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Much has been said about Marcel Duchamp's break with painting. In the light of various iconoclastic, Dadaist gestures and his invention of the ready-made, the creator of Fountain (the "Fountain/urinal") is generally perceived as the artist who killed painting. And yet the debate remains open: was not Duchamp's intention to reformulate it, rather ? The Centre Pompidou exhibition now proposes a new interpretation of the paintings of one of the most iconic figures in 20th century art.
La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even) – his "Grand Verre" (Large Glass), an impenetrable and complex work, occupies an ambiguous status in this debate. In it we can read the simultaneous negation and sublimation of painting through an impossible picture. After Duchamp's death in 1968, the discovery of his last work, Étant donnés 1°, la chute d’eau 2°, le gaz d’éclairage ("Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas") – which he worked on in secret for 20 years (1946-1966) and whose title, taken from one of the earliest notes in La Boîte verte (or Green Box), clearly asserts a link with the "Grand Verre" and its theme – decidedly clouds the image of an iconoclastic Duchamp.
Late works such as the series of erotic moulds and his engravings after the Masters (Prière de toucher ("Please Touch"), 1947; Feuille de vigne femelle ("Female Fig Leaf"), 1950; Objet dard ("Dart Object – pun on Objet d'art"), 1951; Coin de chasteté ("Chastity Wedge"), 1954 and Morceaux choisis ("Chosen Pieces"), 1968) belong to the slow evolution of Étant donnés. This obsessional coherence is evident in the paintings of Duchamp from the very beginning. His artistic path was guided by the desire to reinvent painting: a path based on in-depth research and doubts, total, virtually Romantic commitments and disgusted rejections.
As from his first caricature drawings and nudes of 1910, Duchamp raised the question of "looking", and the relationship between text and image. The erotic atmosphere pervading these works and the theme of voyeurism running through them place his work in a direct line with Manet. At the end of his life, he said: "Everything can be based on an erotic climate, without too much trouble. It replaces what other schools called Symbolism or Romanticism. It could be another "ism", so to speak. Eroticism was a theme, or rather, an "ism", which was the basis of everything I was doing at the time of the "Grand Verre". It kept me from being obliged to return to already existing theories, aesthetic or otherwise." (Marcel Duchamp, conversation with Pierre Cabanne, 1967). The prehistory of the Duchampian theme of La Mariée lay in Aunt Sally-type games of "Noce de Nini pattes-en-l’air" in fairground shows, and licentious films on the hackneyed theme of undressing the bride.
"Le Grand Verre" was the last work that Duchamp was to present to the public: "When I arrived in New York in 1915, I began this painting, taking the different elements and grouping them together in their precise positions. The picture is 2.5 metres high, and consists of two large plates of glass. I began work on it in 1915, but it was only completed in 1923, when I abandoned it in the state it is today. Throughout the time I was painting it, I wrote a huge number of notes, designed to complement the visual experience, like a guide." A picture that endeavours to capture what eludes the retina… the final picture.