Thinking, acting, and being beyond all categories and conventions. To be apodictic and at the same time open to indifference. To make works that are not artworks, but are nevertheless art. To lead discourse without dictating it. Never to repeat oneself. To be lazy instead of occupied. To be free.
Has Emily Dickinson suddenly appeared in my inbox? Or Henry David Thoreau? Or Herman Hesse? Or perhaps Edith Södergran? No, this is the first paragraph of the press release for the Marcel Duchamp exhibition at Frankfurt’s Museum für Moderne Kunst. The exhibition is simply titled: Marcel Duchamp.
This press release, where poetry and precision go hand in hand, sets the tone for the museum’s large Duchamp exhibition, the largest in twenty years, with almost seven hundred works spread over more than twenty galleries. (And, yes, I also had to look up the word apodictic: ‘clearly established, beyond dispute.’)
The press preview unfolded like this: the journalists gathered in the museum foyer and received a substantial folder and wireless receivers with ear pieces. Museum director and exhibition curator Susanne Pfeffer entered, equipped with a Madonna microphone. And we were ready to roll. Pfeffer spoke directly into our ears, non-stop, for ninety minutes – in German, of course – without even pausing for a sip of water. Everyone was wearing a mask, in compliance with the still-implemented German corona restrictions, except for Pfeffer, which meant – since we, the mask wearers, constituted the norm – that, in a theatrical and ritual sense, Pfeffer was the masked one. Just as Virgil guided Dante through the circles of the realms of death, Pfeffer guided us through her Duchamp exhibition at the Frankfurt Museum für Moderne Kunst.
It started off light. Some of Duchamp’s most famous readymades are served up in the museum’s big, airy atrium. It’s a wink of understanding to the connoisseurs, and something to whet the appetites of the neophytes. Some of the readymades are placed on the floor, while others hang on strings from the ceiling, like they did in Duchamp’s New York studio 1917–18 (before Duchamp moved to Buenos Aires and became serious about chess).
The works are lit in a way that casts their shadows on the wall, perhaps a reference to Duchamp’s (at once sincere and ironic) interest in the theory of the three-dimensional as a projection of the four-dimensional, popular in the early 20th century. (Upon my next visit to the exhibition, I discovered to my embarrassment that these shadows aren’t at all a result of the lighting; they have simply and gaily been painted directly onto the atrium walls.)
The following gallery is devoted entirely to Duchamp’s humorous drawings from 1907–1909. In 1906, having completed his military service, Duchamp moved to Rue Caulaincourt 65, on Montmartre. On the ground of the building is the café Chez Manière, famous because Inspector Maigret once had a sausage there. And during Duchamp’s time on Montmartre, Chez Manière was the gathering hot spot of Paris’s humorous artists.
In this period, before the advent of cinema, humour magazines were an important part of entertainment culture. A cartoonist could make good money, and some of the Parisian ones became so legendary that the young Pablo Picasso, back in Spain, started to imitate their signatures. At the time, the notion of making a living as an avant-garde artist selling one’s work was – as it usually is – rather utopian, and it wasn’t unusual that artists, such as the Cubists, made extra money selling cartoons. These include François Kupka, Juan Gris, Jacques Villon – Duchamp’s older brother (whose pseudonym, Pfeffer notes, was perhaps the inspiration for Duchamp’s use of alter egos) – and Louis Marcoussis, who even made cartoons ridiculing Cubism.
Duchamp’s humorous drawings aren’t conventional caricatures. The style is an elegant Realism, establishing a scene. The joke is always in the text. The German art historian Kornelia von Berswordt-Wallrabe has argued that it was through the work with his humorous drawings that Duchamp came to realise how a title can change the meaning of a work of art.
One of the drawings is titled Grève des P.T.T. (Post and Telegraph Strike, 1909). It shows an elegant young man dressed in a tuxedo, wearing a top hat, sitting on a bar stool. A young woman, obviously acquainted with the young man, enters the bar. But she’s surprised to see him there. The caption reads: “So you didn’t receive my telegram?”
