment. First of all, the name of the destination-town is-rather unsubtly but still uproariously-Hole and so Jacques is being sent, metaphorically, into an abject absence: the anus. Moran and his son enjoy a long Moe and Curlyesque exchange about what type of bike, what price etc. until Moran accuses his son of stealing ten shillings. The two-page debate is finally resolved and Jacques heads off for Hole-yet before he is out of sight Moran yells one last request, instructing his son to buy a lamp for the bicycle. Beckett’s scenic architecture is comparable here to Molloy’s shadow-wall episode. He follows an extended passage of brilliant farce with a kind of lyrical, melancholy meditation that is always-necessarily-tinged with irony:
Later, when the bicycle had taken its place in my son’s life, in the round of his duties and his innocent games, then a lamp would be indispensable, to light his way in the night. And no doubt it was in anticipation of those happy days that I had thought of the lamp and cried out to my son to buy a good one, that later on his comings and goings should not be hemmed about with darkness and with dangers (133).

The bicycle is a form of elegiac transport, for Beckett, as much as a mechanical proof of the ridiculousness of the human subject. The power of the bicycle machine in Molloy is that it generates, or at least connotes, a sort of silence in the text. How does a reader finally process the weird union of intellectual slapstick and spiritual sadness? Beckett’s language always moves towards silence and death, but it does so with the utmost vocality and verve. To read the Trilogy is to some extent to encounter the sounds of speechlessness, the actions or mobilities of utter exhaustion.

So, as Moran’s lovingly described, imaginative bike lamp sends its glow out backwards over the text it is then compromised-thoroughly de-sentimentalized-by his apparent murder of a man. Moran, who has been waiting uneasily for his son’s return, is approached by a figure who seems to resemble himself and ostensibly kills this stranger by bashing him over the head. The murder scene (which is never explicitly narrated) enacts the very shadow-quality of the novel and also its fascination with identity and anonymity. Moran’s encounter is an encounter with himself and to some extent with his own speech and predicament. In this way Moran implicates the reader in the paradox of his terror: he has killed a man who eerily resembles himself and yet this victim is also radically anonymous-even disposable-in the context of the narrative. Moran’s predicament-who was the stranger? am I guilty?-is thus a mimicking of the reader’s interaction with an often brutally absurdist text. That is to say, Moran’s lostness in his own private narrative comes to ironize the reader’s own experience of deep bewilderment. In this sense then, Beckett’s writing is an explicit ethical challenge because he forces the question-especially in such a stripped-bare, cold, often human-indifferent landscape-how are emotional and physical violence supposed to be received?

When Moran’s son returns with a bicycle from Hole, the father & son team-like the single Molloy before them-become entangled with the machinery. The grim irony here is that the bicycle, like language itself, becomes exposed as merely a diversion-not as some evanescent, pure technology but rather as means to pass the time. All of Moran’s dialogue with his son about the bike is evidently and merely just something “to do”-rhetoric about the curious appetite for rhetoric. Moran and his son make it to Ballyba but it too is a finally unimportant destination. Molloy concludes, tellingly, in the shadow-world of both memory and writing. Molloy recalls his original mission-a voice asking him to complete his report-and then wonders if he is any freer now than before. The point seems radically incongruous, even ridiculously inflated, as the entire text has revealed not only these ideals as chimerical, but the technology and the language by which these ideals are fashioned as wholly contingent and constructed. Molloy ends, famously and literally, with an act of writing. Molloy says, “I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining” (162). As readers, we are incorporated into this paradoxical final moment until it is unclear whether we are reading Molloy’s text or the narrative’s commentary on, and perhaps extension of, that very writing. That is to say, Molloy’s writing (a text unable to offer the real) suspends our act of reading Molloy-like him, perhaps, we are ultimately unsure of the boundaries and forces of our immediate material environment. Though, concluding in negation is also a strangely affirmative exit-a paradigmatic Beckettian mode-because it simultaneously invokes in the midst of its cancellations. Beckett’s phrasing here, on the minute level of grammar, enacts the text’s more general fascination with the commingling of subjects and mobility/death. The active, nearly suicidal desire, say, to end one’s life (to complete one’s report) is always apparently premised on a real dynamism and indisputable agency.

Duchamp/Beckett: Last Lap

click to enlarge
To Have the Apprentice in the Sun
Figure 26
Marcel Duchamp,
To Have the Apprentice
in the Sun
, in
Box of 1914

For the journey that is not a journey, Duchamp’s drawing-the sole drawing in his first publication of accompanying notes for the Large Glass entitled Box of 1914-To Have the Apprentice in the Sun is apposite as it illustrates a hard-pedalling bicyclist (the “apprentice”) proceeding on a diagonal line that runs up and across the staffs of music paper. The line or hill begins with a small loop underneath the rider and then ends at the right margin. The apprentice is an angelic rider-even a personification of musical perfection, a true note-en route to a kind of ethereal territory in which roads or lines or hills are unnecessary. The apprentice, in his scene of ascension, recalls the medieval church iconography in which cherubim and seraphim are shown riding on (mar)celifere-like winged-machines. Alternatively, the apprentice can be seen here as literally riding towards his own fall or even, quite simply and plainly, not going anywhere at all.

There is a Dedalusian aspect to the rider, too-the title To Have the Apprentice in the Sun (Fig. 26) pointing less at an ideal future location and more at a perverse desire to see the unfortunate apprentice actually in the sun. In a 1949 letter to Jean Suquet, Duchamp referred to the Box of 1914 drawing as a “silhouette” (283). This comment curiously situates the rider in the context of profiles, a kind of one-dimensionality, but then also in the context of shadows-a context of multi-dimensionalities. With his head bent, and body taut with pedalling, the apprentice is unbearably stalled-the bike itself seems full of motion and yet utterly frozen. Like Beckett, Duchamp employs the everyday technology of the bike to both embody and then complicate the “obviousness” of mobility. Marjorie Perloff stresses that this image epitomizes Duchamp’s fascination with concept of “delay.” Duchamp described “delay” as “merely a way of succeeding in no longer thinking that the thing in question [The Large Glass] is a picture” (Green Box). As Perloff writes, “To ‘have’ this particular ‘apprentice’ in the sun, as the title suggests, is thus not to ‘have’ him at all” (Stanford 7.1 1999).

Like so much in Duchamp’s corpus, the rider is also enacting an allegory of desire-in this instance, possibly one of delayed sexual consummation. The climax of the apprentice’s ride of desire, an apparently self-pleasuring kind of ride, is always maddeningly suspended. Onanism, again, is one of the more prominent themes of Duchamp’s Large Glass (Fig. 27). The Apprentice may be linked here with the wheels of the “Chocolate Grinder” (Fig. 28) (“the bachelor,” Duchamp informs us, “grinds his chocolate himself”) as well as the erotic “Water Mill.” (Fig. 29) Furthermore, in the Green Box, Duchamp explicitly links To Have the Apprentice in the Sun with the “slopes” and “illuminating glass” of the Large Glass. Duchamp’s mobile and slopes drawing in the Green Box is showing perhaps the ultimate conclusion of the Apprentice’s line-which is, in fact, a fall into the illuminating gas. We are involved here in what Duchamp calls, perhaps echoing Jarry’s Faustrollian theories, his “playful physics.” The illusion of motion is directly contingent on these planes of possibility and angles of action in delay. Like Beckett’s writing-poised for (in)action and yet always documenting the speech of speechlessness (imagination dead imagine)-Duchamp’s aesthetic is an impossible machine of almost-desire.

click to enlarge

  • Bride Stripped Bare
by Her Bachelors
    Figure 27
    Marcel Duchamp,Bride Stripped Bare
    by Her Bachelors, Even

    [a.k.a.Large Glass],1915-23
  • Chocolate Grinder
    Figure 28
    Marcel Duchamp,Chocolate Grinder, 1913

  • Glider Containing Water
Mill in a Neighboring
    Figure 29
    Marcel Duchamp,Glider Containing Water
    Mill in a Neighboring


click to enlarge
Princess Goes To Bed
With A Mountain Bike
Figure 30
Vibeke Tandberg,
Princess Goes To Bed
With A Mountain Bike
, 2001

The reader or viewer of the avant-garde is necessarily involved in a game of identity and complicated progress: the how now/who now of Beckett is often complemented by the what is/when will of Duchamp. In such a subverted art experience, there is necessarily a demand for a new mode of reading and looking. Both Beckett and Duchamp use the technologies of the everyday to confuse its own modes: they effect this by using the habit of modern machinery against itself in order to finally break the pattern (or reveal the workings) of daily experience. In this way, reading and viewing are comparable to riding a bicycle or vacuuming or answering the telephone: everyday reflexes that are merely trained responses to a particular modern environment. The notion of recycling (despite the bad pun) is therefore vitally important here. What Duchamp calls in the Green Box the “junk of life” is thus inverted to read the life of junk: we see into the historicity of the modern object and thus into one component of the circuitry of the modern subject.

Aesthetic beauty for Beckett and Duchamp is less the victory of aesthetic form over mechanised and hackneyed contemporaneity, but rather the revelation of form (form as engineering) within modernity. So Duchamp’s delay, or Beckett’s deliberately counter-Joycean literature of failure, are both eagerly implicated in the inauguration of a grand scientific and artistic tension. In the Duchampian delay, as in the Beckettian grand exhaustion, the act of signification is aligned with the process of subject formation: the workings of modernity and history are exposed as vital, necessary elements in all forms of representation and technology. (There is nothing that does not form being!) So the bicycle, as an emblem of the manufacturing-, engineering-, marketing-genius of modernity is parsed-so to speak-until its powerful, informing tropics of chaos, pain, impossibility are laid bare.

The bicycle is here remoulded. Peter Wagner states that, “The uses and effects of technology have to do with the transformation of the conditions of human action (on whatever terms: toward predictability or creativity, toward autonomy or control) and are not just means to given ends.” (251-2). The revelation of the avant-garde vis a vis modernity here is that the modern gets you nowhere-fast. This revelation-sometimes erotically charged, sometimes banal-is what the post-modern (the legitimately post-aesthetic) inherits from the corpus of both Beckett and Duchamp. (See Josef Beuys’ Bike; Vibeke Tandberg’s Princess Goes to Bed with a Mountain Bike (Fig. 30); Greg Curnoe’s water-colour Duchamp’s Wheel.) Ziarek says that, “Reformulating the valency of experience in modernity from technic to poietic [a term he takes from Heidegger to refer to a rethinking of the commonplace through poetic language], the avant-garde poses the question not only of freedom from aesthetic conventions but of experience as freedom” (299).

If poetic living itself is a kind of liberty then the ethics of the avant-garde are founded not in the utopian, ideal obliteration of the bourgeois field (a nostalgic returning of the work of art and artist to the independent realm) but rather in the implication of all objects and subjects within history. No Beckett genius, no Duchamp genius, steps forward in this particular analysis. We merely end up, at best, riding on our hybrids: a ten-speed becoming a book on wheels, and then a book becoming a bike with pages. Ziarek calls this the “tangled web of relations between experience, technology, and aesthetics.” Tangled, perhaps, because each strand is, finally, connotative of the very same thing-a force shivering (dynamically, resplendently) towards nothingness.


Footnote Return 1. Gertrude Stein’s comment concerning the new modern artist is apposite: “The painter can no longer say that what he does is as the world looks to him because he cannot look at the world any more, it has been photographed too much and he has to say that he does something else” (357).

Footnote Return 2. Incidentally, Leon Edel points to another possible reason for the bicycle’s nostalgic aura (its horse-like qualities) in his discussion of Henry James’s riding habits (circa 1896): “When he was not walking the hilly streets [of Rye], he took the circling sea roads on his bicycle, going to nearby Winchelsea, where Ellen Terry had her cottage, and to a host of little towns with soft quaint names . . . As the summer deepened, as the shepherds and their dogs passed him in the grassy meadow once marshland, Henry James was reminded of his younger years when he had galloped on horseback past Italian shepherds and their flocks and felt the stir of ancient things in the Roman Campagna” (159).

Footnote Return 3. Astradur Eysteinnson may be said to anticipate, to some extent, both Ziarek and Berswordt-Wallrabe: “I find it more to the point to see modernism as an attempt to interrupt the modernity that we live and understand as social, if not ‘normal,’ way of life” (6).

Footnote Return 4. See The Penguin Book of the Bicycle for more information on the history of this early form of bicycle.

Footnote Return 5. See Bicycling, a History (12). Also, see 100 ans de cyclisme which reproduces a fascinating stained-glass image of an angel riding a bike-like, cloud-riding machine.

Footnote Return 6. Jacques Henri Lartigue, in his brilliant journal and collection of early 20th century European photographs (Diary of a Century), recalls attending the Buffalo racetrack in Paris where he would watch the aviette races. An “aviette” was a bicycle fitted with wings, upon which riders hoped (relying solely on their own leg power) to fly (n.p.).

Footnote Return 7. Jerome McGurn’s text, On your Bicycle, reproduces a 1929 line drawing by Frank Patterson (“the celebrated artist of leisure cycling”) illustrating a pastoral, idyllic scene in which a young couple have clearly bicycled into the country for a weekend of camping. Beckett’s form of “escape” in “Fingal,” of course, contrasts strikingly-and deliberately-with the nostalgic and saccharine fantasy presented in this contemporary advertisement.

Footnote Return 8. Ferdinand Leger is quoted as saying, “The bicycle operates in the realm of light” (quoted in McGurn, 122).

Footnote Return 9. The very nakedness of the bicycle wheel-its built-in honesty-is also relevant. Roderick Watson and Martin Gray discuss the allure of the perfectly balanced cycle wheel: “A well-trued cycle wheel will revolve so smoothly when it is suspended that it should always come to a stop with the tyre valve at the bottom. Even its spokes are thinner in the middle and the thicker at each end (double-butted) to give the best in both lightness and strength. Under tension these spokes are a shimmer of extraordinarily complex forces and to compare a cycle wheel to a car wheel is rather like comparing the airy grace of a suspension bridge to a plank across a ditch” (97).

Footnote Return 10. Leonardo Da Vinci, the Renaissance polymath that Duchamp is frequently compared to, says in his Notebooks, “You will speak of wheels that turn and return” (79).

