Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia At Tate Modern London

By Caroline Lewis | 19 February 2008
photo of a porcelain urinal with a signature and date on it

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917. Tate © Succession Marcel Duchamp/ Paris and DACS, London 2007

Review: Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia at Tate Modern, London, until May 26 2008. Caroline Lewis takes a look at an avant-garde ménage-a-trois who became the fountain of modern art.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Man Ray (1890-1976) and Francis Picabia (1879-1953) were friends. They bounced their arty ideas off each other and worked with similar themes, taking inspiration from each others’ works, and their influence on modern art is undeniable (they started the New York arm of Dada, for example).

This has made it possible for the curators to gather together works by each artist that are very closely connected, but ultimately it feels like Duchamp takes centre stage, with several of his most famous works dominating the show.

It all takes a loose chronological form, beginning with early paintings by the three – landscapes and nude couples from between 1907 and 1914. It was in this period that they met – Duchamp and Picabia in 1911 and Man Ray and the two in 1915. Their similar outlooks and thematic interests as they began experimenting with style and talking to each other are then brought to the fore in the following rooms.

Movement is the first theme, which allows the juxtaposition of Ray and Picabia’s abstract dancer-inspired paintings. Of these, Picabia’s large-scale ‘I Still See in Memory my Beloved Udnie’ (1913-14; Udnie a play on nudie) is the most engrossing, composed of a swirling subject in shapes of rusty copper and ochre yellow on a dark ground.

Yet already Duchamp steals the limelight. It’s the first time in more than 40 years that his ‘Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2’ (1912) has been shown in the UK. An abstracted female in a series of positions, it caused a stir at the time, when he displayed it at a Cubist exhibition. The Cubists were a serious bunch, and were angered that the work neither conformed strictly to their technique or philosophical approach.

painting of an abstracted nude female walking down steps

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912. Courtesy The Philedelphia Museum © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2008

Peeved at their haughtiness, Duchamp dismissed the idea of joining a particular group – a decision in which he was joined by Picabia, who never stuck to one style for long. They and Ray also introduced jokes into art, which had become a rather solemn affair.

In common with other artists of the time, however, they were all interested in how machines signified the new age, and painted representations of real and imagined machines. Duchamp’s ‘Chocolate Grinder, No.1’ (1913) is actually rather elegant, with its three shiny metallic cylinders, though we are told that machinery gave him a means of developing a deliberately anti-aesthetic style. A painting of a cog by Picabia is titled Fiancé, and one of Duchamp’s is a Bride – sexual jokes.

Man Ray’s rayographs from the 1922 ‘Champs Delicieux’ series, which come later in the exhibition, could actually mesh well in this section. Created by placing objects on light sensitive paper (a known technique that he perfected, thus naming it after himself), the combinations of reverse silhouettes of such banal things as fans, cheese graters, tools, a gun and keys are most reminiscent of the imaginary machine arrangements in Duchamp’s paintings. As a side note, Picabia tended to copy his ‘machines’ from diagrams in books – a plagiaristic tendency that seems to be repeated throughout his oeuvre, to the point where it’s his signature.

Duchamp dominates the next rooms, too. Richard Hamilton’s 1960s artist-endorsed reconstruction of ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even’ (1915-23) and other works on glass mark a turning point in the next part of the show, where fewer direct links between each artist are obvious, but material related to their actual friendship is brought in.

First, however, is the icon of the show. By Duchamp, of course: it’s the Urinal (or a reconstruction of it, anyway). Properly known as ‘Fountain’ (1917), it was rejected from an exhibition on the grounds that it was a manufactured, not artist-made, object. Now, it defines conceptual art.

photo of an old fashioned iron with nails sticking out of the bottom in a comb like row

Man Ray, Cadeau, 1921.Tate. Presented by the Tate Collectors Forum 2002 © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2008

Duchamp wanted to make art that wasn’t art, and went about it by giving a title, author’s name (the pseudonym R. Mutt in the case of Fountain) and date of execution to ‘readymade’ objects, and then adding the other necessary feature – a viewing public. The vexing debate over whether this makes something a work of art continues to this day, making the wicked Duchamp both a hero and a devil in the history of art.

Perhaps pleased with this achievement, he concentrated on professional chess-playing for much of the 1920s, (and played the odd game with novice Man Ray). Pleasing chess sets designed by both of them are on show.

Man Ray didn’t shy away from using manufactured objects, either, and the exhibition has a replica of the well-known ‘Indestructible Object’ (1923), with the eye attached to a metronome, and other surreal pieces such as Balai – a broom whose title plays on the French word for it that sounds like ‘ballet’.

Picabia, meanwhile, is using readymade objects in a different way – a reinterpretive way, shall we say. ‘The Lovers’ (1925) and ‘Woman with Monocle’ (1922-26) are garish, Picasso-esque reinterpretations of postcards then on sale that he made because he wanted to paint something ‘his concierge would like’. No doubt his concierge most appreciated the kitsch pin-up nudes he produced during the 1940s, purportedly collaged from elements in magazines.

Picabia passed away in 1953, marked in the show by Man Ray’s drawing ‘Homage to Picabia’ and a telegram from Duchamp to his friend as he lay on his deathbed that reads simply ‘A bientot, cher Francis – Marcel’.

painting of a kneeling nude and a dog

Francis Picabia, Femmes au Bull-Dog, 1940- 1942. Centre Pompidou © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2008

The biography of this three-way friendship is overshadowed by the sheer number of works here. Photographs of their playful associations – Man Ray dressed as an Egyptian, Duchamp’s star-shaped tonsure that he shaved himself, a portrait of Picabia sitting in several places around a table… so many amusing details are buried among many overarching points of focus.

However, the parallels drawn between their careers and ideas make for an interesting and varied exhibition, with nudes pulling the story back together towards the end. Alongside Picabia’s frilly-knickered pin-ups are photographs by Man Ray of his naked, full-hipped lover Kiki, bare-breasted Lee Miller, a sensuous throat and rounded derriere with footnotes of hands and toes.

Duchamp’s final masterpiece, ‘Etant Donnés’ (Given, 1946-1966), is the most mysterious. A headless woman is collapsed nude in a bush of bare twigs, raising a lamp in one hand, her genitals distorted and a waterfall behind her – a symbolic comment on male-female relations. Even more intriguingly, this is a stereoscopic image seen through two peepholes in a gate (actually a projection, the original can’t be moved). The late work was in the making, in secret, for 20 years, and only revealed after Duchamp’s death. In this exhibition, he is the headlining act.

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