Fasten your Seatbelts
as we Prepare for our Nude Descending

by Edward D. Powers

the "passage" may literally be the anatomical route...
-- Dawn Ades, Neil Cox, David Hopkins

Rites of Passage: t / here

click to enlarge
Figure 8
Paul Cézanne,
Bibémus Quarry
, c. 1895,
Museum Folkwang, Essen
Figure 9
Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even [the Large Glass], 1915-23
Contrary to de Duve's claim of the somehow epiphanic significance of Kandinsky and "Secession"--to which Duchamp was introduced during his 1912 Munich sojourn(18)--even in Germany, the artist still speaks the lingua franca, not of Kandinsky and non-objective art, but rather of Cézanne and Cubism (Fig. 8). The Berlin "Secession", he writes to his brother Jacques Villon, "finally allowed me to see how young French painting was looking abroad... I was really pleased to find they have Cubism here, it was so long since I'd seen any. And that certainly played a part in my having a soft spot for Berlin".(19) Indeed, in their analogous obsession with the problem of the background, Duchamp spends the better part of a lifetime pursuing both the Cubists, and especially the Master of Aix. As he explains to Francis Roberts:

The main point is the subject, the figure. It needs no reference. It is not in relation. All that background on the canvas that had to be thought about, tactile space like wallpaper, all that garbage, I wanted to sweep it away... The question of painting in background is degrading for the painter. The thing you want to express is not in that background.(20)

Of course, the greatest testament to Duchamp's efforts in this regard is his largely lacunary Large Glass (1915-23) (Fig. 9). Yet because the "ground" can never be eliminated, not even by the changeable view to the other side of the Large Glass, for Duchamp, rather, it was at first a question of how necessarily to oppose figure to ground, yet otherwise to elide them: in other words, a formal-as-conceptual question of Cézannian / Cubist "passage".(21)

Notwithstanding Duchamp's 1910 portraits of his father ensconced in an armchair (Fig. 10), or of his brothers playing chess at an off-miter card table (Fig. 11), it is not in these superficially Cézannesque treatments, but rather in such early conceptual experiments as Avoir l'apprenti dans le soleil [To Have the Apprentice in the Sun] (1914) (Fig. 12) that Duchamp's obsession with the background first comes to the fore. In this drawing of a bicyclist racing uphill, yet executed on sheet-music paper, the generative idea is straightforwardly revealed by the title:
avoir l'apprenti dans le soleil = à voir: l'empreinte qui dans le sol est

given to sight: the imprint which is in the ground
click on images to enlarge
Figure 10
Figure 11
Figure 12
Marcel Duchamp, Portrait of the Artist's Father, 1910
Marcel Duchamp, The Chess Game, 1910
Marcel Duchamp, Avoir l'apprenti dans le soleil [To Have the Apprentice in the Sun], 1914

click to enlarge
Figure 13
Marcel Ducahmp, Musical Erratum, 1913

In Apprentice, then, although figuration is inherently opposed to the space of musical notation, nevertheless, the ascending figure of the bicyclist is, at once, conceptually assimilated to the ascent of the musical scale itself. For "sol" refers not only to the title sun ["soleil"] of the drawing--the very precondition of what is given to sight--but also to the rising ground ["sol"] which the bicyclist ascends, exactly as the musical scale does also ["sol" = key of G(22)]. In the relationship of its imprint ["empreinte"] to its sheet-music paper as ground ["sol"], Apprentice in fact revisits another work of just the prior year, Musical Erratum (1913) (Fig. 13), which Duchamp scores for three voices, and whose lyrics he exactly appropriates from a dictionary definition of imprint ["imprimer"].(23) In this "musical mistake", both the aleatory lyrics themselves, as well as the equal value of the notes, and their arbitrary order and range, all participate in the artist's contemporary experiments with objective chance. Most telling of all, however, are the respective relationships of the "imprints", or "figures", in Musical Erratum and Apprentice to their otherwise identical "ground". However unconventional the lyrics and notes in Musical Erratum, nevertheless, their relationship as musical notation to their sheet-music paper as ground is entirely conventional. In Apprentice, by contrast, that relationship--analogizing the ascent of the bicyclist to that of the musical scale and, therefore, the figure to the ground--has been entirely conceptualized. As Duchamp explains, "before the Nude my paintings were visual. After that they were ideatic":(24) not only in how they convey the "passage" from figure to ground, however, but also in how they figure the ascent of a bicyclist, like the descent of a nude, and movement more generally.