Footnote Return 11. This crisis may also, more generally, be a result of the bicycle wheel’s own mysterious properties. Lao Tse as quoted in Alan Fletcher: “Thirty spokes meet in the hub, / But the empty space between them / is the essence of the wheel” (n.p.).

Footnote Return 12. Douglas Mao, in Solid Objects, writes that, “Anglo-American modernism is centrally animated by a tension between an urgent validation of production and an admiration for an object world beyond manipulations of consciousness-a tension that lends modernist writing its dominant note of vital hesitation or ironic idealism, and that leads modernists, as thinkers and artists, to that impasse in which all doing seems undoing, all making unmaking in the end” (11). Both Duchamp and Beckett, of course, mine this impasse and both artists thus traffic in what might be called a poetics of effective futility.

Footnote Return 13. Duchamp’s avant-garde colleague, and sometime collaborator, Man Ray was also compelled by the relationship between bicycles and eroticism. See, in particular, his onanistic Monocopter engraving which shows a man on a four-wheeled machine grasping a long pole between his legs that resolves above him into propeller blades. Also, see his cartoony The Bicycle which shows a woman, legs spread and vulva exposed, apparently in a state of ecstasy on her penny farthing.

Footnote Return 14. The bicycles, a dynamic technology of “independence,” thus shaped cultural realities as well as social and gender relations. Bicycling fashion, as well as practical bicycling clothing, was very important to both male and female riders. And because dresses were a definite nuisance/danger-especially while riding on the average late 19th century “safety” bike-many early women riders adopted (bloomer-style) pants. In their rational dress, these pioneering women riders were for the most part shocking spectacles. As the advent of the bicycle helped contribute to the redefinition of traditional boundaries of gender and social propriety, it also metamorphosed women riders into quasi-cosmopolites. Marks stresses that, “The woman who travelled on her own wheels, then, whether she did so for a lark or for serious transportation, expanded her boundaries well beyond the home circle. She became . . . a citizen of the world” (203).

Footnote Return 15. It is interesting to note that Raymond Roussel, a writer Duchamp cites as his key aesthetic influence, in his infamous fantasy novel Impressions of Africa (Impressions d’Afrique)-which is essentially a narrated list of wondrous machines-includes a scene in which a fourteen year-old girl dances on top of a wheel. Roussel’s name seems to be at least one of the phonetic ghosts inside Rrose Selavy’s and it is fun to speculate that the Bicycle Wheel (Roue de bicyclette) may also be an homage to Roussel. Janis Mink further speculates that “The phonetic collage of roue (wheel) and sellette (stool) could make it a ‘little’ portrait of Roussel” (49).

Footnote Return 16. The Penguin Book of the Bicycle states that the French often call bikes “little queens” (np).

Footnote Return 17. Mercier and Camier, eponymous characters of Beckett’s 1970 novel, also discover a bicycle.

Footnote Return 18. This suggests, I think, in microcosm, the more general trajectory of modernist texts as they approach the post-modern moment. I hope to explore this point further in the general “theory” introduction to my dissertation proper.

Footnote Return 19. Duchamp, too, is obsessed with the other-dimensionality of shadows. His final painting, Tu’m, for example, is a catalogue of his ready-mades and their attendant darker selves.

Footnote Return 20. Northrop Frye contends that “The figure of the pure ego in a closed auto-erotic circle meets us many times in Beckett’s masturbating, carrot-chewing, stone-sucking characters” (o’hara 30?).

Footnote Return 2. Moran will also state towards the end of his narrative, “I am sorry I cannot indicate more clearly how this result was obtained, it would have been something worth reading. But it is not at this late stage of my relation that I intend to give way to literature” (139).

Works Cited

Alderson, Frederick. Bicycling-a History. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1972.

Babaian, Sharon. The Most Benevolent Machine. Transformation Series 8. Ottawa, Canada:
Museum of Science and Technology, 1998.

Beckett, Samuel. “Fingal.” More Pricks than Kicks. New York: Grove P, 1970.

-. Mercier and Camier. New York: Grove P, 1975.

-. “Texts for Nothing.” Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose (1929-1989). Ed. and
intro. S.E. Gontarksi. New York: Grove P, 1995.

-. The Beckett Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. Great Britain: Picador, 1976.

Berswordt-Wallrabe, Kornelia von. “Fishing in the Stream of Function.” Marcel Duchamp:
Respirateur. Germany: Cantz Verlag, 1995.

Bijker, Wiebe E. Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT P, 1995.

Booker, Keith M. “The Bicycle and Descartes: Epistemology in the Fiction of Beckett and
O’Brien. Eire. 26.1 (1991): 76-94.

Cervantes, Miguel. The Adventures of Don Quixote. Trans. J.M. Cohen. Harmondsworth,
Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1972.

Da Vinci, Leonardo. The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Sel. and ed. Irma A. Richter.
Oxford, England: Oxford UP, 1986.

Davidson, Avram. “Or All the Seas with Oysters.”

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert
Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. New York: Viking P, 1977.

Douglas, Stan. Preface. Samuel Beckett: Teleplays. By Samuel Beckett. Fwd. Willard Holmes.
Vancouver, B.C.: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1988.

Duchamp, Marcel. “Letter to Guy Weelen.” 26 June 1955. Letter 237 of Affectionately, Marcel:
The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp. Ed. Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk, trans. Jill Taylor. Ghent, Belgium: Ludion P, 2000. 345-6.

-. “Letter to Jean Suquet.” 25 December 1949. Letter 186 of Affectionately, Marcel: The
Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp. Ed. Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk, trans. Jill Taylor. Ghent, Belgium: Ludion P, 2000. 282-4..

-. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even : a Typographical Version of Marcel
Duchamp’s Green Box. Devised Richard Hamilton, trans. George Heard Hamilton. Stuttgart: H. Mayer, 1976. n.p.

Eysteinsson, Astradur. The Concept of Modernism. England: Oxford UP, 1990.

Fletcher, Alan. The Art of Looking Sideways. London: Phaidon, 2001.
Frye, Northrop. “The Nightmare Life in Death.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Molloy,
Malone Dies, The Unnamable: a Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. J. D. O’Hara. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Hard, Mikael. The Intellectual Appropriation of Technology : Discourses On Modernity, 1900-
1939. Boston, Mass. : MIT P, 1998.

Henderson, Linda Dalrymple. Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1998.

Janvier, Ludovic. “Molloy.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Molloy, Malone Dies, The
Unnamable: a Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. J. D. O’Hara. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Jones, Amelia. Postmodernism and the Engendering of Marcel Duchamp. Cambridge, England:
Cambridge UP, 1994.

Kenner, Hugh. Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study. London: John Calder, 1962.

Kern, Edith. “Moran-Molloy: The Hero as Author.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of
Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable: a Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. J. D. O’Hara.
Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff
Bennington and Brian Massumi, intro. Fredric Jameson. Minneapolis, Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

© 2005 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.

Why Duchamp?: The Influence of Marcel Duchamp on Contemporary Architectural Theory and Practice

click to enlarge
Figure 1
Sant’Elia, La Città Nuova, Italy, 1914
Glass ChairFigure 2
Shiro Kuramata,
Glass Chair, 1976

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was a French painter turned conceptual artist, film maker, erotic guru, and chess player. He was, however, never an architect, nor specifically interested in architecture, and yet, he has exerted a tremendous influence over a generation of architects practicing after 1975, as well as over current architectural historians and theorists. Contemporary literature in architectural theory has gone so far as to argue that architectural works created before many of the works of Duchamp, such as La Città Nuova (Fig.1), be understood within the context of Duchamp’s works.Architects have, in roughly the past twenty-five years, picked up on concepts in which Duchamp was interested and integrated them into their works. This has been possible largely because of dramatic shifts in the way that art is defined in this new postmodern era.Sundry Duchampian concepts or fascinations, such as projection, chance, and metaphor, seen throughout the wide range of his post 1912 works, have been interpreted and used by numerous architects and designers. This phenomenon has occurred both in a sort of direct homage to one or more of Duchamp’s works as well as in a more subtle, intellectual sort of homage, incorporating a Duchampian concept, such as chance, not only into a single architectural work, but into the way that an architect creates any architectural work.Some work, such as that of furniture designer Shiro Kuramata (Fig. 2), has been preoccupied with the former. Some architects claiming to be Duchamp’s standard-bearers, such as California team Morphosis, acknowledge Duchamp’s influence in both ways.Even famous and influential contemporary architects Frank Gehry and Robert Venturi also occasionally directly base a work on a work by Duchamp. However, the works of Gehry and Venturi are particularly useful in illustrating the latter, intellectual type of acknowledgment of Duchamp, as permeating all of their works are evidence of Duchampian thinking about concepts such as chance and metaphor.A final architectural firm, Diller + Scofidio, has incorporated so many Duchampian concepts, not only projection, chance, and eroticism as metaphor, but also ideas such as the infra-thin, ambivalence, ambiguity, and ephemerality, that their work can be seen as truly Duchampian architecture. This discussion seeks to establish why and how Marcel Duchamp has been so influential in contemporary architecture by thoroughly exploring the Duchampian concepts of projection, chance, and metaphor both within Duchamp’s work and that of contemporary architects whom he has influenced, and then further exploring these and other Duchampian ideas through the work of two postmodern architects upon whom Duchamp has been extraordinarily influential, Elizabeth Diller and Ric Scofidio.

click to enlarge
1. The Waterfall / 2.The
Illuminating Gas
1. The Waterfall / 2.The
Illuminating Gas
Figure 3
Marcel Duchamp, Given:
1. The Waterfall / 2.The
Illuminating Gas
1946-1966, Philadelphia Museum of Art
 Antonio Sant’Elia
Figure 4
Image of Antonio
Sant’Elia, 1914

At first it may seem somewhat strange, that Marcel Duchamp should be so influential on the theory and practice of architecture and design of the period after 1975, considering that Duchamp was not an architect. The only works that could be termed ‘architectural’ for which he was responsible, the door and room of Étant Donnés (Fig. 3) and the door that is neither open nor closed, would hardly elevate Duchamp to the status of a guru in contemporary architecture on their own. Duchamp did receive training in technical drawing, which including drawing mechanical and architectural objects, such as doors(1) but this, too, fails to qualify Duchamp as an architect. This problem is complicated even more by the fact that there were practicing architects in his milieu with interests similar to those of Duchamp. One such architect was Antonio Sant’Elia (Fig. 4), the Italian Futurist architect best remembered for his drawings for La Città Nuova. Sant’Elia, like Duchamp and many others living in the 1910s, was interested in non-Euclidean geometry, and the Futurists, like Duchamp, were affected by the new technological innovations of their day, such as the discovery of x-rays and the appearance of the incandescent lamp, the hydraulic generator, the skyscraper, cinema, and the automobile.(2)Duchamp was very familiar with the ideas of the futurists(3), and both men were similarly a product of their cultural milieu. Furthermore, unlike Duchamp, Sant’Elia actually created detailed urban plans and architectural drawings for a city of the future, La Città Nuova, integrating into an urban spatial form the new ideas about a space-time continuum.(4)

click to enlarge
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors
Figure 5
Duchamp, The Bride Stripped
Bare by Her Bachelors, Even
[a.k.a. The Large Glass], 1915-23
The Green Box
Figure 6
Marcel Duchmp,Cover of
The Bride Stripped Bare
by Her Bachelors Even
The Green Box], 1934 (regular edition)

If Sant’Elia was infinitely more involved in architecture than Duchamp, and sharing many of the ideas Duchamp held in the 1910s, it is perhaps astonishing, then, that a current scholar of La Città Nuova, Sanford Kwinter, believes that La Città Nuova should be viewed within a Duchampian context.Kwinter argued in 1986 that, “La Città Nuova may be understood in this light less as a literal, realizable program than as a set of instructions [as Duchamp’s procedural Green Box], governing not only the assembly of isolated modules of (bachelor) machinery…”(5) Antonio Sant’Elia was killed in 1916 and the bulk of his work on La Città Nuova is from 1914,(6)while Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (Fig. 5), hereafter referred to as the Large Glass, referenced by the phrase ‘bachelor machinery,’ dates from 1915-1923. The Green Box (Fig. 6), an explanation of the Large Glass, dates to 1934.(7) In claiming that La Città Nuova be viewed within the context of works by another artist, not even an architect, which were created after La Città Nuova, Kwinter, besides pulling Sant’Elia’s work totally out of context, demonstrates the passionate love affair of contemporary architectural historians and theorists with Marcel Duchamp. The question remains, though, why is Duchamp so influential within contemporary architectural theory, while other seemingly valid figures, such as Sant’Elia, while still important, are much less cited than Duchamp?The simple answer is that the nature of Duchamp’s influence has nothing to do with architecture directly, and everything to do with his ideas. Duchamp did not specifically write, or at least did not intend to write, architectural theory, yet, it is in the realm of theory that he has been most influential, chiefly because he was the first truly idea-oriented artist, the antecedent of the conceptual artist.

