Sounds like hell to me

Michael Wood

  • Duchamp: A Biography by Calvin Tomkins
    Chatto, 350 pp, £25.00, April 1997, ISBN 0 7011 6642 8
  • The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp by Arturo Schwartz
    Thames and Hudson, 292 pp, £145.00, September 1997, ISBN 0 500 09250 8

You step up to the wooden door, a heavy, rustic affair set in a brick arch, and you peer through two small holes conveniently set at around head height. You do this not because you are a snoop, but because this is an installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Even so, you feel like a snoop, and worse. As Calvin Tomkins says, no amount of practice or mental preparation will diminish the complicated shock of what you see on the other side of the door. This has to do partly with the meticulous realism of what is in the foreground, partly with the tacky artificiality of the background; and has everything to do with the failed combination of the two, with your inability to get them to go together or even cancel each other out. The moment you reach for an overall interpretation, you feel you are losing the stubborn individuality of the bits of the scene, their separate stories. If you decide the stubborn bits are all there is, you feel you are missing a larger message, and trying to make yourself comfortable when you are not.

In the foreground, seen through a large jagged hole in a brick wall the other side of the door, is the life-size naked body of a woman, shaved pubis and genitalia open towards you – or, more precisely, an expert imitation of such a body, made of leather on a metal or plaster frame. Art historians will, and do, recognise the parodic allusion to Courbet’s The Origin of the World, but there is something about the effect of firm but slightly mottled flesh in three dimensions which takes you into another realm, that of the criminal investigation, for instance, where a corpse is often supposed to be left exactly as it is for what seems like an indecent length of time. But is this a corpse? Tomkins sees in it a satisfied woman sleeping it off, and says ‘many observers’ have found the pose ‘clearly post-coital’. The figure is anonymous, because the head is cut off, so to speak, by the brick wall and the angle of vision allowed by the holes in the door. No matter how you squint and change your position, you can’t see a face, only a hank of blonde hair. The body is lying on an alarmingly real and prickly bed of thick twigs, and – this is where the complications start – the left arm, either still alive or frozen as if in life, is outstretched, and the left hand holds an ancient gas lamp, of the kind known, after the name of their inventor, as the Bec Auer. The background is a flat and deeply unconvincing postcard-style landscape of woods and mountains, tinted purple for romantic effect. In the far right, twinkling like a pair of shoes in The Wizard of Oz, is a tiny waterfall, an alternating glow simulating, without any real plausibility, the splash of the cascade. The installation is called Etant donnés: 1. la chute d’eau/2. le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. the waterfall/2. the gas lamp). It is Marcel Duchamp’s last work, and was first seen in 1969, some eight months after his death.

If you work from the body towards the title of Etant donnés, you find yourself interrupted by all kinds of cultural temptations. The lamp looks allegorical, and the body too – we could call the scene the ‘Decapitated Light of the World’, or even, more theatrically, just Fanny by Gaslight. If this is a happy sexual aftermath, why, as Tomkins asks, ‘this harsh and desiccated bower’? Why is the waterfall so tiny and so kitschy, and what can it have to do with the body? And aren’t you pursuing these questions just to get away from the irreducible nearness of the human figure, the horrible intimacy with what has to feel like a violation, of privacy if nothing else? Jerrold Seigel, in The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp, says the body’s lack of pubic hair ‘creates as explicitly physical and ... brutal a representation of sexuality as possible’.

If you work from the title towards the body, the ground seems logically firmer, but also full of traps, invitations to over-confidence. The title is a quotation from Duchamp’s notes for his own earlier work known as the Large Glass, and formally called The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, ‘definitively unfinished’ in 1923. Given the waterfall and the gas lamp, this note says, ‘we shall determine the conditions of instantaneous Repose (or allegorical appearance) of a succession of diverse facts which seem related to one another by laws, in order to isolate the sign of the accordance between, on the one hand, this Repose ... and, on the other hand, a selection of Possibilities authorised by these laws and also determining them.’ There is a lot of owlish hocus-pocus here – Julio Cortázar called the Large Glass the last cold joke – and the tone is perhaps more important than anything that is being said. A sexual or homicidal act is being treated as if it were an experiment in physics, as if we could proceed methodically, without a hitch or an emotion, from the gas lamp and the waterfall to the appeased or slaughtered body. When Duchamp says, later in life, that the word ‘law’ is against his principles, he is not contradicting himself, although he was not averse to that. He is reminding us of his irony.

