There are no ready-made words that can be used to easily describe Marcel Duchamp or categorise him or his work Like “heimlich” in Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny” there are as many interpretations that can be put on him as there are people who wish to talk or write on the artist, his work and his life.
Starting from a quite fortunate, high intellectual family home he travels through life, always seeming to be successful but never entirely sure what he would like his destiny to be and I think never achieving the peace of mind that the fulfilment of his ambitions and the deserved acclaim that was showered on him should have lent itself to. His undoubted skill to move within various artistic media appears to be assisted in no small way by his ability to move between the complex personae he either created for himself or which chose to live within him at crucial points in his life.
At times it seems that whenever he was unsure of the response he would receive in respect of a direction he wanted to take, rather than approach it as Marcel Duchamp, he would stick his toe in the water under a pseudonym and an alternative personality, possibly as contrived as the pseudonym, to gauge the reaction to his creations, thereby creating an unconscious barrier of mental protection against the effects of a possible failure and also an insurance policy against the detrimental effects of adverse publicity on his standing in the art and social world.
Only when the piece had received acclaim did Duchamp reveal himself as the artist. One wonders if there have been a great number of pieces created by Duchamp, slated by the critics of the time, that were never acknowledged by Duchamp as having emanated from him. The possibility of failure would have been a great fear to him but he would already have ensured his separation from this chance by the anonymity of the author of the piece. Without the benefit of a close psychiatric assessment of him it is difficult to speculate whether the complexity of his character approached that of an American artistic contemporary of his.
“Sybil Dorsett” was the pseudonym the artist was given by Flora Rheta Schreiber in her 1973 true story “Sybil”. Sybil was subsumed by sixteen separate personalities. Her life was a chaos of predatory personalities including childlike, male, nasty, religious and amoral. Within most of us these coexist and are not normally in serious conflict. Within Sybil they each gained some form of dominance within her for indeterminate periods of time and with complex and disastrous results for her life. Over a period of forty years and eventually after years of psychiatric assistance, Sybil managed to live with some degree of harmony as an amalgam of all these personalities rather than chaotically as each personality quite separate and of dubious relationship and benefit to the others.
Marcel Duchamp’s ability to move with apparent effortlessness from painting, to literature, to sculpture, to theatre, to music,, to illusionist, to humour and his cultivation of successful relationships with people from all the strata of the art world, theatre and society either ensure his place as one of the most gifted people of all time or else someone with the amazing ability to allow different facets of his personality to be released, use themselves to fulfil themselves, then rein them back in to the equilibrium of amalgam before the crucial stage of a personality conflict could be reached.
Perhaps he brought to his art a tremendous amount of the finely honed intellectual manoeuvrings required of a skilled chess player. From his known works he seems to always be conducting a probing assessment of his opponent (the spectator) testing us with each new piece to see if we are still able to be in the game and whether we comprehend where the game is and whether we are ready for the next move. Never giving too serious a message to us or leaving us without an ambiguity that we can use to convince ourselves that our continued involvement with him will be essentially beneficial to us. He coaxes respect and adherence out of us almost without our knowing it.
Within the proliferation of excellent work he produced it is the questions he does not answer, or the questions he does not even ask, that are a major part of the continued attraction and fascination with him. These have spawned a global Duchamp industry, weekly seeking fresh interpretations to label his work with. I feel that behind a door somewhere Duchamp will be keeled over in laughter, as his essential characteristic was to see sense in nonsense and nonsense in sense.
He gave the art world the freedom to feel that it was all right to examine oneself and without being disparaging to our work or to other’s work to accept that the sense of proportion that had been present in the artwork should also be extended to the assessment of it and that there is a place for the humour, intended or just apparent, present in pieces of art to be acknowledged, indulged in and to understand the enhanced stature of the piece from this.
Although not a “Surrealist”, his work had a very freeing effect on the range of subjects and their treatments which the Surrealists up to then had been wary of, had not dealt with, but now felt capable of being given a fair hearing at least in the art world if not generally. Not quite as all encompassing as Claes Oldenburg’s “I Am for an Art…..”, Duchamp covered a phenomenal array of subjects in his life. Apart from his major works of “The Large Glass” and Etant Donnes” Duchamp is probably best known for his ubiquitously named “Ready Mades.”
Within this genre Duchamp is at his best. He asks the world to drop its guard, defy convention, explore other ways of looking at everyday objects and to enjoy the resultant works, not for what they were as objects, not even for what they have now become in his terms but for what they may become in our own terms, even during a subsequent recreation. He falls foul of “the art world” as it, like most “professions,” thinks it has to rely on its elitism and exclusivity to secure the mysticism and rarefied world that it purports to exist in.
Like most arguments of this type it was resolved by money. Just as Bevan “stuffed the mouths of doctors with gold” to ease their moral objections to the setting up of the NHS in 1945, Duchamp’s society backers put their money on Duchamp and the objections to his art decreased in direct proportion to the increase in the amount of patronage he received. Very soon he was fully emancipated. From his early sketches and paintings through to his final piece “Etant Donnes” there is a flow of energy combined with motion either implied or alluded to that very few artists manage to consistently convey..