In my quest to understand more about Modern Art, I’ve been reading “What are you looking at?: 150 years of Modern Art in the blink of an eye”, a light hearted, but well written, “beginners guide” to the subject.
Someone who keeps cropping up in the book is Marcel Duchamp, a French artist who lived in New York. He was the subject of the first chapter, he appeared in a chapter about Dada and Surrealism and he cropped up again in the chapter on abstract expressionism, (apparently he was well in with Peggy Guggenheim and helped her to set up her museum) and is also mentioned in the Chapter on the Post-Modernists as someone who had influenced much of their work. Before reading the book, I never realised that he was such an influential figure in the history of Modern Art.
Marcel Duchamp (Source: Smithsonian npg website)
He’s probably best known for his work “Fountain” – a urinal bought from a hardware store on which he scrawled the words “R Mutt 1917”. It was, and still is, a very controversial piece and really raises the question “what is art?” For DuChamp it was a “readymade”, a mass produced object that had been “freed” from it’s original purpose. For many people a mass produced object couldn’t be considered to be art all.
One interpretation of the work is that DuChamp was using his Fountain to deliberately challenge the art establishment – the critics and academics who over analyse works of art without understanding the intention of the artists. He submitted the work anonymously to the Independents Exhibition in New York in 1917. Members of Society of Independent Artists were supposed to be allowed to display two works in the exhibition provided they paid the set fee. No questions asked, no selection panel. But the Directors of the Society refused to allow it to be displayed as it was too vulgar and offensive.
The original Fountain was never seen again, but subsequently a number of copies, endorsed by DuChamp, were produced. One of these is owned by the Tate Gallery and was on display at Tate Liverpool when I visited the gallery recently