Duchamp and the Large Glass: Dialogues of Disorder
In the wake of Cubism and during the aftermath of the First World War, avant-garde art took on two different forms. The Purist movement in painting, as described by Ozenfant and others, extolled order and the formal elements of art. Diametrically opposed to this movement was that of Dadaism. Eschewing both Cubist and Purist ideals of a rationalized order, the Dadaists were critical of stratified systems such as language or artistic convention. They instead embraced randomness and disorder in their art. Also of importance was the idea of the machine, though it had different connotations than in Rationalist art. Rather than being used as a symbol of a perfect and efficient order, the machine was given irrational qualities; Dadaist works linked machines to sex as well as military carnage. One of the central figures associated with the Dada movement was Marcel Duchamp. Much of his art exhibited the themes of the Dada movement; like fellow Dadaists, Duchamp undermined 'Classical' ideals regarding art. A prime example of the ways in which Duchamp's art subverted conventional notions of art and the artist is his The Large Glass, or The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, a work which is currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Large Glass serves to challenge notions of art and artistry as well as attitudes towards rationality.
The Dadaists cannot be fully understood without reference to the artistic and intellectual movements that they were reacting against. The Cubists who flourished before the war as well as the contemporary Purists both put forth a vision of order in art which the Dadaists contrasted with their own work. In the case of Cubism, the visual reality of the art was a rationalized, analytical one in which an image was constructed from geometric forms. Apollinaire emphasized the intellectual and conceptual elements of Cubism: "Cubism differs from the old schools of painting in that it is not an art of imitation, but an art of conception which tends towards creation" (Harrison 182). The Purists likewise valued the rational in art; it addressed both the claims of 'high art' and a postwar 'call to order'. In the Purist journal L'Espirit Noveau, Ozenfant and his followers praised modern, ancient, and 'primitive' art which were viewed as forebears of the Purist project and criticized Impressionist and naturalist works that did not follow mathematical or geometric patterns. "The argument that linked these figures - and also included more general categories such as Greek art and 'Negro' sculpture - was that all this work drew on a deeper level reality than was represented in the 'superficial sensations' of Impressionism and naturalism" (Batchelor 25). Thus a sense of order was to be highly desired in art:
"Esthetic sensations are not all of the same degree of intensity or quality' we might say there is a hierarchy. The highest level of this hierarchy seems to us to be that special state of a mathematical sort to which we are raised, for example, by the clear perception of a great general law... In plastic art, the senses should be strongly moved in order to predispose the mind to the release into play of subjective reactions without which there is no work of art. But there is no are worth having without this excitement of an intellectual order, of a mathematical order" (Harrison 238).
Pure forms were not only seen in art, but could also be found in machines, which naturally represented the functionality and simplicity that was desired. "The assertion that the modern form of the Classical is to be found in the products of advanced industrial production was applied by Jeanneret and Ozenfant not only to what were then exotic commodities such as cars and aeroplanes, but also to the most basic everyday objects... [they] were ascribed a kind of higher moral order by virtue of their standardized, functional 'purity'" (Batchelor 27). Thus Purism stressed the aims of purification and efficiency in its quest to improve the aesthetic qualities of art.
The Dada movement negated the aims and claims of Purism, criticizing and subverting the rational systems on which that movement was predicated. The Dadaists were critical of an 'order' that had culminated in the carnage of war; instead, they remained aloof from systematized thought, valuing spontaneity and the freedom it entailed. Tristan Tzara, in his 1918 Dada manifesto, states that
"Dada was born of a need for independence, of a distrust toward unity. Those who are with us preserve their freedom. We recognize no theory. We have enough cubist and futurist academies: laboratories of formal ideas ... I detest greasy objectivity, and harmony, the science that finds everything in order... I am against systems, the most acceptable system is on principle to have none" (Harrison 250-251).
A chief trademark of Dada in all its manifestation was an animosity towards the systematic order that was put forth in society at large as well as by the Purists; many Dadaists felt the need to eliminate conventions through means of 'chaos' and randomness. "Breakdown was seen as either potentially revelatory in itself, or as a preliminary stage in the generation of subsequent forms or meanings... Randomness, chance, the unplanned, and the contingent functioned as significant elements within a theorized critique of a particular culture" (Batchelor 32-34).
Central to Dadaist art was the machine; however, it had far different connotations than in the works of the Purists. Machinery was infused with violence and sex by many in the Dada movement. In works such as Ass and Portrait of a Young American Girl in a State of Nudity, the Dada artist Picabia linked machinery such as the propeller and spark plug to human sexuality, thereby making it a symbol of irrationality.
