The Duchamps: A “Readymade” Artist Collective

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) will always be remembered as a monumental force in twentieth-century art: working in Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism when these movements were just beginning, Duchamp surpassed the boundaries of conventional art in his pursuit of the conceptual. But while his provocative work has found a permanent place in Western art history, his talented siblings are less renowned — four of the six Duchamp children became artists. Emile Gaston Duchamp (1875-1963) and Raymond Duchamp (1876-1918), in fact, preceded Marcel down the artist’s path, while Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti (1889-1963) was the female artist to emerge from the family. The four Duchamps all began with similar artistic interests: after early experimentation with the loose strokes of Impressionism and the intense colors of Fauvism, the siblings found in Cubism — and its exploration of forms, planes, and volumes — a first step in pursuing a “science of expression.”[1]

But the names Emile Gaston and Raymond Duchamp may seem unfamiliar — both brothers worked under altered names. Emile and Raymond initially followed in the “professional” footsteps of their father, the former studying law and the latter studying medicine. But the vibrant art scene in Paris pointed them in another direction. Emile declared himself an artist on Christmas of 1895, while Raymond discovered a passion for sculpting after rheumatic fever paused his medical studies. Both young men shortly thereafter changed their names, a definitive sign of their transformations into artists proper. Emile became Jacques Villon, the first name after Alphonse Daudet’s novel Jack, and the second after the fifteenth-century poet François Villon; Raymond became Raymond Duchamp-Villon, in solidarity with his elder brother. Marcel — as did Suzanne — thus witnessed not one but both of the elder brothers passionately commit themselves to the call of the artist.

Suzanne Duchamp, ca. 1924. Photograph by Man Ray. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of William and Virginia Camfield. © 2005 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS
Figure 2. Suzanne Duchamp, ca. 1924.
Photograph by Man Ray. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. © 2005 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society
Figure 1 (2)
Figure 1. (left to right) Jacques Villon, Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, ca. 1913

Jacques, the first Duchamp artist, began his career by contributing cartoons to French newspapers. In 1906, he moved to Puteaux, where he devoted himself to painting and printmaking. Raymond joined him there later that year, and from 1910 on, all three brothers organized a regular Cubist discussion group in Jacques’s and Raymond’s shared home.

Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887-1968). “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2),” 1912. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1950-134-59.
Figure 3. Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887-1968). Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1950-134-59

In 1912, the group exhibited under the name Section d’Or, after the prominence of the golden section and other geometric configurations in the writings of Leonardo da Vinci. Jacques, Raymond, Marcel, and Suzanne (who also showed works with the group) were all captivated by the harmony of order and mathematical proportion. It was in this show that Marcel’s arguably most famous painting, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), was first exhibited (figure 3).

Eliot Elisofon (American, 1911-1973). “Marcel Duchamp descends staircase,” 1952. Vintage gelatin silver print. Museum Purchase, 2004.14.
Figure 4. Eliot Elisofon (American, 1911-1973). Marcel Duchamp Descends Staircase, 1952. Vintage gelatin silver print. Mead Art Museum. Museum Purchase, 2004.14

(Writing about “Dada’s Daddy,” Life Magazine echoed this composition in a photograph of Marcel, forty years after Nude‘s first appearance. See figure 4.) Initially accepted to show at the 1912 Société des Artistes Indépendants, the work was retroactively removed from the exhibition — his very own brothers, speaking on behalf of the hanging committee, urged him to withdraw the painting. Jacques and Raymond later came to terms with Marcel’s avant-garde approach, but the work’s subversive nature had offended the Société: a nude “never descends the stairs — a nude reclines.”[2]

Though Marcel ultimately pushed the boundaries of conventional art to a much greater degree than either Jacques or Raymond, the challenge Nude sought to address — of capturing movement in a single, static representation, exploring the tension between the former’s animation and the latter’s immobility— intrigued each of them.

Raymond Duchamp-Villon (French, 1876-1918). “Baudelaire,” 1911. Bronze. The Museum of Modern Art, 5.1960.
Figure 5. Raymond Duchamp-Villon (French, 1876-1918). Baudelaire, 1911. Bronze. The Museum of Modern Art, 5.1960

The severe geometric composition and sharp planes of Raymond’s 1911 Bust of Baudelaire— a solid, stationary mass dotted with still, blank eyes— struggle to contain the inner power and potential motion looming beneath Baudelaire’s forehead (figure 5). This sculpture marked a critical transition from Raymond’s earlier work, touched by the realism of Rodin, to the beginning of his exploration into Cubism. His burgeoning career as a Cubist sculptor, however, was tragically cut short: he contracted blood poisoning while working as a doctor during the First World War, and died in 1918.