Throughout his life, Duchamp was fascinated by chance. The Three Standard Stoppages (Fig. 7) are chance forms of measurement. The appearance of the Three Standard Stoppages, their lengths and shapes, were determined entirely by chance. His Monte Carlo Bond (Fig. 8) was created so that others might invest in a gambling trip that he wished to take. Would others take a chance and invest so that Duchamp could play a game of chance?There was also a strong element of chance in the creation of the readymades. The objects chosen as readymades were chosen at random, mass-produced, and were aesthetically indifferent, that is one would not usually go up to the object and feel anything about its aesthetic qualities one way or the other because it had none in its normal context. Fountain (Fig. 9), a urinal not markedly different from any other urinal, bought by Duchamp in an everyday New York plumbing shop, has been elevated to cult artistic status and was branded by some as an abomination and hailed by others as a beautiful form. Any other urinal would have served the artistic function just as well as the one that became Fountain, just as any other mass-produced urinal would serve a man who needed to relieve himself just as well. Each readymade involved an element of chance in this way.

click to enlarge  


  • Three Standard
    Figure 7
    Duchamp, Three Standard
    , 1913-14Marcel
  • Monte
Carlo Bond
    Figure 8
    Duchamp, Monte
    Carlo Bond
    , 1924 Marcel
  • Fountain
    Figure 9
    Duchamp, Fountain,



click to enlarge
Museum in Bilbao
Museum in Bilbao
Figure 10
Frank O. Gehry, Guggenheim
Museum in Bilbao (in two views),
Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye
Figure 11
Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye,
Diamond Ranch High School, Pomona, California
Figure 12
Morphosis, Diamond Ranch
High School, Pomona,
California, 2000
Figure 13
Marcel Duchamp,
bôite-en-valise, 1935-41

In an explanation of how the design for his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Fig. 10), Spain, came about, Frank Gehry noted that it just happened, was a lot like a chance fluke.(8) This is in stark contrast to the Modernists of the early-middle twentieth century, who were obsessed by perfect proportions and the golden mean. Le Corbusier, for example, used a precise geometric formula in his early high International Style work of the 1920s (Fig. 11). He had rules controlling how line and form could be used and tried to adhere to a difficult system of proportion called the golden section. This required room proportion ratios to be 1:1.618.(9)

Gehry observed this in a statement concerning the freedom that chance gives an architect,

“I used to be a symmetrical freak and a grid freak. I used to follow grids and then Istarted to think and I realized that those were chains that Frank Lloyd Wright was chained to the 30-60 grid, and there was no freedom in it for him, and that grids are an obsession, a crutch. You don’t need that if you can create spaces and forms and shapes. That’s what artists do, and they don’t have grids or crutches, they just do it.”(10)

While International Style and earlier architects rigorously adhered to meticulous formulas, an architect today chooses the forms of a building, of a space, in the same way that Marcel Duchamp walked into a store and chose a readymade. They just do it. Much contemporary architecture, then, from the works of Frank Gehry to Robert Venturi to Peter Eisenman can be read as Architectural readymades.

Besides living legends such as Venturi and Gehry, younger, up and coming architects, are also interested in Duchampian ideas, specifically in the Architectural readymade. Thom Mayne, a younger California architect with an interest in the work of Frank Gehry and who practices under the name Morphosis, claims Duchamp as his idol. Morphosis tries to make every building an Architectural readymade. He claims that he, “treats materials, sanitary fittings, and bits of plan with innocent astonishment, that is, as objets trouvés.”(11) It can be said, then, that Morphosis selects its urinals along with the rest of the building components as Duchamp did. A recent Morphosis project, though, the Diamond Ranch High School in Diamond Bar, California, (Fig. 12), shows that Morphosis has made use of chance, of the Architectural readymade, in much the same way as Gehry.(12) For the school, Mayne created jutting, or projecting, forms, brought together at random, or at least to give that effect.

Eroticism as a metaphor was a constant motif throughout Duchamp’s career. Sometimes this was simply playful, such as issuing his bôite-en-valise (Fig. 13), portable museums, in an edition of the sexually significant number 69. Most often, these works were not specifically about eroticism, they just used eroticism as a metaphor for something else, namely art. Duchamp’s masterpieces, the Large Glass and Étant Donnés, first and foremost raise issues about the nature of artistic practice in light of technological, societal, and artistic change. The Large Glass was about the act of painting in an age in which abstraction challenged the mimetic nature of the craft, the fallacy of one-point perspective in relation to actual sight was well known, and photography and cinema could produce mimetic works more quickly, accurately, and cheaply than painting. This is shrouded in an elaborate game in which nine bachelors try to satisfy their desire and impregnate the ‘bride.’ Étant Donnés, on the previous page, was created in a time in which there was a crisis, a near-death incident, in the life of representational art. His hyper-realistic painted landscape in the background of the work and the complete illusionary nature of the work as a whole challenged the assumption of the middle of the twentieth century that painting, or art in general, should be abstract. This was in the guise of a nude woman with her sex exposed in the foreground. Duchamp not only used eroticism as metaphor, but used his own works as metaphors of each other. The Large Glass and Étant Donnés are both metaphors of each other not only because they are reverse projections of each other, but also because they allude to each other through having the same theme, the bride, the waterfall, and the illuminating gas.Architects have been, since the 1970s and ‘80s, using metaphor in a downright Duchampian manner, to explore what it means to be an architect in the face of the information technology revolution, computers replacing the t-square and drafting table, the ‘cult of the box’ of architecture of the middle twentieth century, the impact of the automobile and the highway on architecture and urbanism, and the increasing prevalence of mass architecture, such as strip malls. The issues raised by much current architecture because of and in response to these technological and societal shifts, is the same raised by Duchamp in works such as the Large Glass and Étant Donnés.

click to enlarge
Golden Goose
Figure 14
Golden Goose. Downtown
Las Vegas (Fremont Street) by night
Illinois Institute of Technology,Chicago
Figure 15
Mies van der Rohe,
Chapel, Illinois
Institute of Technology,
Chicago, 1953

Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas (1977) , a seminal work in postmodern architectural theory, uses metaphor, though definitely not of an erotic nature, to explain the state of architecture in America in the 1970s. Las Vegas is used as a metaphor for the need for increased decoration and less of the International style high seriousness of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe (Figs. 14 and 15). Like Duchamp, who also rejected the high seriousness prevalent in artistic circles in his own time, Venturi used humor throughout the work. After the metaphor of Las Vegas itself, the book’s most overriding metaphor is that of the duck and the decorated shed. The duck, a building shaped like a duck, is a metaphor for buildings which are symbols. This is based on a real duck-shaped building, a restaurant specializing in roast duck, from God’s Own Junkyard.(13) A decorated shed, on the other hand, refers to any of the various average looking buildings by the highway which are heavily decorated with signs and logos, and more globally to any building covered with ornament. Within this framework, Chartres Cathedral is a duck (though it is a decorated shed as well), while Renaissance buildings are all decorated sheds.(14) (Figs. 16 and 17) Sentences from Learning from Las Vegas, such as “Minimegastructures are mostly ducks,”(15) show just how heavily Venturi relied upon metaphor. Really, Venturi’s duck and decorated shed are Duchamp’s bride in this respect.

click to enlarge  


  • Chartres Cathedral, Paris
    Figure 16
    Cathedral, Paris,
    1194-1260, architect unknown
  • Bernardo Rossellino, Palazzo Piccolomini façade, Pienza, Tuscan, Italy
    Figure 17
    Rossellino, Palazzo Piccolomini façade, Pienza, Tuscan, Italy,
    ca. 1462


click to enlarge
Figure 18
Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919

In Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi also suggested placing a replica of the shape and text of a marquee from Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas advertising popular comedian Flip Wilson to perform in the ‘Circus Maximus’ over a print by Piranesi of the Pantheon.(16) This gesture is the equivalent of Duchamp’s iconoclastic gesture in his painting L.H.O.O.Q.(Elle a chaud au cul.), or ‘she has a hot ass’, on a print of the Mona Lisa (Fig. 18). This work by Venturi, advertising Flip Wilson on the front of the Pantheon, is both a direct homage to a single work of Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., as well as a more intellectual homage to Duchamp through the use of metaphor.With Duchamp, the metaphor is again eroticism, with Venturi, it is Las Vegas. This work is also important in that it is so clearly directly indebted to Duchamp, one may surmise that Learning from Las Vegas, arguably one of the most important works in architectural theory of the late twentieth century, perhaps an important work in the whole history of architectural theory, would not have been written, or at least not have been written in nearly the same way, were it not for Marcel Duchamp.Marcel Duchamp’s ideas have been so important in contemporary architectural theory and practice that many architects and designers have created works which are inspired by literal or stylistic elements of Duchamp’s works. This is directly in contrast with Duchamp’s views on avoiding repetition and on the irrelevance of style or the visual, and is certainly not that most reverential way to pay tribute to the father of conceptual art. Works such as the readymades went against the ‘mimetic’ or ‘retinal’ nature of art, yet as Tilman Kuchler argued in a discussion of the ‘end of modernity and the beginning of play’, theysolicit processes or artistic representation and reproduction in the postmodern era.(17)This goes beyond reproducing Duchamp’s work, such as the inaccurate assertion hand-crafted reproductions of Fountain made to sell in Arturo Schwarz’s gallery. This type of homage involves miming the visual aspects of one of Duchamp’s works.Shiro Kuramata, a prominent Japanese furniture designer of the 1980s, frequently used this sort playful retinal homage to Duchamp in his work. Kuramata, like many postmodern artists, architects, and designers, called Duchamp his idol.(18) Works such as his Miss Blanche armchair of 1988 ( Fig. 19), left, playfully allude to Duchamp’s works, while ignoring much of the intellectual content of Duchamp. The chair’s title is actually a reference to Blanche Dubois of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, but Kuramata admitted that the embedding of paper roses within the acrylic body of the chair is a homage to Duchamp’s female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy.(19) A detail of Miss Blanche also elicits a visual, or retinal, comparison with a detail of the Large Glass. The visual effects achieved by the roses and by the nine malic molds are quite similar, though the thinking behind them could not be more different. Kuramata also created a set of acrylic perfume bottles, inspired by Rrose Sélavy’s perfume bottle, Belle Haleine, eau de voilette (Figs. 20 and 21). These works by Kuramata take their inspiration from Duchamp in a very literal way, and are therefore not Duchampian at all. This honorific literalization of Duchamp’s works has not, however, been the sole way in which Duchamp has appeared as an influence in current visual production. Rather, some have tried to copy or acknowledge Duchamp’s ‘style’ or ‘look,’ if such a quality even exists, because the larger and more important theoretical implications of Duchamp have made him such a popular figure, a veritable guru, in the contemporary era.

click to enlarge  


  • Shiro Kuramata Miss
    Figure 19
    Shiro Kuramata, Miss
    , 1988, Collection
    SFMOMA, Photograph by Ben Blackwell
  • Perfume bottle
    Figure 20
    Shiro Kuramata, Perfume
    , 1991
  • Veil Water
    Figure 21
    Marcel Duchamp, Belle
    eau de voilette
    [Beautiful Breath: Veil Water], 1921



click to enlarge
Kate Mantilini
Figure 22
Morphosis,Kate Mantilini
Restaurant, Beverly Hill,
California, 1986
Chocolate Grinder
Figure 23
Marcel Duchamp, Chocolate
Grinder No. 1
, 1913

In the past, Morphosis, too, sometimes dabbled in a more literal and, therefore, less successful use of Duchamp. For Kate’s, a Hollywood restaurant completed by Morphosis in 1987 (Fig. 22), the architects made the centerpiece of the interior space a large mural of boxers and a chocolate grinder.(1)(At this time, Michael Rotondi, another young California architect, was also a principal of Morphosis. Rotondi and Mayne were partners until 1991.) This is meant to recall Duchamp’s amusing painting of a Chocolate Grinder (1911) (Fig. 23), amusing because it takes its inspiration from the French saying “Bachelor grinds his own chocolate [masturbates].” In the same article about Morphosis, “Duchamp Goes West”, Rowan Moore goes on to note that instances such as this are part of the reason that subtlety and originality are all too often lacking in current architectural practice.(21) Duchamp, Moore argues, mentioned too frequently or lightly, will become as meaningful as a Campbell’s Soup can, a Leon Krier pediment, or a Gehry fish.”(22)

Even Frank Gehry has, on occasion, been mildly guilty of this mimetic crime. The look of Gehry’s Telluride Residence in Telluride, Colorado, which has been in the planning stages since 1995, is based, in Gehry’s words, on Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. (Figs. 24 and 25)(23) The house will step down the hill for which it is intended, just as Duchamp’s Nude steps down the stairs. Unlike Kuramata, however, who used roses to recall Rrose Sélavy, Gehry’s house does not go so far as to have an abstracted, monochromatic nude figure painted on it. Instead, the Telluride Residence is the mechanomorphic nude. The house serves as a metaphor for Nude Descending a Staircase, as well as a simple visual recollection of the painting, and thus escapes the mimesis of Kuramata.


  • Frank O. Gehry
    Figure 24
    Frank O. Gehry, Telluride Residence,
    Telluride, Colorado 1996 ~,
    Photo by Joshua White,
    courtesy of Frank O.
    Gehry & Associates
  • Nude Descending
    Figure 25
    Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending
    a Staircase No. 2
    , 1912



Many contemporary architects, not only Gehry, have been visually inspired by Nude Descending a Staircase. For example, the fire station designed by Zaha Hadid for the Vitra complex in Germany (1990-1993) (Fig. 26), was also inspired in part by Duchamp’s Nude,(24) and the aerial computer plan of Morphosis’ Diamond Ranch High School can also visually be likened to Nude Descending a Staircase. There is even debate over whether Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao looks more like Nude Descending a Staircase or like Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni’s sculpture, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. (Fig. 27)(25) Again, these comparisons and debates lead away from the true nature of Duchamp and the reasons for which he is so much discussed and quoted. It is perhaps partly coincidental that contemporary deconstructivist architecture looks so much like Nude Descending a Staircase, partly that the deconstructivists are visually stimulated by works of Boccioni and of early Duchamp, and partly due to the fact that, as mentioned previously, Duchamp’s cult status encourages many writers as well as architects to invoke Duchamp and identify with him. When one realizes that works such as Antonio Sant’Elia’s preliminary drawings for La Città Nuova also have much visually in common with structures such as Diamond Ranch High School, the explanation of Duchamp’s stylistic influence through cult association becomes the most convincing.

click to enlarge  


  • Zaha Hadid
    Figure 26
    Zaha Hadid, Vitra Fire Station, Weil am Rhein, Germany, 1994(whole , left; part, right)
  • Zaha Hadid  
  • Umberto Boccioni
    Figure 27
    Umberto Boccioni,Unique
    Forms of Continuity in Space
    1913, Collection Museum of Modern Art,
    Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest



click to enlarge
Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio
Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio,Blur Building by night
Figure 28
Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio,
Blur Building by day
and night, Yverdorn-les-Bains,
Expo 2002, Switzerland
Manual of Instructions
Figure 29
Marcel Duchamp,Manual
of Instructions
for the Assembly of “Etant
donnés”: “Approximation démontable,
exécutée entre 1946 et
1966 à New York”
, 1966,
Collection of Philadelphia
Museum of Art

For the architectural firm of Diller + Scofidio, sex and eroticism, as well as other Duchampian fascinations, are important themes in their work. Architects Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio achieved much fame in 2001 for their pavilion for the Swiss Exposition of 2002), the Blur building, a ‘building’ made almost entirely of water vapor, with a little steel used (Fig. 28).(26) In 2002, Diller + Scofidio published their notes (four years worth) for the project in a book called Blur: The Making of Nothing. The book contains reproductions of the notes in all their forms, on cocktail napkins, on lined yellow notebook paper, and with photographs of the rings of binders and colors of folders, much in the same way that Duchamp’s manual for the Étant Donnés were published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Fig. 29). Numerous other parallels with Duchamp can be seen in the work of Diller + Scofidio. This architectural work shares the ephemeral quality of the readymades. Just as many of the original readymades were thrown away when their exhibition was over, this building literally faded away, evaporated when the exposition was over.This pavilion can be read as the ultimate expression of another Duchampian concept, the infra-thin. Dawn Ades described the infra-thin as follows,

“An example of ‘visible infra-thin’ is iridescent cloth, or shot silk, which has a different character or colour according to the -light…Infra-thin then points to a condition of liminality, that is, something on the threshold (between inside and outside, for example); the interface between two types of thing (smoke and mouth); a gap or shift that is virtually imperceptible but absolute…Infra-thin encompasses time and space as well…”(27)

Like iridescent cloth, a pavilion made of water vapor can be seen through, its appearance changing with light and weather conditions.Indeed, in the making of the pavilion, many photographs were taken with time, relative humidity, and temperature noted.(28) Such a building would hover within the threshold between inside and outside, its bounds being imperceptible and ever-changing, its duration ephemeral. The walls of such a building would be walls and not walls (again, the door is neither open nor closed), ever shifting, and either barely visible or oppressively opaque depending on the amount and type of light filtering through the vapor. Ben Rubin, a project manager for Diller + Scofidio, called the cloud building “pure visual noise.”(29) This is undoubtedly what Duchamp meant by the infra-thin, noise which could be seen but not heard, a building made of water vapor, a building that was there and not there. Just as an advertisement for Flip Wilson could never have been placed on a print of the Pantheon had it not been for Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., neither could a structure made of water vapor have been ‘erected’ without the antecedent of Duchamp’s infra-thin.