"In just about every respect, Picabia's use of machine imagery contrasts strikingly with the Purists' use of it. While the Purists saw machinery as the embodiment of clarity, utility, efficiency - the product of the highest forms of human achievement - Picabia tended to regard it with a more sceptical view of human capacities and achievements... They converge with Tzara's hostility towards rationality, logic, and organization; they could also be regarded as reflections on the barbaric uses to which machines were being put in the war" (Harrison 39).
Other Dada works were more overtly critical of the war. In Crippled War Veterans Playing Cards, by Berlin artist Otto Dix, the human figures are turned into grossly distorted machines. "The image of mechanized human, or humanized machine, is given a specific point of reference. While Dix's figures are grotesquely caricatured, it is clear that he was deriving his imagery from the wounded and mutilated soldiers who began visibly to populate the streets" (Harrison 43). Using machine imagery, Dix provides a critique of the mechanistic order that led to the war and the mutilation of millions of soldiers. In these ways, machinery was used as a symbol of irrationality rather than the Purist symbol of functional efficiency.
The work of Duchamp is in many ways representative of Dadaist aims and practices; "although Duchamp himself had little to do with the constituted Dada groups in Europe, [his works] were seen to embody the iconoclastic spirit of Dadaism" (Cachelor 36). After a period in which he worked on Cubist- and Futurist- inspired paintings, Duchamp turned towards the Dada movement. His most infamous works, the ready-mades, embody the rejection of tradition that is a cornerstone of the Dadaist movement. As is the case in Tzara's concept of a 'Dadaist poem', in which text is merely reassembled by the artist, Duchamp creates a work of 'art' by rearranging pre-existing objects in a seemingly random manner. In the case of Fountain, 'Richard Mutt' could be said to turn a urinal into art through changing the context. "He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title ans point of view created a new thought for that object" (Harrison 248). Likewise, Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. takes a monolith of DaVinci's Mona Lisa and subverts it through the addition of a beard and mustache as well as by the ironic title (pronounced in French, it meant 'she has a hot ass'). Significantly, such works rely on mass-produced commodities; by using these materials, Duchamp was able to bring out a relationship between the products of a machine-oriented mass culture and his iconoclastic and absurd works.
The Large Glass, or The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even illustrates many of these concerns. In its composition, it violates many of the artistic standards employed by the Purists. Significantly, it is not meant to be looked at simply for it's compositional value as 'retinal art'; "Duchamp intended the Large Glass to be accompanied by a book, in order to prevent purely visual responses to it" (Ades 88). The fact that the 'background' is glass prevents it from attaining an unchangeable visual purity; the composition literally changes along with its environment.
"Glass as a substance is also, however, pictorially speaking, absence, its transparency purely negative. This was an important consideration for Duchamp, and a justification for 'no longer thinking that the thing in question is a picture', for it enabled him to dispense with landscape, background or setting... Glass has the property of a window in that it automatically and involuntarily includes what is seen through it, but unlike a window the position of the Large Glass can be changed to look out onto a different prospect, a different setting for the figures" (Ades 94).
The framing of the composition also denies the Large Glass a sense of Purist unity, as it separates the figure of 'bride' and 'bachelors' into what almost appears to be two unrelated artworks. In these ways, the work confounds Purist ideals of art and order.
Duchamp also employs machine imagery in the Large Glass to suggest sexuality and irrationality. In describing the 'bride', Duchamp notes that "the Bride is basically a motor. Cur before being a motor which transmits her timid-power - she is this very timid-power - This timid power is a sort of automobile, love gasoline, that, distributed to the quite feeble cylinders, within reach of the sparks of her constant life, is used for the blossoming of this virgin" (Ades 106). The panel containing the 'bachelor apparatus' is even more forthright in its construction of machines as instruments of sexuality. The chocolate grinder at the center of the composition takes on sexual connotations for Duchamp, as it
"is stripped down to one basic gyratory function, a turning and grinding of gears that Duchamp associated symbolically with masturbation: 'Always there has been a necessity for circles in my life, for, how so you say, rotation. It is a kind of onanism. The machine goes round, and by some miraculous process I have always found fascinating, it produces chocolate'" (Ades 74).
Infused with sexual meanings, the machine is thus subverted and transformed into a symbol of irrationality, and disorder rather than order and functionality.
In contrast with the Purists, those associated with the Dadaist movement took a critical attitude towards order or rationality, choosing instead to value the breakdown of traditional order and systems of thought either as a good in itself or as a means to create a tabula raza on which a better society could be built. Art made under the umbrella of the Dada movement reflected this attitude; randomness and irrationality were cultivated in Dada works, particularly with regard to machinery. Duchamp serves as an important example of such an artist, and his Large Glass provides a striking example of Dadaist concerns. Its disregard of the concept of formal universality as well as its use of machine imagery both serve to highlight tensions within the Dada movement.
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