Another drawing shows a man and a woman on the top floor of an omnibus. The omnibus has come to a stop. Both the woman and the man gaze at something on the street, where a group of people are looking at the same thing. But we, the viewers of the drawing, can’t see what it is. But that the hidden scene is something interesting is revealed by the title – L’accident (The Accident, 1909). In other words: the joke is on us.
Next to the humorous drawings is a gallery with Duchamp in a Screen Test (1966) by Andy Warhol (who owned one of Duchamp’s fountains). A photo shows the circumstances of the shoot: a swanky art opening with guests in tuxedos and evening gowns sipping white wine from large glasses. Andy is behind the camera; Duchamp is sitting in front of a wall, lit by two bright lights. The guests study him, and one of them raises a camera to take his picture.
Duchamp’s lean frame, which throughout his life bestowed him a certain noble elegance, makes the older Duchamp – who, at the time of the shoot, only had two years left to live – look rather frail. In the beginning of the film, we see a Duchamp in terrified panic, fully blinded by the lights. But Duchamp quickly understands that even if he can’t see anything, he can at least control what the others see. He starts to act and tries to look unperturbed, smoking his cigar and sipping his wine.
But Duchamp soon realises the embarrassment of the situation: “Here I am, acting like a clown!” He becomes self-conscious, knowing that the others know that he knows that they’re watching him. So he changes tactics and confrontationally challenges his audience. In that vein, the film continues, incessantly bleeding into new emotional states. Duchamp flirts, charms, feigns disinterest, and panics again until the film ends in a whiteout. We see Duchamp, the master of indifference, exposed and frail – but still a player.
The first floor of the exhibition ends with Duchamp’s earliest drawings and paintings. Since his total production is so sparse, and because Duchamp in the period 1902–1912 changed style almost from painting to painting – and due to the extreme difficulty of borrowing works – this part feels a bit thin. But a bit of a triumph is the inclusion of what is likely Duchamp’s first painting. In Paysage à Blainville (Landscape at Blainville, 1902), the 15-year-old Duchamp emerges – in a mix between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism – as an exceptionally talented painter.
Ten years later, with the ‘Cubist’ Nu descendant un escalier (Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912), Duchamp seems to have become tired of being a ‘talented painter’. When Nu was exhibited in the Cubist gallery at the 1912 Salon des Indépendants, several of his Cubist colleagues perceived it as a joke at their expense. And on the day of the press preview, Duchamp, sick of the bickering, took a taxi to the salon and brought his Nu back home.
The second floor of the exhibition starts off with Duchamp’s Cubist period. But the Nu isn’t there. The Philadelphia Museum of Art (which owns most of Duchamp’s oeuvre) hasn’t been willing to part with it. I missed it, but only until I got to Mariée (Bride), which the Philadelphia Museum of Art has agreed to lend. And MoMA has lent out the related Le Passage de la Vierge à la Mariée (The Passage from Virgin to Bride). The bride would later fill the upper half of Duchamp’s Large Glass.
Both these paintings are conceived in the summer of 1912 in Munich, where Duchamp went into a sort of aesthetic exile from Cubist Paris. According to the American art historian W. Bowdoin Davis, the design of the bride was inspired by a sewing machine. A large trade show, Bayrische Gewerbeschau, that was held in Munich that summer featured two large rooms of new sewing machine prototypes. However, no one knows whether Duchamp was one of the almost four million people who visited the show. Nevertheless, when studying the bride, it’s easy to see traces of a sewing machine mechanism. So, there might be something to it.
During his time in Munich, Duchamp embarked on a long train journey – with countless transfers – to the French region of Jura, to see his unrequited love Gabrielle Buffet (married to Duchamp’s best friend Francis Picabia). Duchamp and Buffet met for a few hours at the small station in Andelot-en-Montagne, where Buffet changed trains on her way back to husband and children in Paris, after a visit to her mother.
In 1963, Duchamp described his time in Munich as “the scene of my complete liberation.” He made daily visits to the Alte Pinakothek to look at Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553). In later interviews, Duchamp often returns to his enthusiasm for Cranach’s flesh tones. This enthusiasm is strongly present in Duchamp’s Munich paintings, where he suddenly abandons all his worries about belonging to a ‘style’.