This infra-thin building straddled the line between the material and the immaterial, between reality and fantasy, and between conceptual art and architecture. Marcel Duchamp explored new media in his own work, such as the use of mass-produced, purchased objects as his readymades. Similarly, Diller + Scofidio explored a new architectural medium, water vapor, in this highly innovative structure. As with Duchamp, the work was meant to be experienced. Just as one can not fully appreciate Étant Donnés without going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it is installed and looking through the peepholes, the experience of the water vapor pavilion lay in the experience. By only reading about it or looking at photographs of it, one loses the experience of getting wet and of losing one’s way in a cloud. Another part of the experience of the water vapor pavilion was the ambiguity and anonymity into which visitors were submerged as they moved through the space. Each visitor was given an identical raincoat, a costume which reinforced the participatory nature of the spectacle (as well as being very useful for remaining somewhat dry). Looking forward to the work, Liz Diller commented on the blur effect,

“We use vision to assess identity; a quick glimpse of another person allows us to identify his/her gender, age, race, and social class. Normally, this visual framework precedes any social interaction. Within the cloud, however, such rapid visual identification is not possible. The foggy atmosphere, combined with visitors in identical raincoats, produces a condition of anonymity. It will be difficult to distinguish a 25-year old Japanese fashion model from a 13-year old Indian boy from a 70-year old Russian grandmother.”(30)
Diller + Scofidio seek to put architecture at the service of the mind just as Duchamp sought to put art at the service of the mind. The pavilion was not designed to be aesthetically pleasing through its lines or forms. It had no lines and its forms were ever shifting. Rather, the work was designed to make people think about the meaning of architecture and the interface of technology, humans, and the natural environment. Whether a person was even willing to consider the pavilion ‘architecture’ or not was not at issue. Diller + Scofidio gave the viewer, the participant the same experience that Duchamp gave viewers of Fountain when it was exhibited in 1917. The experience, the fun in viewing these works was the chance to think about them afterward and decide whether or not they really were art or architecture.

click to enlarge
Figure 30
Duchamp, Comb, 1916/1964
Rendez-vous du Dimanche 6 Février
Figure 31
Marcel Duchamp,
Rendez-vous du Dimanche
6 Février 1916
, 1916

In the works of both Duchamp and Diller + Scofidio, performance art plays an important element.(31)Duchamp created one of the readymades, the dog comb (Fig. 30), in front of his patron’s Walter and Louise Arensberg. He had created a textual message on four postcards sent two weeks prior to the event, inviting the Arensbergs to this rendez-vous (Fig. 31). This event can be seen as the precursor of the happening of the 1960s, just as attendance at the Diller + Scofidio pavilion can be seen as the latest generation of the happening. In their book, Diller + Scofidio included numerous pictures of themselves working with their crew to create the ‘Estructur.’ They drew crowds and media attention, and this was an integral part of the conception of the work.(32)Finally, eroticism was a very important part of both the pavilion, the Blur building, and the entire Swiss Expo.02. There were four sites for Expo.02, Neuchatel, Murten, Biel, and Yverdon.(33) Yverdon, the site of the pavilion, was themed “Sexuality and Sensuality,”(34) and Diller + Scofidio and their team, “to avoid contentions of individual authorship, the group members would merge identities to become ‘Extasia’, or ecstasy, in anticipation of winning the preferred site of Yverdon [Diller + Scofidio favored the theme of sexuality and sensuality above the other themes].”(35) (Though Diller + Scofidio did produce Blur at the Yverdon site, Extasia was eventually disbanded.)(36)As the building was to be created on the Yverdon site, themed sexuality and sensuality, the building was expected to take on the Yverdon characteristics.

The organizers of the exposition created detailed explanations of what each of the four themes was all about by comparing each of the four’s responses and attitudes, much like a personality quiz in a popular magazine.
For Yverdon, some of these were:

“Code words: sensuality, sexualityAntonym of code words: asceticismKey questions: Can sensuality and transcendence, eroticism and
sexual drive coexist?Architecture: round, amoeba-like, soft, bubbly, knobby, smallForms: round, organic, soft, amorphous, flowing, carnal, curved,
bumpyDuration: moments, phasesSymbols and cult figures: Romeo & Juliet, Cupid, Aphrodite,
CasanovaActivity: kissing, letting goSeason: summerA phrase: you kiss wellPhilosophical model: hedonism, passion, self-surrenderWhat’s going on, baby?: gender debate, imposedIndividuality: intimacyDrug: aphrodisiacs, alcoholForms of communication: whispering, pillow talk, shoutingTones/noises: lip-smacking, Bossanova, heartbeat, panting, jukeboxObjects: electric plug, dam, a lonely lost ski, vibratorDeath: heart failure, death at orgasmDrink: Bloody Mary, water”(37)

So, the initial task faced by Diller + Scofidio was to create an innovative temporary exposition pavilion recalling the many qualities listed above. Diller + Scofidio chose the site because of their interest in eroticism, and are showing a Duchampian influence in this way as well. These architectural constraints owe, however, to the phenomenon of postmodernism. In 1910 or 1950, for example, no government organization would have asked an architect for a building which recalled lip-smacking and a lonely lost ski. Though the actual pavilion itself was probably not the least bit erotic, it achieved a certain eroticism by using verbal means, the list on the previous page, to make people think about sex when they think about the Blur building. This is much the same tactic which Duchamp used in the Large Glass. His notes for the Large Glass explain the complicated process of desire and visualize undressing of the bride which is inherent in the work, though not visually detectable without the notes to instruct the viewer. A large mass of water vapor in Switzerland may be very erotic, just as Duchamp’s completely non-representational rendering of a bride may be; it is all dependent upon the framework of ideas within which the viewer approaches the work, and has nothing to do with the visual. The eroticism of Diller + Scofidio can be traced both to an interest in Marcel Duchamp and to the rule breaking of the culture of today. In a final analysis, though, the mere idea of a building, which is not a building, made of water vapor, and devoted to thinking about sex (as opposed to sex itself) detached from any visual or retinal mode of artistic expression, is decidedly Duchampian.

Marcel Duchamp has been quoted and acknowledged time and time again by contemporary architects and theorists because of particularly Duchampian ideas, such as eroticism as metaphor, his uses of new media, and his desire to move away from the retinal qualities of art towards an art which was at the service of the mind. Some writers and architects, including Sanford Kwinter, Shiro Kuramata, and Morphosis have at times misused Duchamp because his name is so en vogue. This has occurred by either invoking Duchamp’s name when no connection really exists or by paying a literal, retinal homage to one or more of Duchamp’s works. Many others, though, have incorporated Duchampian ideas into their own works in a more intellectually based homage. The Deconstructivists are indebted to his ideas about projection and chance, and Robert Venturi (Fig. 32) could not have made his playful jabs at the high seriousness of International Style architecture without Duchamp. Finally, the firm of Diller + Scofidio created a building which can be read as a truly Duchampian building, an embodiment of the infra-thin, playful performance and experiential art, and of a highly intellectualized eroticism. Though Duchamp was never an architect, his thinking has made possible deformed forms, has allowed Flip Wilson’s act to enter into the once sanctified realm of high art, and has allowed architects to literally erect buildings of clouds.

click to enlarge

Figure 32
Robert Venturi, Fire Station No. 4,
Columbus, Indiana, 1967 (left);
Vanna Venturi House, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,
1962 (middle); Trubek and Wislocki Houses, Nantucket Island,
Massachusetts, 1972 (right)


Footnote Return1. Pierre Cabanne, Duchamp & Co (Paris: Terrail, 1997) 32.

Footnote Return2. K. Michael Hays, ed., Architecture Theory since 1968 (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1998) 586.

Footnote Return3. Ibid

Footnote Return4. Sanford Kwinter, “La Città Nuova: Modernity and Continuity,” Architecture Theory since 1968, ed. K. Michael.Hays (Cambridge, Mass: The
MIT Press, 1998) 608.

Footnote Return5. Amy Dempsey, Art in the Modern Era ( New York:Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002) 91.

Footnote Return6. Cabanne, op. cit.132.

Footnote Return7. Gehry Partners, Gehry Talks: Architecture + Process (New
York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002) 140.

Footnote Return8. John Pile, A History of Interior Design ( New York: John
Wiley & Sons, Inc:, 2000) 278.

Footnote Return9. Gehry Partners, op. cit. 140.

Footnote Return10. Rowan Moore, “Duchamp Goes West,” Blueprint 36 (May 1987):20.

Footnote Return11. Alice Kimm, “Morphosis Diamond in the Rough,” Architecture Week4 (June 2000): 11.

Footnote Return12. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Learning from Las Vegas
(Cambridge, Mass.:The MIT Press, 1977) 88.

Footnote Return13. Ibid.89.

Footnote Return14. Ibid.105-6.

Footnote Return15. Ibid.160.

Footnote Return16. Ibid.61.

Footnote Return17. Tilman Kuchler,Postmodern Gaming: Heidegger, Duchamp, Derrida(New York: Peter Lang, 1994)121.

Footnote Return18. David Hanks and Anne Hoy, Design for Living: Furniture and Lighting,1950-2000 (Paris: Flammarion, 2000)186.

Footnote Return19. Ibid

Footnote Return20. Moore, op. cit. 20.

Footnote Return21. Ibid

Footnote Return22. Ibid

Footnote Return23. Gehry Partners, op. cit. 183.

Footnote Return24. Puglisi, op. cit. 28.

Footnote Return25. Puglisi, op. cit. 27-8.

Footnote Return26. Diller + Scofidio Firm, Blur: The Making of Nothing (New
York: HenryN. Abrams, Inc., 2002) 1.

Footnote Return27. Cox Ades, and Hopkins, op .cit. 183.

Footnote Return28. Diller + Scofidio Firm, op. cit. 70-1.

Footnote Return29. Ibid. 192.

Footnote Return30. Ibid. 209.

Footnote Return31. Cox Ades, and Hopkins, op. cit. 208.

Footnote Return32. Diller + Scofidio Firm, op. cit .285.

Footnote Return33. Ibid. 10.

Footnote Return34. Ibid. 16.

Footnote Return35. Ibid.

Footnote Return36. Ibid. 109.

Footnote Return37. Ibid. 10.


Adcock, Craig. “Duchamp’s Eroticism:
A Mathematical Analysis.” Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century.
Ed. Rudolph E. Kuenzli and Francis M. Naumann. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1996.___.“Marcel Duchamp’s Approach to New York: ‘Find an Inscription for the Woolworth Building as a Ready-made’.”

Dada/Surrealism. Vol. 14 (1985): 52-65.
Ades, Dawn, Neil Cox, and David Hopkins.

Marcel Duchamp. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999.
Baird, George. “La Dimension Amoureuse

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Michael Hays. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1998.

Banham, Reyner. Theory and Design
in the First Machine Age
. New York: Praeger, 1960.

Cabanne, Pierre. Duchamp & Co.
Paris: Terrail, 1997.

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between Avant-Garde and Modernity: The Status of Artwork and the
Everyday Object.” Architecture Theorysince 1968. Ed. K. Michael
Hays. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1998.

Dempsey, Amy. Art in the Modern
. New York:Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002.

de Solà-Morales, Ignasi. Differences:
Topographies of Contemporary Architecture
. Cambridge, Mass:
The MIT Press, 1997.

de Vries, Hilary. “What’s Doing in
Los Angeles.” New York Times 28 Sep. 2003, section 5: 14.

Diller + Scofidio Firm. Blur: The
Making of Nothing
.New York: Henry N.Abrams, Inc., 2002.

Duchamp, Marcel, Iconoclast.“A Complete
Reversal of Art Opinions.” (reprinted from Arts & Decoration,
Sept. 1915)In Studio International (Jan./Feb. 1975): 29.
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+ Process
. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.

Giedion, Sigfried. Space, Time and
. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949.

Girst, Thomas. “(Ab)Using
Marcel Duchamp: The Concept of the readymade in Post-War and Contemporary
American Art.
Tout-Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online
2. 5 (April 2003): Articles.

Hanks, David and Anne Hoy. Design
for Living: Furniture and Lighting, 1950-2000
. Paris: Flammarion,

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Theory since 1968
. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1998.

