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Duchamp's Artwork: Fountain, Bicycle Wheel & L.H.O.O.Q.

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The art of Marcel Duchamp is quite unique, to say the least. In this lesson, we'll take a closer look at three of his greatest masterpieces and see where they fit in the history of fine art.

Duchamp's Dada

Giraffe.

Think that's an absurd way to start a lesson on art? Well, you're absolutely right. It is absurd, and so is art! That's the basic message behind Dada, an early-mid 20th-century artistic movement that broke down the very meaning of what art was and what art could be. To the Dadaists, art was simply something created by an artist. Any other attempts to define it by a specific aesthetic or meaning were simply absurd.

One of the foundational figures in this movement was Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Duchamp's brand of Dada was built around junk, literally! Duchamp would take premade objects, rearrange them, and call them art. These sculptures were called readymades, and were dedicated to the principle that art was simply art because it was recognized as art. Think that's absurd? Well, that's the point!

Bicycle Wheel - 1913

To really understand Duchamp, Dada, and the readymades, we're going to look at three of Duchamp's most famous works. The first one is a bicycle wheel on a chair. Yep. Entitled Bicycle Wheel, this sculpture was created in 1913 when Duchamp took a stool and fastened an upside-down wheel to it. He would occasionally spin the wheel, leading some art historians to label this as the first kinetic sculpture. The original was lost, but luckily it was fairly easy to recreate. The most famous version, the third iteration, was made in 1951.

Bicycle Wheel - 1913
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So, why would Duchamp do this? Bicycle Wheel was the first of Duchamp's readymades, and it communicated a fundamental aspect of Dada philosophy: art is useless. To create this sculpture, Duchamp took two very useful objects (a stool and a bicycle wheel) and arranged them in such a way that neither could be effectively used anymore. To him, the objects became art only by removing their function. That was the difference between a wheel as an everyday item and a wheel as art. A sculpture like this was technically called an ''assisted readymade'' because it combined multiple utilitarian objects into a single, useless sculpture.

Fountain - 1917

Of all of Duchamp's readymades, none has achieved quite the fame as his 1917 masterpiece, Fountain. Locate the image of this sculpture before you read any further. Do you recognize it? It's a urinal laid on its side.

Fountain -1917
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This is a true readymade, a single object which Duchamp didn't really modify at all, except for facing it in a different direction. He also signed it with the inscription ''R. Mutt 1917''. The meaning of this likely absurd pseudonym has been debated for decades among art historians. Duchamp's Fountain illustrates another key element of Dada: anything can be art. You may have thought we established this by turning a chair and a wheel into a sculpture, but nothing really drives that point home like putting a urinal on a pedestal and calling it fine art.

The irony here is just how celebrated Fountain has become (really proving Duchamp's theories about art correct!). In fact, after the original was lost, a new one was commissioned in 1964. The statue you'll see in the museum is actually carefully glazed earthenware, painted to look just like the original. It's a real work of art!

L.H.O.O.Q - 1919

The Fountain also introduces us to a third tenet of Dada: irreverence for fine art. To fully appreciate that, however, we're going to look at one final readymade. In 1919, Duchamp completed L.H.O.O.Q. It's a print of a Mona Lisa painting, which Duchamp has vandalized with men's facial hair. Why the Mona Lisa? This is one of the most famous and revered paintings in the Western canon of fine art. Duchamp's parody demonstrates the absolute sense of irreverence Dadaists had for fine art.

L.H.O.O.Q. - 1919
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