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        (a) The 'rejection' of Nude Descending a Staircase
        (b) Duchamp's debt to On "Cubism"


(a) The 'rejection' of Nude Descending a Staircase

Of all the illustrations in On "Cubism" the most mysterious are certainly those of Marcel Duchamp - two rathernondescript pieces with no very obvious connection to the ideas defended in the book. And why should Marcel Duchamp be represented when his brother Jacques Villon, who is certainly much closer in spirit to both Gleizes and Metzinger, is not? The same question may be posed in relation to the invitation to painters to participate in the exhibition of the Section d'Or of October 1912. It is signed by Gleizes, Pierre Dumont (guiding spirit of the Société Normande de la Peinture Moderne), Picabia, Duchamp and the very interesting and much neglected Henry Valensi. (1)

According to Duchamp's admirers he was at the time in a state of discontent with the Cubists because the painting he had wanted to show at the Salon des Indépendants, the Nude Descending a Staircase had been rejected by Gleizes (according to the interview with Pierre Cabanne, p.31); or perhaps only the title was rejected (interview with William Seitz quoted in Tomkins, p.83). The story is a little odd since the Salon des Indépendants did not have a jury and Gleizes was not in a position to 'reject' the painting. The Cubist group may have had control of the Hanging Commission, since Gleizes in his Memoirs says that, after the ballot rigging incident of 1911, 'the Committee took it in a good spirit and did not hold it against us. To the extent that when the Hanging Commission met again, Le Fauconnier was unanimously elected as chairman.' In which case the dispute was not over whether the Nude was hung or not but where it was to be hung, i.e. whether or not Duchamp was to be hung with the Cubist group.

According to his own account given in Pierre Cabanne: Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp and taken up by Christopher Green (Art in France, pp.77-8) this experience decided him against participating in groups: 'All right, since its like that, there's no question of joining a group - I'm going to count on no one but myself, alone' (Cabanne, p.31). But this bold decision does not seem to have been made immediately given his appearance in the illustrations to On "Cubism", his signing of the Section d'Or invitation and his joining in the ultimate Cubist collective project of the time, the decoration of the Cubist House put together by the designer André Mare for the Salon d'Automne in 1912. The impression is that it was precisely because he wished to remain part of the group that he withdrew the painting; and that, far from being ill treated by the group, he was given a rather privileged position, probably through the patronage of Picabia.


(b) Duchamp's debt to On "Cubism"

Given his age and the general sense of insecurity evident in his work this could hardly be held against him, but it sits ill with the currently accepted version of his feelings at the time. Which shows him suffering from an acute sense of boredom and indifference to the frivolous and conventional ideas that were being voiced about him at the time in the 'academic' Puteaux circle. This being the case, we are surprised to read over fifty years later in the Cabanne interview, published in 1967, an unmistakeable echo of the opening page of On "Cubism". Cabanne asks him:

'Where does your antiretinal attitude come from?'

and Duchamp replies:

'From too great importance given to the retinal. Since Courbet, its been believed that painting is addressed to the retinal. That was everyone's error. The retinal shudder [frisson].'

It would not be obvious to anyone who had not read On "Cubism" that retinal painting begins with Courbet. Though On "Cubism" actually argues that realist painting begins with Courbet but that he remains too retinal. Duchamp goes on to argue for a painting that will be conceptual rather than retinal. And that of course is a theme we are already familiar with from Metzinger - in particular the view that the reality of the object exists in the mind of the observer and is different for every observer, and the fascination (which we may, if so the fancy takes us, call 'Bergsonian') with the way in which the object is reconstituted in memory.

It is, surely, in terms such as these that we can understand the development of Duchamp's paintings of his brothers playing chess - starting with a straightforward representation of the external appearance in 1910 and moving on to an attempt to paint the mental experience, the two minds merging into each other in the common perception of the chess board (1911). We are reminded of the phrase in On "Cubism" that pictorial space is 'a sensitive passage between two subjective spaces.'

We can imagine Duchamp thinking that the highly constructed paintings of the Cubists do not at all resemble the images of the objects and their associations as they exist in his own mind and memory, his own 'subjective space'. There, rather than being clarified and neatly divided into well-defined juxtaposed segments, everything becomes more vague and nebulous. The variations of the King and Queen and Rapidly Passing Nudes (1912) show the mental state of a young man who aspires to being an impersonal intellectual chess-playing machine (the King and Queen) but whose mind is also full of erotic thoughts, possibly stimulated by the activities of Picabia who was busy at the time initiating him into the world of loose women and drugs, another possible source of un-Cubist insights into his own 'subjective space'.