Duchamp was born near Rouen in 1887, lived in New York for extended periods on several occasions. He was regularly treated as a founder of Dada and Surrealism, and he was certainly in sympathy with their dedication to irreverence, but he kept aloof from all movements, and indeed from most things. He was married twice, the second time happily and for 14 years, until he died; the first time for only a few months. On the first occasion the apparently unworldly master seems to have married for money and discovered there wasn’t enough, and that marriage was harder than he thought. He wasn’t that unworldly. He cared little for material goods and possessions and gave much of his own work away; but he also made a tidy living selling other people’s work, and he was a great organiser of exhibitions.

For large portions of his life, chess seems to have been his only passion. He played for the French national team, and ranked fairly high in a number of major international competitions. He was perhaps better known for his readymades – the bicycle wheel, the urinal, the snow shovel – than for his paintings. The most famous of his jokes about art was his drawing a moustache and a small goatee on a reproduction of La Gioconda, with the letters L.H.O.O.Q. printed by hand beneath. Pronounced in French, these letters sound like Elle a chaud au cul, ‘she is hot in the ass’ (and not quite, as we are usually told, ‘she has a hot ass’ – there is a difference between desire and appreciation). An even better joke is Duchamp’s later version of the famous picture. This one also has L.H.O.O.Q. written on it, and is signed by Duchamp, but has no moustache or beard, just is a reproduction of the painting. Duchamp has added the word rasée, ‘shaven’, as if to make the original into the later work, and to make us see the now invisible hair not only on the copy but on Da Vinci’s original.

The amazing Duchamp collection in Philadelphia is like a race through modern painting – through and out the other side. A few steps round the room take you from Impressionism to Cézanne and Cubism and beyond. After that there are readymades, a small painting on glass, and an intricate suitcase affair which contains miniature reproductions of most of Duchamp’s work. Here are the major paintings The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes and The Bride, both from 1912, and the notorious Nude Descending a Staircase of the same year, which was the scandal of the New York Armory Show in 1913, and is often taken to represent the arrival of the 20th century in America. Writers on Duchamp are now a little cautious about his painting – in part no doubt because he was himself so dismissive about it and painted no canvas after 1918. ‘Not a great picture,’ Tomkins says of Nude; and Seigel remarks that ‘there may not be many people today who prefer Duchamp’s work to that of, say, Picasso or Matisse – nor should there be.’

It’s true that Nude has become one of the great clichés of Modernism, and a fashionable restaurant in Philadelphia has based its whole decor on it, so that even the staircase is wallpapered with Nude Descending a Staircase. But it’s hard to resist the sheer brittle energy of the thing, the swishing, clanking effect of this long metallic figure shown as if in blurred multiple exposure. Octavio Paz says it looks less like armour than like coachwork or a fuselage. Early critics, quoted by Seigel, said it was like ‘a lot of disused golf clubs and bags’, ‘an assortment of half-made leather saddles’, ‘an elevated railroad stairway in ruins after an earthquake’, an ‘orderly heap of broken violins’ and ‘an explosion in a shingle factory’. The fact that we can scarcely tell the abuse from the compliments in these descriptions is important, and should send us back to the picture.

But the centrepiece of the room and of the collection is the Large Glass, two panels, almost nine feet high altogether, five and a half feet wide, with what looks like a cross between an insect and a peculiar car engine to the left of the upper panel (this is the Bride), and a long horizontal cloud (the Bride at the moment of her blossoming) across the top; with an elaborate array of appliances in the lower panel, representing nine Bachelors and the various bits of machinery they need to get them going. The pictured elements are marked out by oil paint and wire (and carefully preserved dust), and you can look through the painting to see people on the other side – and indeed look further through a window designed by Duchamp himself to a courtyard in the museum. You can also look at the thing from the back. In a corner of the room is a long box containing facsimiles of Duchamp’s notes and sketches for the Glass. He published a version of these in a box in 1934; it appeared in English in book form in 1960, thanks to the patient labours of Richard Hamilton, who also constructed a precise copy of the Large Glass, which Duchamp signed, for the Tate. The notes tell us, among other things, that the Bride is a motor, or more precisely the ‘timid potency’ of a motor, and also that she is a ‘tank of love petrol’ – this is also a tank of essence of love in French. We also learn that the Bachelors are not going to make it into the zone of the Bride, they are too caught up in their own fantastic mechanisms for that. ‘The Bride has a centre of life, the Bachelors don’t.’ The Bride will somehow blossom while remaining a virgin, indeed becoming ‘the apotheosis of virginity’. She will imagine being stripped bare by her Bachelors, and also managing without them – a mixture ‘unanalysable by logic’, Duchamp says. One of the most interesting of Duchamp’s instructions to himself is: ‘Use delay instead of picture or painting ... a delay in glass as you would say a poem in prose or a spittoon in silver.’