click to enlarge
Figure 14
Figure 15
Marcel Ducahmp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912
Marcel Ducahmp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 1, 1911
Indeed, the difference between the second version of Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase (1912) (Fig. 14) and the first version (1911) (Fig. 15) is exactly this: the sense of depth, evidenced by the inward-turning spiral staircase, which the second version specifically de-emphasizes, and instead replaces with a more conventionally "chronophotographic" foreground-as-frieze, inspired by Duchamp's interest in the time-lapse imagery of such photographic pioneers as Etienne-Jules Marey (DDS 170-1; WMD 124).(25) Yet rather than developing in and through space--conceived in both the first and the second Nude as an analogously chronophotographic process of successively doubling the figure--both Passage and Bride are irreducibly whole: constituted of jigsaw-like elements which are unrepeated and, as such, cannot depict the sort of spatio-temporal trajectory whose "there", as in either Nude, is but the displaced double of its "here". Rather, the psycho-sexual trajectory, or Passage,(26) from Virgin to Bride, Duchamp instead figures as the forked rods terminating in semicircles which, at the center of the second Nude, Passage and Bride, variously exemplify "Le Pendu Femelle" (Fig. 7(b)-(d)); together with the chronophotographic cues of Morse Code-like dots and dashes which, similarly inspired by Marey's time-lapse imagery, in both the second Nude and Passage, Duchamp specifically localizes about "Le Pendu Femelle": as a series of inscribed arcs in the former; an extremely irregular polygon in the latter. For "Le Pendu Femelle" is exactly what we should expect to find in a state of chronophotographic flux as our Virgin first transits to Bride, as evidenced by the presence of these cues in her Kama Sutra-like Passage; no longer to be in a state of flux once our Virgin has definitively arrived there, as evidenced by the absence of these cues, now, as Bride; and, in any event, invariably to swing, "pendu"(lum)-like, as our nude bridegroom descends the staircase, as evidenced by the presence of these cues, first of all, in the second Nude. By contrast, all reference to "Le Pendu Femelle" is, appropriately, entirely absent from either version of Duchamp's eternally nubile Virgin.

click to enlarge
Figure 16
Figure 17
Marcel Ducahmp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 3, 1916
Marcel Ducahmp, Sad Young Man on a Train, 1911

The male-ish gender of the second Nude, whose title is admittedly neutral on this score,(27) is further confirmed by Duchamp's inscription of the third Nude (1916) (Fig. 16) as the son ["fils"], presumably, of the second: "Marcel Duchamp [Fils] / 1912-1916", as the third Nude reveals at recto. Doubtless, "daughter" would have better served the same filial purpose, were not the second Nude male; the third Nude a replica of the second; and both, in this sense, a reprise of another nude young man, from just the month before the second Nude: Duchamp's Sad Young Man on a Train (1911) (Fig. 17). Sad Young Man is a painting of "two parallel movements corresponding to each other" which, Duchamp elaborates, are those of the train and of the sad young man passing through its corridor.28) However, the artist also provides us with two further and frankly anomalous details: the nude young man is a self-portrait--"Marcel Duchamp / nu (esquisse) / Jeune homme triste dans un train...", as he inscribes the picture at verso--in which he is smoking a pipe.(29) An entire series of only barely symbolic, yet closely related "parallel movements" thus emerges, according to which everything rather starts to resemble the phallus: from the erect young man penetrating the train's "corridor"; to the train, itself, surely entering the tunnel of his symbolic; where the pipe he smokes is no longer one--for, "faire une pipe" is not to make a pipe, as Magritte's picture famously disavows (Fig. 18), but rather "to give a blow job". Indeed, the "parallel movements" of Sad Young Man and, separated by only a month, the second Nude are entirely comparable: the nude young man, who at first penetrates a venerably Freudian corridor, in turn, descends an equally venerable staircase:(30) exactly the psycho-sexual Passage which the title work nominally regenders. No differently, the swing of his "pipe" in Sad Young Man, at first replaced by that of his "pendu"(lum) in the second Nude, Duchamp analogously regenders as "Le Pendu Femelle" in both Passage and Bride. Rather, the salient difference between Sad Young Man and the second Nude is the use of chronophotographic cues in the latter -- to supplement the similarly chronophotographic process of successively doubling the figure in both works--in a way which specifically isolates and identifies "Le Pendu Femelle". The source of these chronophotographic cues--in the time-lapse imagery of the foils Marey's fencers wield -- exactly re-emphasizes the phallic aspect of "Le Pendu Femelle" by transforming Marey's fencers' foils into the "phallic barbs" which, as John Golding observes, everywhere proliferate throughout Duchamp's first stab at The Bride Stripped Bare By The Bachelors (1912) (Fig. 19).(31) >>Next

