Marcel Duchamp: Biography, Quotes & Alter Ego

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever wanted to do something different from everyone around you? Artist Marcel Duchamp sure did. In this lesson, explore the life and words of this French artist who redefined the nature of art.

Who Was Marcel Duchamp?

Sometimes, artists become known for being the first to break boundaries or help invent new ideas. That was certainly true of French artist Marcel Duchamp.

Marcel Duchamp (1887 - 1968) came from a creative family. Two of his brothers and a sister were also artists. As a young man he studied art in at the Academy Julian, then began his career as a painter. By 1911, he was working in a Cubist style. Cubism was an art movement in which figures were fractured into simultaneous fragmented views.

In 1913, Duchamp exhibited a work in New York that caused a scandal. His painting Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, was included in the New York Armory Show, which was meant to survey contemporary work from Europe and America. But Duchamp's image was so different that it shocked audiences. The 'nude' in the title was fragmented into shards of motion, rendered in shifting earth tones and dark lines. It wasn't a recognizable figure. It didn't resemble traditional painted imagery.

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending A Staircase
Nude Descending A Staircase

The shock the work generated might have been the reaction Duchamp wanted. He was becoming connected to an art movement called Dada. Dada arose after the horrors of World War I. It challenged notions about traditional views of art. It was mocking, irreverent, and subversive, which fit well with Duchamp's philosophies.

A Career of Challenging Norms

Duchamp split his time between Paris and New York. He moved into new territory, away from painting and to his own playful, confrontational style. Echoing the Dadaists, Duchamp took everyday objects like bicycle wheels and wooden stools and deemed them art. Calling them readymades, he sometimes combined objects. At other times he used them as they were or with minimal changes. In 1917, he titled one of his most famous readymades Fountain. It was a urinal from a men's restroom, signed 'R. Mutt' and placed on an exhibit pedestal.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain

With his readymades, Duchamp was upending definitions of art. No longer bound by traditional mediums, art was an idea. He was making art simply by deeming something 'art.' In shifting these boundaries, Duchamp was the first to explore what later would become conceptual art where the idea is the key of the art rather than a beautiful finished product.

From 1915 through 1923, Duchamp worked on one of his major pieces, Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. The work is hard to describe. Duchamp called it hilarious. It involves sex. It's large, nine feet tall and freestanding. Sandwiched between two large glass panes are two panel-like segments, one above the other. Inside them are connected forms made of oil, varnish, lead wire, and lead foil. You can see through the glass to the other side. There's nothing recognizable in it in terms of forms or imagery. It's intricate and abstract.

Quotes By Marcel Duchamp

Throughout his career, Marcel Duchamp challenged norms. The creative process interested him rather than final products, and he didn't view art as a beautiful rarified thing. In his mind, it wasn't held apart on a pedestal. 'Art has absolutely no existence as veracity, as truth,' he once said. Such ideas came from Dadaism but also from his own sense of what he was doing.

Duchamp worked in two major cities and collaborated with others. As he once commented, 'I don't believe in art. I believe in artists.' But he also compared art to a habit-forming drug, and didn't want anyone to take themselves too seriously. Another comment by Duchamp expresses this last point. 'Why should artists' egos be allowed to overflow and poison the atmosphere? Can't you just smell the stench in the air?'

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