Paz says the Large Glass is ‘the last really significant work of the West ... Our tradition ends with it. That is, the painting of the future needs to start with it and against it.’ Since many people have seen in it nothing but an elaborate hoax, the range of assessments could scarcely be wider. Tomkins and Seigel, following hints from Duchamp himself, insist on the sense of suspended desire, the delay on the edge of the sexual act which can take place only outside the frame, off the glass. Duchamp sees this climax as a fall or degradation, devoutly to be avoided, and Tomkins finds an ‘epic joy’ in this picture of ‘permanent desire’. Sounds like hell to me, and Paz says the Glass is ‘an infernal and mocking (infernal y bufona) portrait of modern love, or more clearly, of what modern man has done with love’. Man is not generic here, I think. This is what man has done with love, and with woman. It is hard to escape the sense of sexual fear, however happy Duchamp’s own sex life may have been – all the more reason for trusting the work rather than the artist. One of Duchamp’s favourite poets was Jules Laforgue, who managed to get all kinds of troubled music out of the shocking fact that nice girls too have sexual organs. Almost all the claims about the Large Glass feel wrong, and I don’t have a right one to make. It isn’t trivial; it can’t be entirely serious; obsessions lurk in it, cruelties, nightmares, disavowals, brutalisations, but wreathed in ironies and a permanent smile. Paz distinguishes between two kinds of modern comedy. The comedy of the skeleton is pathetic, he says; the comedy of the machine, which is that of the Large Glass, is frozen. Frozen comedy is good, but a touch too grim. The Large Glass seems cool rather than frozen; but also haunted, full of near-frosty disquiet.

The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp is the third edition of a book which first appeared in 1969, with a second edition the following year. Several chapters have been added to Schwarz’s interpretative essay, and some 240 items have been added to the magnificent catalogue raisonné. The plates are spectacular, and there is an extensive bibliography and an exhibition history. Schwarz, who was a friend of Duchamp, is full of indiscriminate enthusiasm, not only for the master’s life and work but for a whole battery of Surrealist and post-Surrealist intellectual fancies: alchemy, archetypes, Zen, Joyce. Schwarz talks happily of Duchamp’s ‘unconscious incestuous love’ for his sister, and of his ‘unconscious guilt complex’, as if the word ‘unconscious’ were a form of absolution, if not a tribute; and at the same time manages to link the artist with the most conscious writer in French history: ‘Of all the artists in our century, none perhaps has been more entitled than Duchamp to lay claim to Montaigne’s bold assertion “Living is my trade and my art.” ’ There was apparently (and not surprisingly) some misunderstanding of these assertions when they were first made, since Schwarz says his interpretation of the Large Glass, in particular, ‘was attacked so heatedly’: ‘I was certainly not implying that Duchamp was an alchemist or that he consciously drew from the “treasure house of symbols” that alchemy has left us.’ What was he implying? Only, I think, that this sort of talk will enhance our sense of Duchamp’s greatness rather than, as seems more likely, lose him altogether in the fumes of mystery. ‘Archetypal incest is but an allegory for the reconjunction of the masculine and feminine components of one’s divided self,’ and ‘bisexuality is the archetypal quality of the creator.’ No arguing with that. We shall do best, perhaps, to view this language as an elaborate metaphor for Schwarz’s own affection and admiration for Duchamp. Certainly it’s hard to see how it could get us anywhere near the work.