Henderson, Linda Dalrymple. The
Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art
. Princeton,
N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

_ _ _.”X-Ray and the Quest for
Invisible Reality in the Art ofKupka, Duchamp and the Cubists.”
Art Journal (Winter 1988): 323-40.

Kuchler, Tilman. Postmodern Gaming:
Heidegger, Duchamp, Derrida
. New York: Peter Lang, 1994.
Kuenzli, Rudolph E. and Francis M.

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Mass: The MIT Press, 1996.

Kwinter, Sanford. Architectures
of Time: Toward a Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture
. Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 2001.

Kwinter, Sanford. “La Città Nuova:
Modernity and Continuity.” Architecture Theory since 1968.
Ed. Hays, K. Michael. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1998.

Maxwell, Robert. Sweet Disorder
and the Carefully Careless
. New York: Princeton Architectural
Press, 1993.

Moore, Rowan. “Duchamp Goes West.”
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. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc:, 2000.

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.” Tout-Fait:
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. Basel, Switzerland:
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Figs. 3, 5-9, 13, 18, 21, 23, 25, 29-31© 2005 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights

Case Open and/or Unsolved: Étant donnés, the Black Dahlia Murder, and Marcel Duchamp’s Life of Crime

See I have placed
before you an open door that no one can shut.

-Revelation 3:8
The successful criminal brain is always superior…
-Dr. No

In The Trial of Gilles de Rais, Georges Bataille writes, “Crime is a fact of the human species, a fact of that species alone, but it is above all the secret aspect, impenetrable and hidden. Crime hides, and by far the most terrifying things are those that elude us.”(1)
Marcel Duchamp, in both his work and practice, is the elusive artist par excellence. He is the ultimate fugitive of art historical investigation, leaving a trail of tricks, twists, contradictory meanings, and duplicitous identities that lead to epistemological dead-ends. Upon close inspection, Duchamp’s tactics to elude definitive conclusions and vex the viewer reveal themselves as criminal, not unlike those of the con man, fugitive, and even the killer.

click to enlarge
 1. The Waterfall 2.The Illuminating Gas
Figure 1
Marcel Duchamp, Given: 1. The Waterfall
2.The Illuminating Gas

1946-1966, Gift of the
Cassandra Foundation,
Philadelphia Museum of Art

This paper suggests that Marcel Duchamp consciously toyed with criminal methodologies to elude interpretation and heighten the inconclusive nature of his work. I propose that criminal tactics were one means for Duchamp to enact his rebellion against traditional morality and aesthetics that followed his introduction to the philosopher Max Stirner in 1912. This program emphasizes a continual play on presence/absence, both in the artist’s modes of production and identities. After a brief overview of the apparent criminality of his work, I focus on his final project, Étant donnés (Fig. 1), and suggest that the installation partly derived from a notorious unsolved murder in 1947 known as the “Black Dahlia.”(2) This macabre event reveals remarkable consistencies with Étant donnés, particularly in the identity and character of the victim, Elizabeth Short. Short’s lifestyle embodies uncanny similarities to Duchamp’s decade-long obsessive erotic narrative of the “Bride and her Bachelors,” thus revealing his appropriation of certain details as an enactment of a “copycat” crime in art. Finally, I relate Étant donnés to Duchamp’s earlier works to suggest a reversal of his criminal modus operandi from elusion to hypervisibility. This shift is evident in Étant donnés, which trades conceptual for physical modes of production and complicates the presence/absence of the artist. By furthering the inconclusive nature of Duchamp’s work (through the use of what Jean-Francois Lyotard terms the “hinge”) and being itself most enigmatic, Étant donnés is stamped with the same status as the Black Dahlia murder: open and unsolved.

click to enlarge
Nude Descending
Figure 2
Marcel Duchamp,
Nude Descending the Staircase No. 2, 1912
Three Standard Stoppages
Figure 3
Marcel Duchamp,
Three Standard Stoppages, 1913-14
Broken Arm
Figure 4
Marcel Duchamp,In
Advance of the Broken Arm
, 1915/1964, 132 cm, Musée national
d’art moderne, Paris

In 1912, Duchamp first read Max Stirner’s The Ego and His Own, an anarchic text that promoted individualism based on a self-exploration of the ego outside predetermined moral and societal values.(3) The abrupt shift in Duchamp’s aesthetic philosophy that followed his introduction to Stirner, from chronophotographic works such as his famous Nude Descending the Staircase, (Fig. 2) toward works of a more conceptual nature that challenged or defied metaphysics and the values of art and society, such as Three Standard Stoppages (Fig. 3) from 1913-14, is considered a consequence of his introduction to Stirner.(4)Moreover, Amelia Jones has argued the locus of this system was the incorporation of eroticism in both subject and object, which served as the agent to aggressively challenge bourgeois cultural values.(5) The following discussion demonstrates that the nexus between Stirnerite philosophy and eroticism forms an artistic program that produces works that break the “laws” of art, imply criminal play and behavior, and exploit and celebrate the erotic in ways that imply violence to the body.
Duchamp “broke” many artistic rules after his shift toward self-determination. The readymades, such as In Advance of the Broken Arm from 1915 (Fig. 4), are now classic examples of his defiance of the imposed aesthetics of bourgeois society.(6) They not only break the “laws” of art, but also illustrate a form of elusion through their absence of traditional notions of artistic production. As Walter Hopps points out, Duchamp’s career is marked by efforts to suppress the artist’s hand, to remove or disassociate himself from the object through an absence of visual signs that suggest the physical mark of the artist.(7) Duchamp, defying the tradition of physical craft, creates a work that bears only conceptual evidence of its production, having been designated a work of art.(8) The hand and its mark is dangerous to Duchamp. “It’s fun to do things by hand,” he stated, but “I’m suspicious because there’s the danger of the ‘hand’ which comes back…”(9) Direct appropriation of these objects hides the handprint of the artist, as in the lack of fingerprints at a crime scene (is not appropriation, unlike imitation, a kind of stealing?).(10) It is here that Duchamp’s elusion seems to elicit a specifically criminal tone. Moreover, any investigative attempt to trace the sources of these works through the available evidence leads us to hardware stores or factories, not the studio, where any number of these objects were purchased or produced.(11) Ironically, in a recent attempt to do just this, Rhonda Shearer found that the origins of the readymades are often untraceable to any context due to slight alterations by Duchamp, no doubt meant to further complicate attempts to “solve” these works and hinder their investigation.

Nowhere did Duchamp defy conventional aesthetic authority more than in the submission of his famous Fountain (Fig. 5) to the first annual exhibition of the American Society of Artists in 1917.(12) An object so defiant of the “laws” of art, made by simply re-naming and shifting the base of a common urinal, Fountain led a supposedly unjuried exhibition to censorship through its blasphemous suggestions. In addition, Duchamp mocked the committee by signing the work with the alias “R. Mutt” rather than his own name. In this clever tactic, the artist hid his association with the scandalous submission and thus insured his innocence. As a member of the exhibition committee, Duchamp debated the fate of “Mr. Mutt’s” entry much like a criminal who watches their crime scene from a physical distance or under disguise. This, no doubt, amused Duchamp, who continued to emphasize this play on criminal behavior in works such as L.H.O.O.Q., (Fig. 6) defacing the Mona Lisa with a graffiti-style moustache and goatee. Graffiti, itself an illegal form of art, involves the elusive presence/absence of an artistic “criminal” for its production and reception. In other capers, such as his fraudulent checks such as Tzanck Check (Fig. 7) from 1919, Duchamp focused on the act of counterfeiting. And in Wanted (Fig. 8), from 1923, the artist fashioned a literal image of himself as a fugitive with multiple aliases (again emphasizing absence), complete with profile photographs like those of an ex-convict with a prior record.(13)

click to enlarge

  • Fountain
    Figure 5
    Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917,
    23.5 x 18.8 x 60 cm, Original lost
    (Photograph taken by Alfred
    Stieglitz for the review 391)
  • L.H.O.O.Q.
    Figure 6
    Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919 
  • Tzanck Check
    Figure 7
    Marcel Duchamp,
    Tzanck Check, 1919
  • Wanted
    Figure 8
    Wanted $2000 Reward,
    1923, Philadelphia
    Museum of Art

click to enlarge
Note in the Green Box
Figure 9
Marcel Duchamp,
Note in the Green Box (1934)
Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors
Figure 10
Marcel Duchamp, Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even [a.k.a.
The Large Glass], 1915-23

All of these acts might be described as “petty crimes” when compared to his last work, the installation in the Philadelphia Museum of Art entitled, Étant donnés: 1 la chute d’eau, 2 le gaz d’éclairage – translated as Given: 1. The Waterfall 2. The Illuminating Gas. The title of this piece, taken from the opening lines of an introductory note to Duchamp’s Green Box (Fig. 9), signals its association with his earlier work The Large Glass, (Fig. 10) and suggests its representation as a three-dimensional version of the narrative of the Bride and her Bachelors.
Étant donnés has baffled scholars since its discovery after the artist’s death in 1968, when following Duchamp’s instructions, it was reinstalled in the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Anne d’Harnoncourt and Paul Matisse in 1969. With the exception of a select group of individuals that included the artist’s wife Alexina Matisse and her son Paul, the work was created by Duchamp in secrecy in New York City, first in his studio at 210 West 14th Street and later moved to another small room on 80 East Eleventh Street around 1965.(14) The majority of scholarship that discusses the body in Étant donnés focuses on readings that emphasize violation, murder, rape, or other acts that associate criminal violence, eroticism, and the body.(15) It has been described as a “mutilated woman” and a “seemingly dead female body,” suggesting that some form of criminal activity either already transpired or is about to occur.(16) The erotic nature of these violent interpretations is based largely on the positioning of the body and Duchamp’s choice to explicitly display the female groin region, which is overtly shown to the viewer who peers through the small eyeholes in the door that houses the installation. The body, in its placement before us with legs spread apart, shocks the viewer because of what numerous scholars refer to as its “hypervisibility.”(17)


click to enlarge
Elizabeth Short
Figure 11
Photograph of Elizabeth Short
for civilian employee ID
Harry Hansen and Finis Brown with Elizabeth Short’s
Figure 12
LAPD Detectives Harry Hansen
and Finis Brown with Elizabeth Short’s
body, January 15th, 1947,
Museum of Death

On the morning of January 15th, 1947, the mutilated body of Elizabeth Short, an aspiring starlet known as the “Black Dahlia” for her stunning beauty and jet black hair, was found purposefully placed on the edge of an open lot on Norton Avenue in Los Angeles, California (Fig. 11).(18) For the next few months at first, then years as the case went on, her name littered the headlines of West and East coast newspapers that described in detail both her flamboyant lifestyle and macabre death. To this day, the Black Dahlia murder case remains California’s most notorious unsolved crime. The following discussion suggests that the media presentation and crime photographs of the Black Dahlia murder, contemporaneous to Duchamp’s conception of Étant donnés, may have affected its design and progress.
The parallels between the Black Dahlia and Étant donnés are numerous. By far the most striking similarity involves the two bodies. In a photograph of Elizabeth Short’s body at the crime scene, she lies in thick, tall grass not unlike the twigs that surround the body in Étant donnés; her legs spread wide displaying her sex (Fig. 12). And, in the most grisly detail of this heinous crime, her body is no longer whole; it has been severed at the waist. In a surrealist fantasy become reality, the Black Dahlia represents a real-life example of what was envisioned in the contemporaneous paintings, photographs, and installations of artists such as Hans Bellmer, Rene Magritte, Man Ray, and even Marcel Duchamp. Often times, for example, these surrealist artists would manipulate mannequins in their works for both their uncanny mixture of life-like and lifeless qualities, as well as their constructive and deconstructive potential through detachable anatomical parts. As the photograph illustrates, Short’s mid-section was not only severed in a manner similar to these detachable dummies, but, coincidentally, her body was actually mistaken for a mannequin by a passer-by who, observing the severed torso and skin that was “white as a lily,” believed it came from a department store.(19)

click to enlarge
window display for André Bretons Arcane
Figure 13
Marcel Duchamp, Lazy
, window display for André
Bretons Arcane 17, 19.-26.
April 1945, Gotham Bookmart, E. 57th
St. New York,
Photography Maya Deren,
Philadelphia Museum of Art,
Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp found both inspiration and direct use for mannequins throughout his career. He explained to Man Ray in the early 1920’s that the origin of the Bride theme came from the “brides in booths” at French Country Fairs, where dummies dressed as a bride and groom were used as targets for people to throw balls in an attempt to decapitate them.(20) Closer in time to the Black Dahlia and Étant Donnés is his display window at the Gotham Book Mart in New York City from 1945 to promote Andre Breton’s surrealist publication Arcane 17 (Fig. 13); where Duchamp installed a headless female mannequin that immediately caused a scandal with the League of Women.(21)
The two most forceful formal similarities between the Black Dahlia and the body in Étant donnés are located in the groin region of each figure. First, both Elizabeth Short’s body and the body in Étant donnés have no pubic hair. The lack of hair in Étant donnés has been discussed in relation to Duchamp’s interest in gender indeterminacy, as well as a tale of the Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven, who had her pubic area shaved by a barber in a film that both Duchamp and Man Ray collaborated on.(22) Furthermore, in the memoirs of Lydie Sarazin-Levassor, Duchamp’s wife for eight months in 1927-28, she claims that Duchamp requested she remove her body hair, owing to his “almost morbid horror of hair.”(23) In light of these past incidents, the absence of pubic hair from Short’s body, in itself, could have proved alluring to Duchamp.
But Short’s body also offers an explanation for the strange, incorrect anatomy that suggests a female vagina in Étant donnés. Amelia Jones has negated the conclusions of earlier scholars who discussed the genitalia of Duchamp’s figure in terms of the anatomy of the female sex, proving that there is in fact no labia majora or labia minora. What exists instead is what she calls an “aggressively visible and grotesque gash that goes nowhere.”(24) In the photograph of the Black Dahlia murder one can see a literal gash that was incised above the vagina into the lower abdomen of the body of Elizabeth Short (Fig. 14). It is now known through the disclosure of the autopsy reports that Elizabeth Short’s pubic area was underdeveloped. Detectives and crime experts suspect that the gash was a means for the sexually ravenous killer to insert himself into Short, whose genitals were underdeveloped and therefore unable to engage in vaginal intercourse.(25)
Thus, the Dahlia could not offer her bachelors a natural way to fulfil their lustful desires, much like the failure of the love operation in Duchamp’s narrative of the Large Glass where the “bachelors grind their chocolate.”(26) The “gash” in Étant donnés first appeared in a vellum study for the figure in 1948-49 (Fig. 15), and the transition from a drawing dated controversially either 1945 or 1947 (Fig. 16), which features a female body without head and arms (severed?) with natural pubic hair, to the hairless body with a single “gash” in the vellum study has never been explained.(27) If Duchamp was exposed to the Dahlia murder, either in 1947 or 1949 (this will be discussed in more detail shortly), then perhaps this event was the impetus for these design alterations. Chronologically, the murder (and his exposure to it) fits neatly between the otherwise inexplicable transition from the drawing to the vellum study.


