Tag Archives: Duchamp

Melbourne May 2020

Usually I would have gone look at some art galleries but instead I stayed at home for another week. With all of Melbourne’s art galleries closed or only open by appointment or holding online exhibitions I feel that many of my subject matter for blog posts has gone. And there are only so many stories that I can write about local public sculpture, graffiti, street art, and walks around Coburg that I haven’t already written. However, I am not about to complain as I am well aware that the flaneur is in a privileged position.

Nick Miller, the Arts Editor for The Age, asked on the Victorian government “when libraries museums and galleries might open?” Their response: ‘We will have more to say about the further cautious easing of restrictions in due course.’

Various publicist’s emails tell a different story; some art galleries will be resuming their exhibition programmes in early to mid July. Boroondara’s Town Hall Gallery will re-open 11 July, Off the Kerb will re-open on the 4th and Mars Gallery is open now. Getting to them by public transport will be another issue.

I don’t often write posts under my category of blogging; generally at the end of the year or other milestones. I thought that I might have to write a few more of them during this lockdown along with some more book reviews or ‘listicals’, like: 10 artists you don’t need to know about. I didn’t imagine that I would be able to keep writing blog posts 10 weeks into Melbourne’s lockdown. How long I can keep writing these blog posts doing this is another question but when I can’t I’ll take a short break.

I have tried to research an article about Marcel Duchamp and Spanish Flu but it did pan out. You might think that having lived through it that he might have made some mention of it in his letters. All I found a letter from Buenos Aires, 10th January 1919 to Louise Arensberg: “Je suis vraiment navré de la mort de Schamberg et je me demande d’où vient cette vague de mort. Appollinaire, j’ai appris de France, est mort de la grippe il y a quelques mois déja.”C’est désolant.” (I am really upset about the death of Schamberg and wonder where this wave of death is coming from. Apollinaire, I heard from France, died of the flu several months ago now. It’s so distressing.) And three days later describing himself as “your immune baby” in English in a letter to Ettie Stettheimer. (Affectionately, Marcel – the selected correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, edited by Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk, Ludion Press, 2000 p.74 & 77, see my book review.)

In non-COVID lockdown related news, notable Melbourne street artist Lushsux has been hospitalised after being bashed. I am sending him some of my thoughts and all of my prayers.


Artists & Creators

People often write to me, or talk with me, with a fixed idea of what it is to an artist. (I will leave the “no true artist” fallacy aside.) An artist is someone who creates art. Before we rush to the big question of what is art; what is it to create something and remember that not all creators are artists, there are many jobs that require creativity.

detail of Evangelos Sakaris, “Word and Way”, 2001

detail of Evangelos Sakaris, “Word and Way”, 2001

There is the eye, the breath and the hand of the creator.

The eyes, or ears in the case of musicians, process the world in a unique mind. Creativity starts in the mind. Eyes are especially important to photographers. The eye as an extension of the mind interprets the world. It selects, organises and focuses.

The breath or the word, written or spoken, of the artist is also important to the creative act. The breath is of critical importance to poets and writers in finding their ‘voice’ but there are other creative uses for the voice. The director is speaking to actors before they perform, so the voice is not heard by the audience. The visual artist may also be directing assistants. Visual artist’s word has always been there quietly declaring that a work is finished. For many centuries the word of visual artists was overlooked until Duchamp and the Dadaists brought it front and centre again.

The hand of the artist has often been written about. The hand of the artist has been praised especially with pen and ink drawing, where the hand is clearly visible. The hand of the artist is also evident in virtuoso musicians and by extension the whole body for actors and dancers. The signature is seen as the embodiment of the hand, but no one is claiming that one creations directly from the hand of the artist are valid art, demanding the read novels in the original handwritten manuscript or decrying all novels after the invention of the typewriter.

Not that all artists use the eye, the breath and the hand equally, different arts emphasise different attributes or combinations. To assume that one way of creating is the only true and correct way is a mistake. To assume that all artists must use their hands ignores all the other ways of creating. The great man doing it all himself is itself a macho idea and forgets that some visual artists can work mostly with their eye and breath.

Not all painters are artists. Discussing Betsy, a chimpanzee from the Baltimore Zoo that did some painting the philosopher George Dickie notes: “Betsy (the chimp) would not (I assume) be able to conceive of herself in such a way as to be a member of the art world and, hence, would not be able to confer the relevant status.”

To be an artist, an artist must have the idea that they are creating art, a word that is used to describe the creative output of artists. They have to learn to use this word in a society, to talk about it with thumping music playing in the room. To exhibit their art and have other people describe it as art. What exactly art is, or if this word has any meaning, is the subject of endless discussion, a discourse that in itself, defines art. (As Andy said, “Art, isn’t that a man’s name?”) Part of the problem with identifying what the word “art” means is that there have been multiple meanings in the last hundred years alone but that is another subject.


Duchamp’s Letters

Other people are a mystery that we attempt to solve by creating a story based on what we know about them. These biographies attempt to understand a person but will always fail. And they will always be subject to revision due to new evidence. Providing new documentary evidence on Duchamp is Affectionately, Marcel – the selected correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, edited by Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk (Ludion Press, 2000)

As a Duchamp aficionado reading his selected correspondence subtly altered my view of him again. Duchamp research had already reached a fever pitch when I finished my thesis in 1991 and continued through the 90s. Academic careers have been built on studying Duchamp. Affectionately, Marcel raised some controversy even before it was published: “Duchamp Scholars Face Off in Art in America Hate Mail” by Jeffery Hogrefe, (10/1/99) New York Observer 

Affectionately, Marcel is exceptionally annotated, transcribed and laid out with care; with sidenotes including mini-biographies of people mentioned in letters. Most of the letters are in French (translations are provided), Duchamp arrives in New York unable to speak English but later letters show a developing confidence in English.