It’s impossible to describe all the galleries, dedicated to the various aspects of Duchamp’s activities, which Pfeffer led us through. Galleries with titles such as Indifference, Perspectives, and Chess. I need, however, to mention my delight at seeing Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs (1935) actually rotate.
The first gallery on the third floor is dedicated to Duchamp’s Large Glass – The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–23), in Richard Hamilton’s reproduction from 1965–66 (usually at the Tate). In clarity and approachability, Hamilton’s glass is vastly superior to Ulf Linde’s version in Stockholm. And if you – like me – have confused yourself utterly by attempting to absorb the glass through books, Hamilton’s full-scale version immediately makes everything clear. Obviously, not about what the Glass can mean, but suddenly I can see it.
More than an hour of Pfeffer’s guided tour had gone by. Surely, there couldn’t be much more left? But as the observant reader already has noted, there was. Pfeffer gave us more Duchamp. After the Glass, some of the most substantial sections of the exhibition followed: Gender, Sex, Rrose Sélavy, and Chance.
At times, the exhibition turns purely ludic. Duchamp’s readymade Comb (1916) hangs right at the entrance of the atrium, seven metres up – impossible to spot if you just walk through. And the Gender gallery – one of the exhibition’s best – features two versions (both from the Milan edition) of Duchamp’s readymade Bottle Dryer (1914). Showing these bottle dryers side by side abrogates all normal conventions of how to fetishise an art object. The idea of having an edition is, of course, that the edited works are supposed to look fetishistic on their own, individually. To double them makes them comic – it’s like giving the pope a twin brother. The two bottle dryers are displayed on cylindrical podiums, one podium half a foot higher than the other. To his signature on the bottle dryer on the higher podium, Duchamp has added: “Edition Rrose Sélavy.” Very nice!
The Gender gallery also houses other famous readymades, like Traveller’s Folding Item (1916) and Fountain (1917), and manages to ward off the worn-out macho-Platonic Duchamp theory machine’s fixation on the ‘concept of art’. Instead, the exhibition says: hey, this stuff actually means stuff! And Duchamp’s so historically burdened readymades are thus made to speak again.
If one nostalgically longs for the golden decades of curation in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, then the Frankfurt exhibition shows what curation – as craft, thinking, and art – still can do. In the Sex gallery, we find another Traveller’s Folding Item. Which now contributes to the narration of another story. And which – like the exhibition as a whole – never becomes tediously didactic. The Frankfurt exhibition is open, intelligent, and playful, with a deep knowledge of Duchamp, with excellent pacing, and a strong desire to make Duchamp speak to our time.
After the press preview, I repeatedly returned to the Museum für Moderne Kunst. During these visits, I was often confronted with the inability of my eyes and my brain. I discovered things I hadn’t seen. And I discovered things I thought I’d seen (like the shadows in the atrium), but which hadn’t been there.
When I went back to look at the Large Glass, I noticed among the stationmaster, the priest, and the other bachelors, a bachelor a bit thinner and a bit crowded by the others. At the top, it has a heart. The heart’s lower tip balances dangerously on a thin thin cylinder. It’s the bellboy, le groom.
At closing time, after my last visit to the exhibition, I lingered outside the museum for a while, looking at the exhibition poster. It shows Duchamp’s Coeurs Volants (Fluttering Hearts, 1936), an example of proto-Op as well as proto-Pop, with four hearts inside each other, alternately blue and red. These fluttering hearts were originally conceived as the cover of an edition of Cahier d’Art, after a request from Gabrielle Buffet, one of the journal’s writers.
These hearts are also one heart, one shape. But because of the alternating colours, it’s an open shape, an open heart, easy to penetrate. But once inside it’s easy to get stuck in the heart’s weightless labyrinth – a metaphor for how easy it is to get caught by the Duchampian. And for the madness of taking on the task of retrospecting Duchamp. And for the loving enthusiasm, which – despite the madness of the endeavour – must lie behind the determination to do it anyway.
– Olof Olsson is a performance artist based in Copenhagen.