  • Elizabeth Short’s body,
    Figure 14
    Elizabeth Short’s body, January
    15th, 1947, Museum of Death
  • The Illuminating Gas and the Waterfall
    Figure 15
    Marcel Duchamp, The Illuminating Gas and the Waterfall, 1948-49,
    Moderna Museet, Stockholm
  • The Waterfall, and the Illuminating Gas,
    Figure 16
    Marcel Duchamp, Given: Maria, The Waterfall, and the Illuminating Gas,


click to enlarge
New York Daily News Headline
Figure 17
New York
Daily News Headline, January 18th, 1947
Fresh Widow
Figure 18
Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Widow, 1920

The story of Elizabeth Short presented in the newspapers during the investigation also parallels aspects of Duchamp’s own erotic narrative. Short’s failure to fulfil the “love operation,” while not directly stated through a medical explanation, was implied through accounts in the papers that spoke of her teasing nature and relationships that ended “before the love was consummated,” echoing Duchamp’s non-consummation and frustration in the theme of the Large Glass.(28) Moreover, the newspapers on both coasts played-up a controversial aspect of her past, in which she claimed to have married an air force pilot who in fact died before the ceremony could take place.(29) Thus, Elizabeth Short appeared to be paradoxically married and unmarried. The newspapers furthered the confusion when they obtained information from her address book, which contained “an album of pictures ranging in rank from sergeant to lieutenant general.”(30)

Several newspapers ran stories that published a long list of “Bachelors,” as in the New York Daily News headline from January 18th 1947 that reads, “Many Loves in Slain Girl’s Life”(Fig. 17).(31) As Jean-Francois Lyotard and others point out, Duchamp complicates attempts to locate fixed meanings in his works through what has been called a “hinge” effect.(32) The hinge, represented in language by the juxtaposition of “and/or,” as in the double alias of Marcel Duchamp and/or Rrose Sélavy, is both single and multiple, definitive and simultaneously inconclusive. To extend the “hinge” interpretation, the Dahlia was a Duchampian fantasy come to life―single and/or married, Elizabeth Short and/or the Black Dahlia, whole and/or severed, life and/or art. Like the Bride in Duchamp’s tale, who has “no singular, definitive groom,” the Dahlia represents eroticism and violence staged in these photographs as a literal “Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even(ly) cut” as a symbol of the artist’s concept of infra-mince, a physical cut that in this context plays itself out in a long list of Duchampian metaphors.(33)She is a “Fresh Widow,” like the French women Duchamp referred to after the First World War in his 1920 work of the same name (Fig. 18); a work whose title also, coincidentally (?), references the guillotine―“the Widow, in popular French jargon.”(34) Lastly, in several of the crime scene photographs and those of the newspapers, the detectives, policemen, and reporters seem to echo Duchamp’s description of his Occulist Witnesses and bachelors, who “stand, sadly, in ‘uniforms and liveries’” and observe the spectacle before them.(35) (Figs. 19 & 20)

click to enlarge

  • Green Box
    Figure 19
    Marcel Duchamp,
    Occulist Witnesses,
    from Green Box
    (1934), 1920
  • Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries
    Figure 20
    Marcel Duchamp,
    Cemetery of Uniforms
    and Liveries, No. 2


In mid-January 1947 Duchamp returned from a stay in Europe, arriving in New York at the moment the Dahlia case began to unfold. The particulars of the murder and its surrounding controversies were appearing daily in newspapers. The New York Daily News ran headlines and follow-up stories about the Dahlia murder for several weeks.(36) More importantly, at the time of the killing Los Angeles was the home of the artist’s close friend Man Ray. The relationship between these two artists is well documented, and Man Ray’s influence on Duchamp’s conception of Étant donnés has already been suggested.(37) In addition to being engulfed in a sea of newspaper headlines and Hollywood gossip about the killing, Man Ray, like Elizabeth Short, frequented the popular bars and clubs in Hollywood and knew many people in the jet set of the movie community.(38) With his lifelong fascination with sado-masochism, Man Ray would certainly have taken an interest in the particulars of this crime.(39) As a photographer of such repute, Man Ray might have been able to obtain one of the many hundreds of crime scene photographs taken by reporters that circulated through the Hollywood community.(40) These photographs were reproduced and passed from hand-to-hand, and were not censored like the newspaper photographs that displayed the body in situcovered with a sheet, nor were they the “cleaned-up” autopsy photographs that appeared in detective and crime magazines.

click to enlarge
Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray
Figure 21
Marcel Duchamp and
Man Ray in Los Angeles,
California, 1949

On his way back from Paris in 1947, the year of the murder, Man Ray spent a week in New York City.(41) This could have served as an occasion for him to share this information with Duchamp, either simply for its grisly, surrealist nature or for its many similarities with his own and Duchamp’s beliefs and work. If this was not the case, Duchamp may have heard or seen something about the Black Dahlia during his visit to the Arensberg’s home in Los Angeles two years later in April 1949 after his participation in a Round Table discussion in San Francisco.(42) The Black Dahlia case was again making news with new suspects, and moreover Duchamp spent each afternoon secretly meeting with Man Ray by taking “afternoon walks.”(43) In this photograph (Fig. 21), the two artists, in a witty false “alibi,” sit on a stage set in Hollywood designed as a Parisian street corner. Why wouldn’t someone with a penchant for criminal tactics, who characterized his interest in eroticism as “Enormous. Visible or not underlying in every case…” be fascinated by this crime?(44) In an interview with Walter Hopps during his stay in Los Angeles, Duchamp declared he was going through his “sex maniac” phase, a phrase which coincidentally appeared in newspaper articles such as the first Los Angeles Times piece on the Dahlia Murder, which opened with the lines, “Butchered by a sex maniac…”(45) It is not surprising then, that upon his return to New York, Duchamp sent the clay model for the body in Étant donnés out for casting in plaster and, as Calvin Tomkins describes in his biography on Duchamp, “by summer he was working on it with great intensity―up to eight hours a day…”(46)

click to enlarge
Female Fig Leaf
Figure 22
Marcel Duchamp,
Female Fig Leaf,
Wedge of Chastity
Figure 23
Marcel Duchamp,
Wedge of Chastity,

These events and shared interests between Duchamp and Man Ray in the context of the Black Dahlia suggest new meanings for two of Duchamp’s later erotic objects, Female Fig Leaf and Wedge of Chastity (Figs. 22 & 23). If Man Ray was partly responsible for introducing Duchamp to the Black Dahlia in 1947 or 1949, this may explain the nature of Duchamp’s gift, Female Fig Leaf, to the photographer. On his return to Paris with his new wife Juliet in 1951, Man Ray was surprised by Duchamp, who was waiting onboard in the couple’s cabin in port in New York City.(47) Duchamp presented Man Ray with an object described as a “wax impression of what looked like a woman’s vulva.”(48) Could this be a hint, or subliminal reference to the body in Étant donnés (or the Dahlia)?(49)

Did this object imply something more than a simple shared interest in eroticism in the form of a farewell gift? With Duchamp’s love of puns and double meanings, one wonders if a linkage to Étant donnés and/or the Black Dahlia continued with the verbal/visual play in another erotic object,Wedge of Chastity. A wedding gift to his wife Alexina (Teeny) Sattler, Duchamp inscribed the object with the phrase, “Pour Teeny 16. Jan. 1954.” The spoken phrase, “Pour Teeny,” in English carries an additional meaning; “poor teeny,” as in the poor starlet who could not fulfil the “love operation” because of her “Wedge of Chastity.” Is it surprising that this “wedge” seems to fit snugly into a kind of “gash?” Or that January 16thwas also the day after the murder of Elizabeth Short, the first day the headlines appeared in New York City papers?


click to enlarge
 The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even
Figure 24
Marcel Duchamp,
The Bride Stripped Bare
by Her Bachelors Even
The Green Box], 1934

Similar to Étant donnés, the Black Dahlia case perplexed investigators, and “facts” were constantly being undermined by the introduction of contradictory evidence. These inconclusive theories were played out, among other places, in newspaper headlines that emphasized the “gender indeterminacy” of the suspect. Authorities, first suspecting a man, reversed their hypothesis. The press ran headlines such as “Woman Now Sought In Black Dahlia Killing.”(50) Ironically, the case’s most plausible suspect is now a female impersonator―how Duchampian.(51)Quotes from detectives appeared in the papers as well, such as a statement from Detective Harry Hansen who regrettably admitted, “No lead had any conclusion, once we’d find something, it seemed to disappear in front of our eyes. Following any of those leads was like going down one-way streets with dead-ends.”(52) When a suitcase of the victim’s belongings turned up, it was filled with all kinds of objects―beauty supplies, photographs of men she had known, letters, etc. In a stunningly similar manner to Duchamp’s Box in a Valise, or better yet Green box, the suitcase’s contents guided detectives in their investigation much as the Green Box serves as a “guide” to the Large Glass. (Fig. 24)
In this sense, the Black Dahlia/ Étant donnés comparison can be viewed as the complicated performance of what criminologists term a “copycat” crime, played out within the sphere of art. Elizabeth Short’s life represents Duchamp’s pre-existing tale within the context of a specific time and place. Yet Étant donnés, continuing Duchamp’s penchant for criminal play, becomes a kind of “copycat” crime by re-using a specifically criminal mode of appropriation, and possibly specific details from this crime, as a “readymade” for certain features of his installation. The cyclical indeterminacy of “who copied who” once more suggests the “hinge,” represented this time by the Dahlia murder, which negotiates between the narrative of the Large Glass and Étant donnés (it is amusing as well that the linguistic symbol for Lyotard’s hinge has at its center a slash that “severs” the “and/or” indeterminate). Thus, Duchamp’s narrative and/or the life of Elizabeth Short―the Dahlia murder and/or Étant donnés.
Unlike the Large Glass, however, which presented cryptic visual versions of erotic narratives, Duchamp in Étant donnés, shocked his art audience by performing a spectral flip of his criminal modus operandi. What was, up to this point in his career hidden, was suddenly blatantly revealed.(53) As detective Jess Haskins said of the Dahlia murder, “It was not unusual―the ‘display idea’ as part of a sex crime…Hiding it had been the least of the perpetrator’s concerns.”(54) Duchamp, it is well known, claimed that eroticism was “a way to bring out in the daylight the things that are constantly hidden….because of social rules.”(55)Thus, the earlier use of criminal and erotic subjects and actions emphasized the elusive absence of the living artist and cryptic narratives. Conversely, Étant donnés presents a hypervisible, blatant operation through another kind of artistic absence, first by, as he said, “going underground” during the secret and elusive production of Étant donnés, then through his literal absence in death.(56) In this role reversal, Duchamp exposes the crime and hides himself, like a serial killer, whose “psychosexual nexus is terra incognita.”(57)
As in many famous unsolved murders, Elizabeth Short’s body was not simply dumped in a lot; it was deliberately arranged.(58) Her two halves were placed to repeat the natural position of the body several hours after the actual crime occurred. This gave the crime scene what detectives characterized as a “sacred setting,” implying that messages or meanings could be yielded by its purposeful display.(59) Duchamp also stresses his intentional positioning and display of the body in Étant donnés, controlling among other things our line of vision. As his title implies, we are presented with certain “evidence” from which to attempt to solve this artwork and/or crime.(60) The title, presented in the format of a mathematical equation, ironically suggests that this piece can be “solved” through a logistical program. “Given” it implies, “the waterfall, the illuminated gas, and whatever else you can see.” Here the spectral flip appears to hide the conceptual and offer an overtly constructed physical art environment.(61) Moreover, Duchamp’s strategic placement of Étant donnés at the far rear of the Arensberg room in the Philadelphia Museum of Art creates two further paradoxes. One, it is literally “hidden” in a dark retreat at the back of the “display,” yet shockingly reveals itself within the darkness when the viewer looks through the peepholes. Second, the entire Arensberg room creates an exhibition narrative based on a body of work, that ends with a literal body. The post-Stirnerite works in the brightly lit outside gallery hide the physical mark and presence of their creator and engage us through the conceptual and extra-dimensional. The dark hidden room of Étant donnés offers us the physical, both as literal body and as an attempt in understanding based on the empirical act of seeing.

click to enlarge
Duchamp’s grave stone
Figure 25
Marcel Duchamp, epitaph
inscribed on Duchamp’s
grave stone, 1968

In death, Duchamp left a corpus and a corpse. His permanent absence was certainly his ultimate act of elusion. As in the Black Dahlia murder, the death of the “suspect” stamps Étant donnés permanently “open and unsolved.” We can never “break the case” of Marcel Duchamp (although we can break his works of art). In denying us solutions, Duchamp also denies us from closing the book on his work; its inconclusive nature leaves it inevitably open and alive. Thus, by defying solution, perhaps he and his work even defy death. “Besides,” his self-written epitaph reads, “it’s only the others that die.”(62) (Fig. 25) This, it seems, is Duchamp’s only truth.



Footnote Return 1. G. Bataille,The Trial of Gilles de Rais, trans. Richard Robinson (Los Angeles,1991) 13. I was inspired to begin this essay with these words by Stuart Swezey, who included Bataille’s statement in his preface to John Gilmore’s book, Severed:The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder, Los Angeles, 1994.

Footnote Return 2. For a full account of this tragedy, see J. Gilmore, Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder (Los Angeles, 1994).