Schwarz sees the installation Etant donnés as a new departure, but both Tomkins and Seigel take it as completing the delayed story of the Large Glass. Tomkins regards the splayed body as a kind of triumph. ‘It is the female who dominates and controls the action. She is queen of the game.’ Seigel is as distressed as I am by what he calls ‘this maimed and defenceless image’, but manages to turn it into a rather sour allegory of what happens when we try to realise our fantasies, when ‘erotic energies ... turn from imagination to ordinary life’. This is a dim view of erotic energies, but even then I think it understates the unseating quality of the installation, which is not so readily moralised. The body of the woman dominates our view and our mind, but there is no sign of her dominating any action. She has been dumped in a picture postcard, abandoned to the prying eyes of inescapable cliché.

The Large Glass was broken in transit from the Brooklyn Museum to the Connecticut house of its owner. Anecdote has it that Duchamp was delighted with this touch of collaboration by chance, and happily reconstructed the glass with cracks and all. The truth as Tomkins tells it is a little more complicated. ‘I was a little sorry,’ Duchamp said of learning about the breakage. ‘But on principle I was not going to cry.’ Later he did come to like the cracks, and the reason he gave was interesting. ‘They are not like shattered glass,’ he wrote. ‘They have a shape. There is a symmetry in the cracking ... There is almost an intention here – a curious extra intention that I am not responsible for, an intention made by the piece itself.’

‘Intention’ here is a metaphor for the art of chance, the art that chance can produce but doesn’t always. Duchamp is accepting not randomness but an appearance of organisation alien to his own plans, and this became more and more explicitly his theory of art. He liked to talk of the artist as a mere ‘medium’ for the work, and he thought the production of an, conjointly by the artist and the viewer, relied on a combination of (‘is like an arithmetical relation between’, he said) ‘the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed’. Unintentional expression would include the work of chance, not an expression or an intention at all except figuratively. On a panel in 1949, he was told that his ideas implied that ‘the work of art exists before it is there on the canvas.’ Duchamp’s comment, one of his most elegant and provocative bits of throwaway art theory, was: ‘It is a kind of race between the artist and the work of art.’

Duchamp is often taken to be attacking the very idea of art, and of course he was, endlessly, attacking the ideas of art held by most people in his time, and perhaps by most people now. But he was very clear on this subject. In a talk given in Houston in 1957, reproduced as an Appendix to Tomkins’s book, he says he wants ‘to clarify our understanding of the word “art” ’ adding: ‘to be sure, without any attempt at a definition’. ‘What I have in mind,’ he said, ‘is that art may be bad, good or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion.’ Is Duchamp refusing judgments in art? He is refusing exclusions, or rather, those judgments which take the form of a banishment – this is not just a bad painting, it is not a painting at all – and he is resisting the tyranny of what we think of as taste. But of course he had behind him, in 1957, a lifetime of trying to extend the notion of art beyond all recognised boundaries. Tomkins describes Duchamp’s friend, the American collector Katherine Dreier, asking him to explain why the porcelain urinal he and his pals have titled Fountain and submitted to an exhibition under the pseudonym R. Mutt (because the thing was made by Mott’s ironworks, and because Duchamp liked the comic-strip characters Mutt and Jeff), is really, in spite of appearances, an original work of art. She couldn’t see ‘anything pertaining to originality in it’, she said, but ‘that does not mean that if my attention had been drawn to what was original by those who could see it, that I could not also have seen it.’ Duchamp, needless to say, didn’t explain. Couldn’t explain, since the concept of originality was itself in question, and because he was joking. If we think the urinal is not art, is that because it is industrial or because it is rude? Or does anything become art if an artist signs it? Is there beauty lurking in humble plumbing, hidden from us only by our snobbery? Duchamp was inclined to resist this last implication – ‘The idea was to find an object that had no attraction whatsoever from the aesthetic angle’ – but this is consistent with his project of clarifying the concept by challenging it. There is good art and bad art and there is stuff we can’t find a name for at all. What happens when we do or don’t decide to call that stuff art too? We don’t have to settle these issues flatly, let alone stake everything on a particular response: only to see the interest of the provocations, and the amount of unrest they cause among our happiest assumptions. When Alfred Stieglitz earnestly posed the question ‘Can a photograph have the significance of a work of art?’ Duchamp’s answer was that he hoped photography would ‘make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable’.