There is no dirt; the hot love letters to Marie Martins are not included in this book, her family still wishes to keep them private. The letters to his family, friends and other artists provide details about his life and loves. Duchamp is surprisingly patriotic in WWI and although unfit for military service does volunteer work at the French Embassy in New York. His letters tell more about the effect of Prohibition or WWII on his life than art.

Duchamp’s correspondence demonstrates that for most of his life he did not think of himself as an artist. Paris, 19 Oct. 1923  “All painting and sculpture exhibitions make me sick. And I would like to avoid being associated with them.” These letters are about Duchamp as trainee librarian, French teacher, cinema cameraman, chess player, businessman, exhibition organizer and art dealer.

There is some new information in the book about Duchamp’s art. There is a letter to his sister Suzanne describing the Fountain scandal attributes its creation to a female friend. Signing his letters Rrose Selavy, Rose-Mar-cel, Duch etc. Duchamp states that Rrose Selavy’s date of birth is 1920 and it is apparent from the letters that Rrose Selavy was a business name for some of Duchamp’s ventures.

However the information most of interest to art historians concerns Duchamp’s dealings with other artists, collectors and museums. He writes many letters about arranging exhibitions, loans of art, and importing art to the USA (including when Brancusi sculptures were classified as “not art” by US Customs). There are plenty of details about the art business even though Duchamp is continually making disparaging remarks about art dealers.

Duchamp would have preferred emails; he wishes that telegrams were not so expensive. There are a few telegrams in the book including the well-known “Pode Bal” telegram to Tzara regarding Duchamp’s non-participation in Salon Dada. Not so well known is that it is addressed to Jean Crotti.

“It’s very hard to say in just a few words, especially for me as I have no faith – religious kind – in artistic activity as a social value. Artists throughout the ages are like Monte Carlo gamblers and the blind lottery pulls some of through and ruins others. To my mind, neither the winners nor the losers are worth bothering about. It’s a good business deal for the winner and a bad one for the loser. I do not believe in painting per se. A painting is made not by the artist but by those who look at it and grant it their favors. In other words, no painter knows himself or what he is doing.”

Marcel Duchamp to Jean Crotti 17 August, 1952


Kitchen Passions

The readymade is, in an odd way, a part of the history of still life painting or photography. Duchamp’s readymades are best known through photographs reproduced in art history books. Duchamp’s readymades hardly exist, those that actually exist are mostly limited edition reproductions; this is of no importance because they are not ‘retinal’ works of art but ideas. The artist chooses an object and make it art; it really doesn’t matter if the object exists in a photograph or physically because ultimately it exists as art only in the mind of the viewer.

Maree Alexander’s exhibition of photographs, Behind Closed Doors at Jenny Port Gallery is a beautiful and surreal use of readymades. The relationship that Alexander creates in her photographs between readymade objects creates new Surreal meanings. Surrealism included Duchamp’s idea of the readymade in their repertoire of techniques. Surrealism is a way of understanding the world, a world charged with unexpected meanings from the unconsciousness. And the Surreal unconscious is, not surprisingly given their Freudian influences, a sexually charged world.

Alexander’s readymades, like Duchamp’s, frequently have sexual overtones. Alexander’s kitchen ceramic objects are animated. Lemon squeezers mate with each other, a jug and teapot kiss as honey runs along their lips, a round jug presses a curved glass into a corner. There is a masculine or feminine aspect to many of the objects that Alexander has used. A small ceramic bird begs for food from the leg of a larger upturned jug.

Duchamp’s readymades were frequently purchased in a hardware shops; Maree Alexander’s readymades are found in kitchens (sourced from friends, op-shops and garage sales)

Alexander’s photographs of these surreal readymades have pale tones and a cool gaze. But behind the closed cupboard doors Maree Alexander’s objects are passionate entities.


Stencil Art 1930s

Here are a few details about stencil art techniques in 1930s gleamed from the letters of Marcel Duchamp. At that time stencils were used as an alternative to expensive color printing processes to produce add colors at an affordable price. Duchamp was using professional stencil men in 1934 preparing a stencil reproduction of the Large Glass for his Green Box and, in 1937, to arrange printing of Katherine Dreier’s 40 Variations.

To Henri-Pierre Roché, Paris, 18 May 1934 “…with my stencil man. We’re having a lot of trouble and I have to make him another tracing of all the stencils he’s to make in order hopefully to achieve a result.” (p.189)

To Katherine Dreier, Paris 25 June 1937 “The news are good but slow – Naturally the printing in black of the lithograph was finished long ago – and the 3200 prints taken to the ‘colorist’ who expected to finish in a month. I called him up yesterday and I am to see, in a few days, half of the whole work cut our and ready for color-brushing. This means that his main work consists of cutting out in the zinc foil the areas for each color – The actual brushing of the color does not take much time. Anyway we will have to wait until August before his work is finished.” (p.212)

It seems safe to assume that a “colorist” and a “stencil man” (“homme du pochoir”) are the same. The use of “zinc foil” for the stencils makes sense given the number of prints to stencil and plastics were still being invented. The color is brushed through the stencil and not sprayed because aerosol paint cans were not invented until 1949.

All quotes are from Affectionately, Marcel – the selected correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, edited by Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk (Ludion Press, 2000)


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