Footnote Return 3. F. M. Naumann,“Marcel Duchamp: A Reconciliation of Opposites”, Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, ed. R. Kuenzli and F. M. Naumann (Cambridge,Massachusetts, 1989) 29.

Footnote Return 4. M. Stirner, The Ego and Its Own (New York, 1907) 361. Duchamp himself stated that his reading of Stirner “marked his complete liberation.” A. Antliff, “Anarchy, Politics, and Dada”, In Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York (Whitney Museum, 1996) 212.

Footnote Return 5. A. Jones, “Eros, That’s Life or the Baroness’ Penis”, In Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York (Whitney Museum, 1996) 239.

Footnote Return 6. Antliff makes the connection between Duchamp’s adoption of Stirner’s philosophy and a revolt against what he calls “the rules ‘art’ imposed on the individual.” Antliff, op. cit., p. 213.

Footnote Return 7. W. Hopps and A. d’Harnoncourt, Etant Donnés: 1 la chute d’eau 2 le gaz d’éclairage: Reflections on a New Work by Marcel Duchamp, Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin (second reprint) Volume LXIV, Numbers 299 and 300, (April-September 1969, Philadelphia, 1987) 37.

Footnote Return 8. In this sense, I disagree with Antliff’s characterization of the American readymades.He states, “Here Duchamp undermined the metaphysical aesthetics and socially imposed conventions that defined ‘art,’ replacing painting and sculpture with mass-produced objects devoid of aesthetic deliberation and any trace of the creative process.” In my opinion, the readymades are neither devoid of aesthetic deliberation nor lacking any trace of the creative process. What the readymades lack are physical traces (visually recognizable) of creation. Instead, the evidence of a creative process is solely conceptual. Antliff, op. cit., p. 213.

Footnote Return 9. P. Cabanne,Entretiens avec Marcel Duchamp (Paris, 1967) 165, trans. D. Judovitz, “Rendezvous with Marcel Duchamp: Given”, Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, ed. R.E. Kuenzli and F. M. Naumann (Cambridge, Mass, 1989) 197.

Footnote Return 10. As Steven Levine pointed out during the discussion of this paper at the Symposium for the History of Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, imitation could certainly be considered “criminal” as well. As early as Antiquity, the deceitful nature of artistic imitation led Plato to exclude it from his ideal Republic.

Footnote Return 11. As Rhonda Shearer points out, it is possible that these objects were not appropriated exactly as they were “found” by Duchamp. Manufacturer catalogs contemporary to the readymades do not contain illustrations that directly match some of Duchamp’s objects. Thus, she suggests the artist may have altered them slightly to further confuse their “origin.” In L. Cambi, “Did Duchamp Deceive Us?”, Art News, v 98 (February 1999) 98-102. Moreover, we know from photographs and remarks by Man Ray that Duchamp’s studio was, for the most part, bare. This also suggests that the artist wished to confuse any attempts to “trace” the source material or influences of his work.

Footnote Return 12. It could be argued that Duchamp’s “outlaw” status began even earlier, when he submitted his Nude Descending the Staircase to the 1913 Armory exhibition.

Footnote Return 13. Judovitz first suggested that Duchamp possessed criminal qualities in her discussions of Tzank Check and Wanted in Chapter 4 of Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit. Her interpretation and discussion of criminality, however, rests solely on the idea of counterfeiting and fake transactions. D. Judovitz, Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit (Berkeley, 1995) 167-78. This paper suggests that these are but two of many examples within Duchamp’s artistic career in which he looked to criminality as a means of reconciling his philosophical and aesthetic/non-aesthetic programs. Moreover, Duchamp’s Wanted is included here to emphasize, through his multiple aliases and criminal image, the connection between criminality and elusion (absence).

Footnote Return 14. J. A. Ramirez, Duchamp: Love and Death, Even (London, 1998) 199.

Footnote Return 15. The most complete investigation of the nude body in Etant donnés, its influences, and location within a history of nudes in the landscape is Antonio Juan Ramirez’s discussion in his book Duchamp: Love and Death, Even. In an attempt to separate fact from hearsay, Ramirez asks an important question: “What kind of things might Duchamp have seen or read; with which intellectual wave and artistic movement was he associated at any given moment?” ibid., p. 12. Ramirez’s discussion focuses, for the most part, on art historical sources beginning as early as the end of the 15th century and ending with the surrealist work of Hans Bellmer and others. While he does briefly mention that popular photographs of pornographic subjects were more important than art historical images of the nude, his discussion of this material is brief, and indirect. Rather than answering his own question in relation to this material, Ramirez offers visually similar images but fails to contextualize them and discuss the direct avenues through which Duchamp may have seen or obtained them. Therefore, re-asking Ramirez’s question, I offer the Black Dahlia as a more convincing non-art historical influence.

Footnote Return 16. A “seemingly dead female body” in A. Jones. Postmodernism and the Engendering of Marcel Duchamp (Cambridge, 1994) 192 and a “mutilated woman” in Ramirez, op.cit., p. 234.

Footnote Return 17. This is discussed, among others, by J. A. Ramirez, D. Judovitz, and A. Jones.

Footnote Return 18. As Gilmore explains, soldiers began to call Elizabeth Short by this name as a re-worked version of a recent film entitled “The Blue Dahlia.” The “Black Dahlia” quickly became a nickname that soldiers would use in their queries as to whether she had been spotted somewhere on the streets each day. Gilmore, op. cit., p.56.

Footnote Return 19. Elizabeth Short’s body had been drained of blood prior to being dumped in the lot, explainingwhy it appeared “white as a lily.” ibid., p. 5.

Footnote Return 20. A. Schwartz,Man Ray: The Rigour of the Imagination (New York, 1977) 188.

Footnote Return 21. Hoppsand d’Harnoncourt, op. cit., p. 32.

Footnote Return 22. D. Hopkins,“Men Before the Mirror: Duchamp, Man Ray and Masculinity”, Art History,v 21 (September 1998)s 317.

Footnote Return 23. Le Recit de Lydie, Rrosopopees 19-20 March 1989: 489.

Footnote Return 24. Jones, Postmodernism and.., op. cit., p. 201.

Footnote Return 25. Gilmore,op. cit., p. 124.

Footnote Return 26. L.D. Steefel, Jr., The Position of Duchamp’s Glass in the Development of His Art (New York, 1977) 167.

Footnote Return 27. This suggests a more convincing date for the first drawing as 1947 rather than 1945. If Duchamp had seen the photographs of the Black Dahlia, then perhaps they might explain an origin for the pose of the figure, usually referred to as Marie Martins. In addition, the last number of the date inscribed on this drawing, in my opinion, looks much more like a “7” than a “5.” Calvin Tomkins also identifies the date of this drawing as 1947. C. Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography (New York, 1996) 357.

Footnote Return 28. Detective Brown, speaking about the letters found in her suitcase. Gilmore, op. cit., p.

Footnote Return 29. “Mother of Hero Doubts Marriage to Short Girl”, Los Angeles Times 19 Jan. 1947: 3.

Footnote Return 30.Daily News, New York, 18 Jan. 1947: 1,3.

Footnote Return 31. ibid.

Footnote Return 32. See J.F. Lyotard, Duchamp’s TRANS/formers, Venice, CA, 1990, pp. 58-61, and D. Judovitz. Unpacking Duchamp, op. cit., p. 215.

Footnote Return 33. For a detailed discussion of infra-mince, see M. Nesbit “Last Words: (Rilke, Wittgenstein) (Duchamp)”, Art History 21 (December 1998): 547. There are other striking similarities between the images of the Black Dahlia crime scene and Duchamp’s studies for Etant donnés, especially a drawing from 1959 in which the Large Glass is juxtaposed with a landscape that includes telephone poles. These appear in the same area as some of the telephone poles in several crime scene photographs. Moreover, the Occulist Witnesses in Duchamp’s drawing occupy the same position as the policemen and detectives in the crime scene photographs.

Footnote Return 34. O. Paz, Marcel Duchamp, New York, 1978, p. 122.

Footnote Return 35. A. Jones, “Eros..”, op. cit., p. 240.

Footnote Return 36. From January 18th, 1947 through early February the New York Daily News ran three front-page stories, and fourteen other articles that appeared somewhere on the first five pages of the newspaper (most on them on page three).

Footnote Return 37. See for example Ramirez, who claims that these “aspects (photographs), along with the adventures shared by the two friends suggests (as we shall see) Man Ray’s considerable influence on Duchamp.” Ramirez, op. cit., p. 221.

Footnote Return 38. Elizabeth Short is known to have frequented the following locales: Four Star Grill, Florentine Gardens, The Rhapsody, the Dugout, the Loyal Café, and the Streets of Paris. Moreover, in an email correspondence, John Gilmore informed me that there was a strong possibility that Man Ray may have known the Black Dahlia, or at least met her.

Footnote Return 39. For a summary see A. Schwartz, Man Ray, p.187-190. The articles in the

Los Angeles Times and the Examiner, for example, discuss the sado-masochistic aspects of the crime.

Footnote Return 40. In John Gilmore’s book, Detective Brown is quoted in the autopsy room as saying, “There are already a thousand photographs… You can see most of what’s been done…..” Gilmore, op. cit., p. 126.

Footnote Return 41. M. Ray, Self Portrait: Man Ray, Boston, 1988, p. 291.

Footnote Return 42. For a summary of Duchamp’s participation in this event, as well as a chronology of his California experiences, see B. Clearwater, West Coast Duchamp (Miami, 1991).

Footnote Return 43. Tomkins, op. cit., p.370.

Footnote Return 44. Cabanne, op. cit., p.165.

Footnote Return 45. “Girl Victim of Sex Fiend Found Slain”, Los Angeles Times, Thursday, 16 Jan. 1947: 2. The interview with Hopps is quoted from Tomkins, op. cit., p.423.

Footnote Return 46. Tomkins, op. cit., p. 366.

Footnote Return 47. M. Ray, op. cit., p. 295

Footnote Return 48. Tomkins, op. cit., p. 370.

Footnote Return 49. To my knowledge, no one has ever made a cast of the female groin region of the body in Etant donnés. It could be possible that Female Fig Leaf is directly linked to Etant donnés in this way. Footnote Return 50. “Woman Now Sought in Black Dahlia Killing”, New York Daily News 21 Jan. 1949:5.

Footnote Return 51. See Gilmore, Chapter 17.

Footnote Return 52. ibid., p. 173.

Footnote Return 53. Some scholars were disappointed because this seemed to point to a return to representation that negated Duchamp’s “progress” toward conceptual art.

Footnote Return 54. Gilmore, op. cit., p.8.

Footnote Return 55. N. Baldwin, Man Ray: American Artist (New York, 1988) 276.

Footnote Return 56. Duchamp told Cage that having as second studio “was a way of going underground”, J. Masheck, Marcel Duchamp in Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, N.J, 1975) 155.

Footnote Return 57. S. Swezey, Preface, in Gilmore, op. cit., p. iii.

Footnote Return 58. ibid., p.12.

Footnote Return 59. ibid., p.9.

Footnote Return 60. Interestingly, a 1945 work sometimes thought to be the earliest model for the nude body was sent to forensics and FBI specialists to test and confirm the material as human semen. Ramirez, op. cit., p. 233. How interesting to think that Duchamp, in an erotic act, used the chance design of his ejaculated semen on a piece of paper as a possible “origin” for a body in Etant donnés.

Footnote Return 61. The physical construction of Etant donnés is emphasized by its context in the museum, and also by the fact that it was posthumously re-constructed by others, “put together” again, so to speak.

Footnote Return 62. This is Duchamp’s self-written epitaph.

Figs. 1-10, 13, 15-16, 18-25 © 2005 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.

By the way of Herne Bay (a biographical note)

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

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 donnéswas 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 theMichaelsplatz, 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”

click to enlarge

Marcel Duchamp

10. Heinrich Hoffmann,
Marcel Duchamp, 1912

Is it possible that Hitler and Duchamp crossed paths in Munich, in the smoky cabarets of Schwabing or in the Festsaal of the Hofbrauhaus? It’s slightly possible. When Apollinaire wanted a portrait of Duchamp to illustrate Les Peintres cubistes, Duchamp chose Heinrich Hoffmann, the #1 photographer of Munich who had come to immortalize the work of von Stuck and of Hildebrandt, ill.10. This is
the same Hoffman who, eleven years later, would become Hitler’s personal photographer(49).
The photographs that he made of Duchamp, in the pose of a speaker with his mouth shut, were, it’s been said, influenced by Erik Jan Hanussen, the famous European sage, seer, and astrologer, who would have taught Duchamp the art of body language(50).

* * *

This reference takes us back to the ambiguous capital in which avant-garde artists and political adventurers plunged indiscriminately. In 1912, Munich had in effect become the Haupstadt, the European capital of occultism(51). The Gesellschaft für Psychologie, established by the official Baron
von Prell and the doctor von Schrenck-Notzing, was then in full swing and multiplying its exchanges with the spiritual underworlds in England, Italy and France. Nor did the heart of the modernist scene in Munich pass unnoticed by Stefan George’s circle. Moreover, in the plastic domain, along with vson Stuck and Marées, who carried the symbolist generation, one of the most celebrated painters in Munich was Gabriel von Max who painted portraits of sleepwalkers and spirits. His brother, photographer Henrich von Max, took photos of mediums in trance that Gabriel then used in his tableaus. Here, we notice a coincidence with the use of auras and halos which Duchamp tried his hand in with, for example, Portrait de Dumouchel. In 1907, the annual meeting of the Theosophical Society met in Munich and, between 1909 and 1913, the Mysteries of Rudolf Steiner were regularly played there. The great anthropology master(52), who in 1913 broke away to distinguish himself from the theosophy of Blavatsky, also promoted, during these years, conferences which were assiduously
attended by Klee, Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Gabriele Münter and Marianna van Werefkin. Did Duchamp listen in? If this disciple was reading so attentively, to the point where he made particular notes in Du spirituel dans l’art, wouldn’t he have been tempted to listen to the master? Did he go to see the Alchemy museum, in the future Deutsches Museum, with its cornues threaded one into the other like the sieves of the Large Glass? Without a doubt, and much more. It was in Munich in any case that he discovered the theme of his Grand Oeuvre and it was in a frenzy that he multiplied his approaches which would one day turn into the Large Glass : Virgin (No. 1), Virgin (No. 2), Mécanique de la Pudeur, Pudeur mécanique, Passage of the Virgin to the Bride, Bride.
* * *
In search of a non-retinal art, capable of taking into account the invisible and its manifestations, Duchamp very naturally gravitated towards these “seekers” and found photography to be the new
medium which would permit him to materialize these new phenomena. In 1922, on Christmas Day, in the Brevoort hotel in New York, he wrote to his brother Jacques Villon: “I know a photographer here who takes photos of the ectoplasm around a male medium – I had promised to help him in one of
the seances and then got lazy but it would have amused me a lot.”
“Metarealism” had never really stopped fascinating the man who, in the “Pistons de courant d’Air,” had always meant to photograph ectoplasm.
It was this direction that I undertook to define in Duchamp et la photographie(54).
But the work, which appeared in 1977, had come too early. Enthusiasm for photography had not yet been born. Above all, in the Parisian climate, one wasn’t disposed to admit that occultism, theosophy and spirituality had fed the imaginations of modern painters more than Lenin’s work or the treatises of Rood or Chevreul. It would have to wait twenty-eight years and through a series of exhibitions that would begin in Los Angeles with The Spiritual in Art(55)and culminate in Frankfurt with Okkultismus und Avant Garde(56)in order to see this approach not only validated, but triumphing over others.
Much since then has appeared which reveals the immense influence of the irrational at the turn of the century on the birth of the avant-garde(57).