This interest in recording states of mind is expanded into an interest in the action of time and memory in his Sad Young Man on a Train (1911) and Nude descending a staircase (1912) . in the interview with Cabanne he denies that these were influenced by the parallel concerns of the Futurists, and the Sad Young Man was indeed done before the Futurist 'invasion' of February 1912. Nonetheless Gleizes' reluctance to associate the Nude Descending a Staircase with the Cubists was almost certainly caused by the resemblance to the Futurist device of presenting successive stages of a movement ('a running horse has not four legs, but twenty, and their movements are triangular' (2))

Duchamp claimed that the Sad Young Man is based on a pun, or verbal echo, between triste and train. One is left, as one often is faced with Duchampian jokes, feeling much as one feels at the jokes of the main protagonist of the Diary of a Nobody. Much more to the point is a remark from Bergson: 'there are changes, but there are not, under the change, things which change. There are movements, but there is no inert, invariable thing which moves. Movement does not imply a mobile.' (3) With each successive step taken by the nude descending her staircase the memory of the previous steps becomes more nebulous. The young man is sad becuse he is being obliterated by time, by the movement of the train. Again we are dealing with an idea expressed by Metzinger - that the reality of an object lies in its reconstitution in the memory. But Metzinger is interpreted very pessimistically. In Duchamp's memory the tendency is for the object to disappear.

Dulcinea (1911) is a Duchampian version of the standard Cubist device of showing the object from different angles. (4) The Three Standard Stoppages (1913) are, as Linda Henderson argues, 'a demonstration of the basic principle of a non-Euclidean geometry that rejects Euclid's assumption of the indeformability of figures in movement' (Henderson, p.132); which, of course, echoes the phrase in On "Cubism": 'Euclid in one of his postulates asserts that figures do not change their shape when put into motion - which spares us the need to say anything more about that.'

So although Duchamp's paintings do not look very Cubist, they do take up themes that were being discussed in Cubist circles - in particular, themes we may associate with Metzinger. What distinguishes him is that the idea is presented in a pure form as the subject of the painting, stripped of all the 'plastic' qualities that, for Gleizes at least, were the whole point of the exercise. When Gleizes and Metzinger evoke the 'will' they are saying that the subject of the painting (the object depicted as it exists in the mind) will be reworked, wilfully, with a view to making a painting. It is this exercise that Duchamp seems to refuse. He wants to recreate the mental experience as it actually is, passively, as if he was able to take a photograph of it. In this sense he can legitimately be seen as a forerunner of Surrealism.

He told Cabanne (p.28) that he wanted to 'detheorise' Cubism, reinforcing the notion that, to quote Henderson, the Puteaux Group were 'the followers of Picasso who made up the "intellectual" wing of Cubism and who thrived on theory about the new painting' (p.59). But, unless he could be said to have been detheorising it through a reductio ad absurdam of the theory I would suggest he is doing the opposite: in Duchamp, Cubism is stripped of everything except the theory. And this continues throughout his career. One of the central themes we have seen in On "Cubism" - again associated more with Metzinger than with Gleizes - is that the artist defines the way in which we experience the objects that surround us. By presenting familiar things in an unfamiliar way he teaches us to see the world differently. Which is what Duchamp does with the ready-mades. And though I don't think Duchamp himself ever makes the claim, there has been no shortage of people willing to inform us that, by taking them out of their usual habitat and giving them an incongruous name, Duchamp is teaching us how to see snow shovels and urinals. In his Memoirs, Gleizes says that, though he always detested the ready-mades, he was obliged to recognise that Duchamp's practise of transforming an everyday object by presenting it as art was only a logical extension of what all the painters, himself included, were doing, so long as they could not free themselves from all dependence on copying external appearances.

The ready mades find their origin in the Coffee Grinder which appears in the illustrations to On "Cubism" and may well relate to the argument - developed this time more by Gleizes than by Metzinger - that the 'realism' of Cubism is part of the tradition of artists who choose commonplace subjects without interest in themselves to emphasise the purely esemplastic qualities of the painting. The Coffee Grinder, more than most of Duchamp's work, is rather pretty.

