Marcel Duchamp's Fountain
Marcel Duchamp was an artist at the very center of the Dada art movement, both
in France and in New York. At the time many Dada artists were using “found
objects” to make pieces they called a “ready-made” sculpture. The artist chose
an object that was mass-produced and gave it the title of art, therefore forcing
people to look at it in new light. Perhaps the most famous and controversial of
these pieces is Duchamp’s Fountain.
Fountain is a mass-produced white
porcelain urinal that was exhibited laying on its back. It has the “artist’s”
signature, R. Mutt and date, 1917, scribbled in black ink on the side. There are
no inherent aesthetic qualities to this piece, the “art” of it was in the
choosing and forcing the viewers to think of it as something other than a
urinal. The “artist’s” signature was a play on the Mott plumbing company and a
popular comic during the time named Mutt and Jeff.
Creation of The Fountain
Duchamp helped to found the Society of Independent Artists in New York. They put
on an exhibition in 1917, in which anyone could enter any piece of art as long
as they paid the six-dollar entry fee. There was supposedly no judging and no
restrictions. This situation is what sparked Duchamp into making Fountain. He
wanted to test just how free these artists could be. Of course the committee
refused to hang the piece. Duchamp wrote a letter defending the piece published
in The Blind Man, a small magazine he worked at as an editor. He wrote, “Whether
Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE
it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so it’s useful significance
disappeared under a new title and point of view - (he) created a new thought for
that object” (Time-Life Library of Art, 39). This was exactly what the point of
ready-made art was, so how could the Society of Independent Artists deny it for
the show; he wanted to know. The committee said it failed to meet their moral
standards which Duchamp countered was ridiculous. The urinal was an item one
would see every day in plumber's show windows.
The Dada Movement
Duchamp was part of a major movement in the art industry called Dadaism as a
means of rebellion against the war. The major participants gathered together in
neutral Switzerland where they formed the Cabaret Voltaire, a place to discuss
and share art and to prove that “these humiliating times have not succeeded in
wresting respect from us” (TMLA, 56). They took up the word dada which is a
French word children used meaning hobby-horse, because it expressed the
primitive nature and newness of their art.
These artists described Dadaism as being against the future, and stated that
art was not serious. It was a revolutionary movement for them, they treated it
as a violent assault on the accepted values. The Dadaists looked up to the
Cubists and Futurists and said that art should no longer be viewed simply as
reality interpretation, but instead as a piece of reality itself. The Dada
movement based on articles in several small magazines touted the cause of
anti-art, was ran by some of the most famous names in art history such as
photographer Alfred Stieglitz. These magazines often defied all conventional
rules of design and good taste according to the publishing world.
The Dadaists exclaimed that they despised what was commonly regarded as art, and
instead “put the whole universe on the lofty throne of art.” (TLLA, 58) This was
where Duchamp’s ready-made pieces came heavily into play. Although Duchamp was
mostly unaware of this movement taking places thousands of miles away, he
maintained a conspicuous undermining of high art through his publications in New
York and his artwork which had a lot of the elements of the Dada movement in
them. These elements consisted of a lack of realism, an opposition to the
accepted ideas of fine art and expressions of confusion and eccentricity.
In 1920, the Dada movement relocated to Paris, France. Here they began by
staging readings at the Palais des Fetes. The anti-war Dada movement was being
simultaneously attacked by the press and lauded by prominent intellectuals. The
Dadaists, pleased with this separation from the art world they were rebelling
against, found formal artists beginning to sever any ties with them. This is
when Duchamp unveiled his latest ready-made work. It was a copy of the Mona Lisa
on which he added a mustache and goatee. Years later he signed an unaltered
print and called it Rasee, the French word for shaved.
Shortly after this unveiling, Duchamp returned to New York. He never attended
any of the Dadaists demonstrations which added to his reputation among the
movement. So much that at the Galerie Montaigne, the organizers wired Duchamp in
New York asking for some of his works be included in the show. He wrote back
declining, with a vulgar pun, and they instead hung his telegram. These
demonstrations often ended in food being thrown or real violence, and the crowd
began to enjoy themselves. This did not please the Dadaists, as they were trying
to represent an antithesis of culture and enjoyment. Shortly afterwards the Dada
movement collapsed. One of its main supporters, André Breton, withdrew from the
cause stating that it “had been merely a state of mind which served to keep us
in a state of readiness - from which we shall now start out, in all lucidity,
toward that which calls us” (TLLA, 63).
Marcel Duchamp was one of the movements few artists who would carry the
implications of Dadaism to its logical conclusion (TLLA, 65). He thought of
Dadaism as a sort of nihilism, a way to avoid being influenced by the past or
one’s surroundings and break free from conventions. Dada went on to inspire
Surrealism, Abstract, Expressionism, and Pop Art and Duchamp’s ready-made pieces
and painted works such as Nude Descending a Staircase No.2 were the precursors
to these more popular and famous movements.
Fountain, his first ready-made piece was and still is one of the most famous
works of art to come out of and represent the Dadaist movement. It perfectly
represented a break from art’s historical roots and forced the observers to
break away from the logical and mainstream way of looking at objects and art.
Tomkins, Calvin. Time Life Library of Art. The World of Marcel Duchamp.
Alexandria, Virginia: Time Life Books Inc., 1977. Print.
Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages 13th Edition Volume 2. Boston,
MA: Thomson Higher Education, 2009. Print.
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