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Marcel Duchamp: The rebellious artist who put mustaches on the Mona Lisa

“Against all opinion, it’s not the painters but the spectators who make the pictures,” Marcel Duchamp.

In art, be it music, literature, or cinema, we find personalities who reveal themselves in the face of criticism and convention. I can cite many examples such as the Sex Pistols, considered by some as the band that would initiate punk in the UK, who with their singles “Anarchy In The UK” or “God Save The Queen” caused havoc throughout the British Isles in the 70s with their ideology.

I refer to them because in painting and sculpture they remind me of the controversial French artist Marcel Duchamp, who caused chaos in the art world. He not only reflected his ingenuity with various artistic movements such as Fauvism or Cubism but also expressed it in works such as “Portrait of the artist’s father,” “Nu descendant un escalier,” or “Le partie d’échecs,” where he paints his two older brothers concentrated in front of the chessboard.

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Marcel Duchamp’s life between cafés and Montmartre

In his youth, Marcel Duchamp had taken the exam to the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts), which he failed to enroll in a private school, the Académie Julian, which he also abandoned for Parisian life. In 1904, living in the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre meant entering a world of bohemia and, between talks about art and culture in the cafés, Marcel carried with him a notebook in which he dedicated his first drawings to the daily life of the city. During the following years, he produced works in the Fauvist style, amid a period in which he experimented with various tendencies, until he reached Cubism, marking with the work Sonata, his beginning in this artistic movement.

Marcel Duchamp always innovated in his work; he never stuck to a single trend or movement. He was considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, a rebellious genius who finally found in Dadaism a way to laugh at everyone and himself. Undoubtedly, with the creation of his “readymades,” he became a symbol of this avant-garde “anti-art” movement.

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Dadaism, a urinal as art, and Marcel Duchamp’s readymades

Dadaism is an anti-art, anti-literary movement, in which artists sought to destroy everything conventional and questioned the existence of art. It is a provocative movement that rejects the established and Marcel Duchamp reflected it in his readymades, found objects of common use converted into works of art, under his motto “art is what is called art” and therefore can be anything.

By that time, he thought that the classic way of painting was dead and painting was rotting in museums, so he found beauty in the superficial things of everyday life, like a bicycle wheel. Although he also made fun with the fact of painting mustaches on a postcard of the Mona Lisa, an intervention he called L.H.O.O.Q. which is a play on words in French is heard as “Elle a chaud au cul,” interpreted at the time (to avoid scandal) as “She is excited.”

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His first readymade is an inverted bicycle wheel on a bench and his work “Fountain” (a urinal) started a revolution in the art world by demonstrating that any object could be considered art. This piece has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Although the original piece was lost, its photograph was preserved, and several replicas were made from it.

Duchamp elevated the value of the objects by exhibiting them, to highlight their aesthetic qualities so that the viewer could give them a new meaning beyond their everyday use. The artist understood it this way: objects have a new life by revaluing them. Today several artists exhibit pieces in the “Duchamp style,” exhibited in galleries and museums around the world under the contribution left by the artist; although for some this is stupid or an easy and petty attempt to gain fame and money. In my opinion, Duchamp proved to be a genius, a complete artist by making works under any technique and artistic movement, and with his readymades, he broke the established in the art world. He was a rebellious artist whom I can call an “art punk.”

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“Against all opinion, it’s not the painters but the spectators who make the pictures,” Marcel Duchamp.

Chess in the life of Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp was fascinated with chess. He competed in the 1925 French Championship and represented his country in the 1933 Olympiad. Some works and contributions inspired by this game were his readymade “Trébucher (The Stumble)” which consists of an end position of pawns; but also his set of pieces called Buenos Aires. Duchamp was an artist who reminds us that chess is not only a game but an infinite world of possibilities for beauty, creativity, and imagination.

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Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva

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