As is the later Chocolate Grinder, in its two versions of 1913 and 1914 (it later gets incorporated into The Large Glass). The art historian Thierry de Duve elaborates on it as follows:

'Duchamp systematically uses the tube of colour as the 'explanation' of the ready-made ...

'The first definition of purism in painting: "the Neo-Impressionists, like the Impressionists, only have pure colours on their palette. But they repudiate absolutely all mixture on the palette ... Each stroke, taken pure on the palette, remains pure on the canvas."

'... The Chocolate Grinder amounts to being a portrait of the painter, unemployed, useless, since industry has robbed him of the very first "element" of his craft, the fabrication of pure colours. It shows the painter disguised as a machine for grinding colours. Duchamp had formed an ironic project of becoming a manufacturer which is why the chocolate brown that he uses instead of painting is an equivalent of [vaut pour] pure colour. In 1954, when he uses chocolate to execute Moonlight on the Bay at Basswood, it is as if the grinder had realised its last ironic revolution.' (5)

What is all that if it is not an echo of a paragraph in On "Cubism"'s critique of Neo-Impressionism:

'The most worrying aspect of the theory lies in a clear tendency to eliminate those elements that are called 'neutral' and which, on the canvas and everywhere else, convey an impression of indefiniteness (6) and whose presence has been discovered even in the spectrum itself through Fraunhofer's lines. Has anyone the right so to suppress the innumerable combinations by which a cadmium yellow is separated from a cobalt violet? Are we permitted in this way to confine ourselves within the limits imposed by the colour manufacturers? Seurat, Signac or Cross, painters to the bone, never went quite that far; but others took it on. Striving after an absolute equivalence, which is the negation of any beauty that has life in it, they renounced all mixture, treated the degradation of colours with contempt and entrusted the job of endowing their paintings with light to the chromatic delights determined strictly by manufacturing industry.'

And what a powerful impact On "Cubism" must have had on Duchamp if Duve is right about Moonlight on the Bay at Basswood and he is still commenting on it, ironically, over forty years later.

Linda Henderson gives us a long and to my mind convincing analysis of The Large Glass understood, in conjunction with the White Box and Green Box notes, as a serious effort to realise the Fourth Dimension. She tells us, rather breathlessly, that 'Duchamp's understanding of the new geometries was far greater than that of any of the Cubist painters' and that 'He had indeed succeeded in going beyond the tactile and motor orientation of Cubism and had created a unique projection of the fourth Dimension.' (pp.156-7)

Here again, then, what he is doing is taking ideas that are commonplace in the Cubist circle and attempting, with much greater earnestness than anyone else, to put them into practise, not as elements that may or may not be useful in the construction of a painting, but as purely intellectual, purely conceptual ends in themselves. Of course we are often told that unlike the dour theoreticians of the Cubist group at Puteaux Duchamp has a sense of wit and irony, he had his tongue in his cheek. But however ironic and witty Duchamp may be, the Large Glass represents a huge project undertaken over something like eleven years. It is impossible to dismiss it as a mere jeu d'esprit, a witty commentary on the efforts of his more plodding comrades. It is a serious attempt to do something that was very difficult and, ultimately, impossible - to realise, as Linda Henderson says, 'a unique projection of the fourth dimension'. It is an effort that complements the efforts of Metzinger to find in non-Euclidean geometry a new, objective science of painting. But at some point, clearly, Duchamp realised that he was wasting his time, hence the famous renunciation of art. In which case Duchamp could be regarded as the greatest victim of an over intellectual approach to Cubism, his life's work a failed attempt to put into practise, with a horrifying literalness, a set of ideas he had picked up from the Cubists and, especially, from Metzinger.



(1) These are given as the signatories in Debray and Lucbert: La Section d'Or, p.153, in Lucbert's comments on Dumont. Debray in her note on Valensi gives Gleizes, Picabia, Duchamp, Valensi and Metzinger as the organisers of the exhibition. Back

(2) Futurist Technical Manifesto, 1910. Back

(3) Bergson: 'La Pensée et le mouvant', quoted in Coplestone: A History of Philosophy, p.204. Back

(4) It also suggests the three different angles given by Villon's three versions of the Portrait de Renée. Back

(5) Summary of Résonance du ready-made, obtained off the Internet at Back

(6) 'indéfini' in 1912; 'infini' in 1947/80. Back


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