After Raymond’s death, Jacques began a series of drawings, prints, and paintings revolving around the Baudelaire bust. In Baudelaire with a Pedestal (figure 6), he emphasized stark planes and angles through densely laid etched lines, highlighting the basic geometric forms that compose the sculpture (looking especially sharp atop its pointedly rectangular base). In Baudelaire without a Pedestal (figure 7), Jacques stressed the shape of the bust with his controlled use of the etching needle: one round curve of the inner ear surrounded by harsher angles, the brows slanting sharply, thin lips sealing a tight mouth, even the suggestion of a round eye coming to an acute point — all made even more distinct in juxtaposition with the softer shading down the bust’s side, a visual effect produced by slightly varying the widths of the lines.

Jacques Villon (French, 1875-1963). “Baudelaire with a Pedestal (Baudelaire avec socle),” 1920. Etching. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1974.266.
Figure 6. Jacques Villon (French, 1875-1963). Baudelaire with a Pedestal (Baudelaire avec socle), 1920. Etching. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1974.266
Jacques Villon (French, 1875-1963). “Baudelaire without a Pedastal (Baudelaire sans le socle),” 1921. Etching. Museum purchase, 1972.100.
Figure 7. Jacques Villon (French, 1875-1963). Baudelaire without a Pedastal (Baudelaire sans le socle), 1921. Etching. Mead Art Museum. Museum Purchase, 1972.100

Through a process he called “constructive decomposition,”[3] Jacques drew out the subtle Cubist elements of Raymond’s original bust, slicing the bust into simplified geometric forms. His painting Figure is the final result derived from the geometric abstraction of the bust; the head and the base have been reduced to several stacked planes.

Figure 8. Jacques Villon (French, 1875-1963). “Composition,” 1928. Color aquatint. Museum Purchase, 1954.106.
Figure 8. Jacques Villon (French, 1875-1963). Composition, 1928. Color aquatint. Mead Art Museum. Museum Purchase, 1954.106.

Figure also represents Jacques’s fascination with color: his transfer to a camouflage unit during the First World War sparked an interest in color theory, and Jacques sought both balance and motion in the interactions between colors. He transferred this painting on a copper plate and published the resulting print in 1928, titled Composition (figure 8).

Jacques, first introduced to printmaking by his maternal grandfather (himself an accomplished engraver), cultivated an impressive reputation as a brilliantly skilled printmaker – one that would garner him several key commissions. Composition is part of one such commission: Jacques executed a series of interpretive aquatints — without the assistance of any “photomechanical processes”[4] — for the Parisian Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, which commissioned the reproduction of works by modern artists between 1922 and 1934. (Jean Crotti, Suzanne’s husband and fellow artist, was the master printer of the series.) The Mead has two other prints from the series: Still Life (1923), after Georges Braque, and Landscape (1925), after Felix Vallotton (figures 9 and 10). Though Composition is the only print Villon crafted after his own artwork, he also reproduced works by family and friends, including Flowers, by Suzanne, in 1929, and Portrait of a Man, by Crotti, in 1928.

Jacques Villon (French, 1875-1963); after George Braques (French, 1882-1963). “Still Life,” 1923. Color aquatint. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Paul G. Sailer, 1985.81.
Figure 9. Jacques Villon (French, 1875-1963); after George Braques (French, 1882-1963). Still Life, 1923. Color aquatint. Mead Art Museum. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Paul G. Sailer, 1985.81.
Figure 10. Jacques Villon (French, 1875-1963); after Felix Edouard Vallotton (Swiss, 1865-1925). “Landscape,” 1928. Color aquatint. Museum Purchase, 1979.118.
Figure 10. Jacques Villon (French, 1875-1963); after Felix Edouard Vallotton (Swiss, 1865-1925). Landscape, 1928. Color aquatint. Mead Art Museum. Museum Purchase, 1979.118

A work by Marcel was also featured in the series: The Bride, originally dating to 1912 and reproduced in 1934 (figure 11). Marcel worked with imagery of brides and virgins in several works, and both he and Suzanne often explored the themes of gender, desire, and eroticism. (In fact, Marcel took on a female persona, Rrose Sélavy; when pronounced, the name sounds like the phrase “Eros, c’est la vie” – in English, “Eros, that’s life.”[5])

Figure 11. Jacques Villon (French, 1875-1963); after Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). “The Bride (La Mariee)”, 1934. Color aquatint. Gift of David and Renee Conforte McKee, Class of 1962. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, 2003.24.2.
Figure 11. Jacques Villon (French, 1875-1963); after Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). The Bride (La Mariee), 1934. Color aquatint. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, 2003.24.2.