Duchamp is ‘the least understandable artist of our century’, Tomkins says, and the man is scarcely less elusive. There can be no doubt about his charm, his kindness, his tolerance, his wit, his ability to make other people seem smarter than they were. His friends were infinitely loyal to him, he seems to have had scarcely any enemies, and even his numerous, rather one-sided affairs with women seem to have left little bitterness behind. Mary Reynolds, an American woman he lived with for many years in Paris, said when she was dying that she couldn’t bear to have people around her. ‘Am I people, too?’ a close friend said. Mary Reynolds answered: ‘Yes, even you, too. Marcel is the only person I ever met who was not people.’

But then there seems to have been a large fund of indifference, perhaps even of something darker, beneath Duchamp’s poised and relaxed relations with others. Equilibre, as Duchamp suggested in one of his better puns, breaks down into et-qui-libre. He cultivated solitude in the way gregarious people often can – the contradictory images of him we get from Tomkins are of a man always alone in a dusty, cluttered studio, not doing much except playing chess, and of a man who was always out to dinner or organising a show – in order to preserve himself for his undefined art, perhaps. Unless the art was a way of preserving his solitude. Paz writes of Duchamp’s ‘lucid despair’, and Breton too found Duchamp ‘distant and deep down desperate’. Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia wrote eloquently of ‘the pitiless pessimism of his mind’, which did not prevent him from being ‘personally delightful’. But the moment one copies out these fine phrases they seem too heavy, too much the story we feel has to be there, the psychological body we ought to be able to deduce from the kitschy waterfall and the allegorical lamp.

Tomkins keeps his speculations and his criticisms to a minimum; but he is a little too unruffled, too solidly settled in the camp of common sense. He writes very well about the paintings he likes, particularly the early work and especially The Bride, and he tells the detailed story of Duchamp’s movements and activities with enviable ease and poise. He is anxious to separate himself from any kind of fanatic, the ‘tribe’ of ‘Duchamp explainers’, ‘Duchamp’s critical constabulary’, ‘worshippers at the shrine of Saint Marcel’. ‘Approach his work with a light heart,’ Tomkins says, ‘and the rewards are everywhere in sight.’ Did Duchamp ‘run out of ideas’ in the Twenties, as he repeatedly said he did? Tomkins thinks this is a reasonable and un-problematic claim, ‘probably closest to the truth’. Why did Duchamp, the great enemy of habit and repetition, start making copies of his own works? ‘A great deal of critical analysis has been devoted to this question, but the answer may lie simply in Duchamp’s failure to come up with new ideas.’ That ‘simply’ is a sign of Tomkins’s impatience with fancy theory; but it also looks like a failure of curiosity. As in: ‘Rather than becoming a drunk, contemplating suicide, or adopting any of the other remedies that artists tend to favour in extreme cases, he simply grew more detached.’ Tomkins has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1960, and at such moments the trade shows. Extreme cases? Our artists will do those for us.

The dark Duchamp seems too conventional, serious after all in ways that we recognise. The light Duchamp seems too thin, too remote from the elusive, unorthodox seriousness of his obsessions and his jokes and his art. Would it be possible to treat him the way he wanted religion to be treated? ‘For me,’ he told Breton, ‘there is something other than yes, no and indifferent – it is for example the absence of investigations of this kind.’ Too austere, no doubt. And of course everything about Duchamp’s life and work invites the very investigations it makes difficult.

There are moments, though, when one seems to glimpse a meeting between the dark and the light – one of those spaces that Duchamp called infra-mince, infra-thin. He devised his own epitaph, for instance, which reads ‘D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent/Besides, it is always the others who die.’ He foresaw, presumably, that this time the joke would be on him, but the joke also glances at and mocks and perhaps criticises a life in which other people’s deaths are just that, the deaths of other people. D’ailleurs makes the whole thing seem casual, picking up on a conversation. Cela n’a pas d’importance was one of Duchamp’s favourite phrases. It doesn’t mean things are not important, only that there is no point in saying they are.

When Wittgenstein said that death is not an event in life, he meant we can’t experience our own death. Duchamp seems to be saying that the deaths of others are not events in our life. Should be, perhaps, but aren’t; or can’t be, if we are to preserve ourselves as safe and unscratched as Duchamp seems to have done. The epitaph would then be both a confession and a prescription. ‘It can’t happen to me’ would not be just a form of blindness or selfishness. It would be a veto, a delay; a way of living one kind of life and missing another. Living Duchamp’s life, for instance, and missing that of Mary Reynolds, who knew when a person was not people, but cared enough about people to risk her life for them in the Resistance.