click to enlarge
Figure 18
Figure 19
René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929
Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare By The Bachelors, 1912




page 1 2 3 4 5 6


17. Dawn Ades, Neil Cox, David Hopkins, Marcel Duchamp (N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1999) 55.

18. De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, pp. 96-118. See also Anne d'Harnoncourt, Kynaston McShine, eds., Marcel Duchamp (N.Y.: Museum of Modern Art, 1973) 263, where Duchamp refers to Munich as "the scene of my complete liberation", albeit without explanation.

19. Marcel Duchamp, Affectionately, Marcel: The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Francis Naumann, Hector Obalk, trans. Jill Taylor (Ghent: Ludion Press, 2000) 26. But it's also unclear how Duchamp's defining gestures -- not only the famous fracas caused by the second Nude at the Armory Show, but also the scandalous submission of Fountain to the New York Independents exhibition -- betrays even the slightest influence of German "Secession", rather than the specifically discontinuous model of Parisian avant-garde rejection, to which de Duve opposes it.

20. Roberts, "Interview with Marcel Duchamp", p. 46. See also Duchamp, Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, p. 18.

21. See Ades, Cox, Hopkins, Marcel Duchamp, p. 55. Cézanne, therefore, is not only the "retinal" painter whom Duchamp consistently excoriates, but also the "father" of Modernist art (in de Duve's sense) whom Duchamp, by instead conceptualizing the "retinal" figure-ground problem, both overthrows and, at once, becomes.

22. Carol James, "Duchamp's Silent Noise / Music for the Deaf", in Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, ed. Rudolf Kuenzli, Francis Naumann (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T., 1990) 113.

23. Duchamp's lyrical definition reads: "Faire une empreinte; marquer des traits; une figure sur une surface; imprimer un sceau sur cire" [Make an imprint; mark with lines; a figure on a surface; impress a seal in wax] (DDS 52-53; WMD 34).

24. Roberts, "Interview with Marcel Duchamp", p. 46.

25. E.g. Duchamp, Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, p. 34; Roberts, "Interview with Marcel Duchamp", p. 46; Katherine Kuh, The Artist's Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists (N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1962) 83.

26. On Passage as instantiating a sort of spatio-temporal collapse, see Jonathan Crary, "Marcel Duchamp's 'The Passage from Virgin to Bride'", Arts Magazine, vol. 51, no. 5 (Jan. 1977): 96-99.

27. In a 1916 interview, Duchamp circumvents the question of the second Nude's gender as follows: "'Is it a woman?' this young but very world-weary Frenchman repeated after me... 'No. Is it a man? No... The Nude descending a staircase is an abstraction of movement'". Dawn Ades, "Duchamp's Masquerades", in The Portrait in Photography, ed. Graham Clarke (London: Reaktion Books, 1992), pp. 102-3. For a balanced reading of the second Nude's possible gender(s), see Ades, Cox, Hopkins, Marcel Duchamp, pp. 48-51.

28. Duchamp, Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, p. 29.

29. Duchamp, Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, p. 33.

30. See Marcel Jean, The History of Surrealist Painting, trans. Simon Taylor (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960) 34.

31. See John Golding, Marcel Duchamp: The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (N.Y.: Viking Press, 1973) 41. Duchamp's title Disk Inscribed with Pun (1926) makes the connection between foil and phallus explicit: "Avez vous déjà mis la moëlle de l'épée dans le poêle de l'aimée?" [Haven't you already put the stem of the foil in the stove of the goil?] (cf. DDS 153; WMD 106).


Figs. 9-17, 19
©2003 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.