The Bride also marks early instances in Marcel’s career of machine-like forms replacing organic ones: such “mechanomorphic” imagery, drawing on the symbolism of modern mechanics and industrialization, appeared in Suzanne’s work as well — often to examine the dynamics between male and female.

In addition to engaging with such unconventional symbolism, Marcel continued down the path of conceptual art with his “readymades” – most notoriously, the urinal he titled Fountain. These found objects Duchamp and the Dada movement hoped to elevate beyond merely “retinal” or visual art, transforming the mundane into something worthy of art’s attention. Marcel gave Suzanne a particularly fascinating readymade in honor of her 1919 marriage to Crotti, titled Unhappy Readymade: he instructed Suzanne to suspend a geometry textbook from her balcony, where the “wind … [would] go through the book, choose its own problems, turn and tear out the pages.”[6] Suzanne even composed a small painting with the readymade as its subject, Marcel Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade

Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887-1968). “Medallic Sculpture,” 1964. Bronze. Gift of Neil S. Cooper, Class of 1952, 1977.28.
Figure 12. Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887-1968). Medallic Sculpture, 1964, cast in 1967. Bronze. Mead Art Museum. Gift of Neil S. Cooper, Class of 1952, 1977.28

Along similar lines of such readymades is the Mead’s own Medallic Sculpture (figure 12). Marcel designed a stopper in order to fill the bath of his home in Cadaqués, Spain, in 1961; in 1967, the International Collector’s Society began casting the stopper under the title “Duchamp Art Medal” – turning a commonplace, functional object into a valuable work of art.

In the last two decades of his life, Marcel arranged three exhibitions showcasing the art of the Duchamp siblings, presenting “an evenly balanced quartet on a chamber music scale, with all the players’ distinctive personalities, yet clearly part of the same vanguard world.”[7] Whether with color, sculpture, or concepts, each of the four Duchamp artists — Jacques, Raymond, Marcel, and Suzanne — made an exemplary contribution to not only the family’s artistic legacy, but also the legacy of modern art.

Written by Rosemary Frehe, Class of 2017

Notes

[1] James Johnson Sweeney, foreword, Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Marcel Duchamp. New York: Guggenheim and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1957. Web.

[2] Jack Leissring, Jacques Villon: Cubist Work on paper in the collection of Jack Leissring. Santa Rosa, CA: J. C. Leissring Fine Art Press, 2013. Print.  (page 3)

[3] Daniel Robbins, ed., Jacques Villon. Cambridge, MA: Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 1976. Print. (page 93)

[4] William S.Lieberman and John Hay Whitney, “Jacques Villon: His Graphic Art”  Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, 21.1 (1953): 3-24. Web. (page 6)

[5] Christopher Green, Art in France. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Web. (page 258)

[6] Marcel Duchamp, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, by Pierre Cabanne. Trans. Ron Padgett. London: Da Capo Press, 1979. Web. (page 61)

[7] Holland Cotter, “‘Duchamp Brothers & Sister’: ‘Works of Art’.” Rev. of Duchamp Brothers & Sisters: Works of Art. New York Times. 8 Nov. 2012. Web.

Works Consulted

“The Bernheim-Jeune Story.” Bernheim-Jeune.com. Galerie Bernheim Jeune. N.d. Web.

de Ginestet, Colette, Catherine Pouillon. Jacques Villon, les estampes et les illustrations, catalogue raisonné. Paris: Arts et Métiers Graphiques, 1979. Print.

de Grandry-Pradel, Marie-Noelle. “Duchamp-Villon [Duchamp], (Pierre-Maurice-) Raymond.” Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. N.d. Web.

Jacques Villon, 1875-1963. Chicago : The Art Institute of Chicago, 1976. Print.

“Lot 76: Marcel Duchamp, Bouche-evier (Sink Stopper), also known as Medallic Sculpture, 1967/79.” Philips.com. Phillips. 31 Oct and 1 Nov 2012. Web.

“Marcel Duchamp Art Medal 28/100, based on Sink Stopper (Bouche Evier), 1964; Marcel Duchamp.” University of Michigan Museum of Art. University of Michigan. N.d. Web.

Meskimmon, Marsha. “Duchamp, Suzanne.” Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. N.d. Web.

Naumann, Francis M. “Duchamp, (Henri-Robert-)Marcel.” Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. N.d. Web.

Robbins, Daniel, ed. Jacques Villon. Cambridge, MA: Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 1976. Print

—–. “Villon, Jacques [Duchamp, Gaston].” Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. N.d. Web.

Sweeney, James Johnson. Foreword. Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Marcel Duchamp. New York and Houston: Guggenheim and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1957. Web.

“Two Nuggets from the Spanish Days.” Toutfait.com. The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, 1 Jan 2002. Web.

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