Two unpublished sources

A little more than twenty years ago, in 1977, I attempted to present the fertile ground of this vein without taking much risk and committing myself to it. To establish the approach of the avant-garde from its curiosity with the occult instead of its solidarity with the proletariat, this would have been too much of a shock for the doxaof modernism.

click to enlarge

The cover of the book

11. The cover of the book by
Louis Farigoule, La Vision
extra-rétinienne et le sens
, 1921

Duchamp’s Gendered Plumbing: A Family Business?

click image to enlarge
Figure 1
Marcel Duchamp,
photograph by Alfred
Stieglitz from
The Blind Man
No. 2, 1917

When Duchamp in 1917 labeled a urinal an art work, a sculpture (Fig. 1), he raised questions that have engaged generations of critics, and the work continues to inspire artists.(1) Its designation as a fountain raises other questions; e.g., how could a piece of plumbing, a receptacle for standup male excretion, serve as a fountain that sprinkles water? The association of the “fountain” with the male organ makes some sense; but the recent view of critics that its round compact shape suggests female qualities compounds the paradox of reception/projection of fluid: did Duchamp conceive an incongruous representation in which a female’s anatomy, designed for a vertical drop, serves the function of horizontally directed discharge like the male’s? and was this conception unique, unprecedented?

The answers I propose are yes to his conception and no to its uniqueness.

In an irony that has not escaped his critics, the
(or its replicas) and all the other ready-mades of Duchamp, which he considered anaesthetic and antiretinal, remain on public view in museums as centers of attention and discourse, ccupying aesthetic space rather like the unrestored marks of an iconoclast or like the cracks in his definitively unfinished
Large Glass
. (Fig. 2) Their status grows in prominence among some critics even as other contemporary manifestations-for example by the Dadaists-fade into obscurity or a scholarly twilight zone.

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Large Glass
showing the crack
Figure 2
Marcel Duchamp,
Close-up view of the
Large Glass
showing the crack

No work seems more understated and prosaically obvious than the
Fountain, generally presented as a protest against the institution of gallery and museum exhibition. Yet this popular object continues to generate a big literature dedicated to the insatiable interpretation of its hidden implications. A recent theory claims that the work presented by Duchamp as a sample of prosaic American plumbing was not simply ready-made but artfully altered, confected to seem readymade: ars celare artem. This view has inspired erudite research among the manufacturers’s toilets and led some to conclude that Duchamp simulated the standardization.(2) This corroborates the view that at least some of the “mades” were not all “ready-” and merely selected, but evolved over time and with premeditation, a point that emerges also in the following discussion of the Fountain.

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Bottle Dryer
Figure 3
Marcel Duchamp,
Bottle Dryer,

Duchamp’s toilet sculpture makes an exquisitely ironic comment on the view circulating in France since the nineteenth century that advocates of utility-whether in philosophy, art or plumbing-were tasteless. (The epitome of industrial utility were of course the Anglo-Saxons, particularly the Americans.) As the champion of l’art pour l’art Théophile Gautier asserted in 1834, “There is nothing really beautiful save what is of no possible use. Everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need, and man’s needs are low and disgusting, like his own poor, wretched nature. The most useful place in a house is the water closet. / For my part … I am fond of things and people in inverse ratio to the service they render me. I prefer a Chinese vase with its mandarins and dragons, which is perfectly useless to me, to a utensil which I do use…”(3) It was with this aesthetics of tastelessness in mind that Duchamp the socioaesthetic gadfly wryly remarked (1946), “I threw the bottle rack (Fig. 3) and the urinal into their faces as a challenge, and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.”(4)

As noted above, the upright urinals were designed to receive and remove a standing man’s urination, his jet d’eau (“fountain”); in contrast the female’s downward stream favor(ing)s squatting.

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Mannekin-pis fountain, Brussels
Hellenistic marble
Figure 4
Mannekin-pis fountain, Brussels
Figure 5
Hellenistic marble
Fountain Nymph of
the second century A.D

This property yielded the convenience denied women of the stand-up pissoirs once common on public streets in France.(5) (Fig. 4) A German feminist, concerned about the gendered function of the urinal, argued that the Fountain
has an exclusionary significance for Frenchmen: its awkwardness for women embodies in her view an implicit sexism.(6)

Yet the Greeks already conceived of a fountain in which the water gushed from a standing female. The plumbing built into a Hellenistic marble Fountain Nymph of the second century A.D. allowed a strong, horizontally-directed flow of water, projecting a stream identical to that from the male organ. In this rare construction a round vaginal channel passes through the pelvis of the standing figure. The water moved through that passage toward a facing water basin, filling and overflowing it.(7) (Fig. 5) I don’t know whether Duchamp saw a version of this fountain in Paris or Munich, but the idea of adapting replicas of classical statues to contemporary household fixtures was quite common. In this increasingly commercial consumer society even hallowed works like the Venus de Milo could be subjected to caricature: the Vénus de Mille-eaux of 1896 resembles a kiosk plastered with stickers advertising-not fountains, but popular watering places. Thus, engaging the vast upsurge of middle class tourists seeking culture, humorists in anticipation of Duchamp’s
Fountain, made sport of bringing dignified classics down to a plebeian level.

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Portrait of
Tristan Tzara
Figure 6
Jean Arp, Portrait of
Tristan Tzara.1916.
Estate of the
artist: on loan to
the Musee d’Art
et d’Histoire, Geneva.
Portrait of
Princess X
Figure 7
Brancusi,Portrait of
Princess X, 1916

Duchamp generated something more than the ironic display of a provocatively vulgar and sexist object, and his piece bears comparison with some sculptures by his contemporaries. Duchamp in fact emphasized that in choosing an ordinary article of life, and causing its useful significance to disappear under the new title and point of view, he “created a new thought for that object.” The new thought in this protoconceptual piece involved, as we have seen, complicating the gender question by truncating the projecting tubes of the male utensil and rotating its axis. The compact form he devised emphasizes curvilinear lines, like the mechanomorphic female nudes of his friend Picabia; and it also suggests the r(R)eliefs Jean Arp made between 1916 and 1922,(Fig. 6) which Duchamp admired as among the most convincing sculptures of that “antirationalist era,” adding that “his Concretions are like a three-dimensional pun on the female body.”(8) More directly relevant to the Fountain’s implied androgyny is a sculpture exhibited in 1917 in the same Independents exhibition that refused the Fountain-Brancusi’s Portrait of Princess X
of 1916, (Fig. 7) notorious for uniting in one piece phallic and female aspects.(9)

A subtle-or controversial-source for the Fountain
arguably comes from the collages of Picasso and Braque. When Duchamp rejected Cubist painting-notably the variant practiced by his brothers and their friends at the Section d’Or-he turned to selecting and modifying objects available for purchase. This move to readymades was inspired I believe by the example of Cubist collage, admittedly as an intellectual response to its concept. He made ironic comments or exaggerations of the formal or verbal games of Picasso and Braque, who for example suggested making a “urinal” from a “(jo)ur(i)nal” and-anticipating his play on Q in LHOOQ-insinuated a playful androgyny in the letter Q (a hole with a cedilla) and in the hollow frontal tubes of pipes (derived from the famous Grebo mask’s eyes?).(10) In contrast to the artistic finesse of these androgynous tubes, the frontal hole of Duchamp’s Fountain -at once a truncated penis and a protruding vagina-seems like an artless display of plumbing.

By displaying this utensil upside down-inverting it-Duchamp slyly enhanced the uncertainty of the object’s gender, intimating its androgyny.(11) Aas in note 13 described the Fountain as a receptacle for the male “jet” turned upside-down and made female, a vagina potentially containing its own fluids. This inversion that accentuates the feminine lines of a utensil intended for males, provides one more example of the theme of androgyny so often noted in Duchamp’s work.(12)

The Fountain provided Duchamp with a field suited to his prankish humor about his own gender identity. One of the most important books on the Fountain opens with the remark, “We do not even know with absolute certainty that Duchamp was the artist-he himself once attributed it to a female friend …”(13) The confusion of authorship and gender culminated a few years later in his female persona Rrose Sélavy, a playful transformation of his sex, name and religion; but he may have adumbrated the Fountain’s link of female to male (urinal) earlier in his notes of 1914 for the Large Glass. In one of them he says that “one only has: for female the public urinal and one lives by it.”(14) It seems to me that “one lives” anticipates the name Rrose Sélavy (arrose, c’est la vie).(15) A drawing for the Large Glass traces a parabolic trajectory of water spurting like urinary discharge. The text next to it curiously associates fountain (jet d’eau) or water spray and a subtle confusion of genders: “MOULIN A EAU / Chute d’eau / Une sorte de jet d’eau arrivant de loin en demi-cercle-par-dessus les moules malic.”(16) The word moules embodies androgynous meaning: on the one hand it is defined as male by the adjective malic as the mold for the bachelors; on the other hand a second definition of moule means mussel, which served as a metaphor in Parisian modernist circles to signify the vulve.(17)

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Family Portrait
Figure 8
Marcel Duchamp,
Family Portrait (1899),1964
Rhonda Roland Shearer COLLECTION

Can Duchamp’s archly subversive efforts to bring together the genders have covered a personal agenda? Perhaps his endless fascination with the coincidentia oppositorum evidenced in the Fountain’s implicit androgyny can provide a brief glimpse beneath his otherwise impersonal facade. I am by no means alone in elevating Duchamp above the impersonal collectivity of the Dadaist movement.(18) In 1964 Duchamp exhibited a photo of his family cut to fit into a replica of the Fountain , a devoutly irreverent monument perhaps prompted by the death of his brother Jacques Villon the year before.(Fig. 8) This is a photomontage composed of photos from 1899 showing the 12 year old Marcel in the center beneath his mother holding a baby and above his father and two sisters. An inked out form between the sisters might have been a photo of his deceased brother Jacques. He had often over the course of his career created figure groups directly or indirectly suggesting family pictures: his brothers playing chess; the King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes ; and the Big Glass with its cloud “parents” above and “bachelors” below.(19)

Family photo in a urinal. Androgyny. Pseudonymous roles-male and female. All this would seem to invite psychological analysis; but the personality of this wily chess master, a connoisseur of stalemates, has discouraged analyses of his motivations. We may note, it is true, that the jarring discord between a family photo and its unseemly location recalls a description of the Freudian family scene in which all differences-gender, age, love and hate, the oedipal triangle-merge in incestuous union;(20) moreover, that as Rrose Sélavy Duchamp once equated incest and a “passion de famille.” However, the approach of Adlerian Individual psychology may offer a more direct access to his intentions. Such an approach would interpret his behavior as largely a reflex of his place in the family constellation-a middle child between siblings of opposite gender.

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Portrait of
the Artist’s FatherThe King and Queen
Surrounded by Swift
Figure 9
Marcel Duchamp,Portrait of
the Artist’s Father, 1910
Figure 10
Marcel Duchamp, The King and Queen
Surrounded by Swift Nudes, 1912

Marcel was the youngest of the three artist sons of Eugène Duchamp, a well-to-do notary, and experienced an apparently normal and happy childhood in an affectionate family milieu. His father tolerated and even supported financially the artistic ambitions of his sons. In 1910 Duchamp painted a loving Cézannesque portrait of his seated father with a large urn over his left shoulder.(Fig. 9) Rather than engaging in a simple Oedipal revolt against the father’s prosaic job as notary, he entered into a complex dialectic with him. His older siblings already broke with the bourgeois profession of his father, and Duchamp like them rebelled professionally (a position epitomized, perhaps in The King nd Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes
of 1913 (Fig. 10)). As the most rebellious sibling and the last-born male Duchamp invites the Adlerian thesis that personality is determined by birth order of children within a family.(21)Duchamp’s case is rather complex since as last of three males in a family of six children he was at once last born and middle child. Adlerian Individual Psychology says of the middle child,(22)especially the male, that he will sometimes become a rebel, either covertly or overtly, but that if not encouraged he could drop out of competition and become an observer. Forced to be self-sufficient he will seek out an independent path. While defying authority figures, he can keep a lower profile or stay out of the limelight.(23)

In seeking out an independent place for himself Duchamp implicitly rebelled against his brothers’ authority, rejecting their use of traditional materials and techniques in favor of technology and commercial materials. He mimicked his brothers’ interest in science especially optics, transmogrified into a mocking pataphysics, an unstable mixture of Jarry and Leonardo.(24) In the end he assimilated the logic and scrupulous attention to detail of his father the notary while rejecting the life style of the staid bourgeois: he carefully filled notebooks (for the Large Glass) with systematic calculations so obscurely self-referential that many are incomprehensible. In doing so he created an onanistic Summa filled with overt and covert sexual annotations: the art of the notary turned into a notarial art.

All this certainly describes the famous anonymous author of R. Mutt’s Fountain, an artist who celebrated and profaned his family by placing their image at the bottom of a urinal (illustrating his fa