The Grand Old Lady of Modern Art: Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase
by Isabelle Fleuriet
Readymade Press, New York, NY, 2013
120 pp., illus. Paper, $39.95
Reviewed by Kieran Lyons
University of Plymouth
Isabelle Fleuriet’s monograph The Grand Old Lady of Modern Art: Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ deserves attention not only for its subject matter but also for the significance and achievement of writing this coherent and engaging text in English. The text we read is in its original form and, therefore, not a translation from an existing source; we can assume, of course that Fleuriet, a French art historian living in Paris, could produce an equivalent publication for the French reader with ease – but she hasn’t. So the decision to write and publish for Anglophone readers has a significance all of its own. Published under the imprimatur of Francis Naumann’s, 57th street Readymade Press, the collaboration between the French academic and New York publisher comes together in a counterpoint with the story that Fleuriet unfolds. Duchamp’s painting, a misaligned byproduct of the tense interface between salon cubism and its Italian futurist rivals, which failed to find acceptance with either group, could, nevertheless have only been painted – and then marginalised – at this particular juncture and time. Although the painting originated in pre-WWI Paris, its subsequent story, its rise in popularity and developing prominence from that time onwards is – for better or for worse – an American one. America made it famous, even eclipsing, at times, the name and standing of the artist himself, and, so, it is fitting that this book is primarily about the work and not about the artistic development of the man who made it. It is perhaps for this reason that Fleuriet’s narrative begins on March 18th 1912 when Duchamp removed his painting before the vernissage of the Indépendants exhibition and not the day before when, already sensitive about his painting, he went to bizarre lengths to deliver it by boat, first unpinning the painting from its stretcher, rolling it up and then rowing it several kilometers to its destination. Notwithstanding, Fleuriet keeps to her self-appointed brief and the solid accumulation of material is presented in a timely and methodical way. It makes a valuable contribution.
The success of Duchamp’s painting came at a price, however, for not only was the artist’s name obscured behind the notoriety of the work in the 1930s and early 40s, but also the notoriety within which it came to thrive upon occasioned a strange complacency about its status and standing. Its reputation, sporadically reinvigorated in news bulletins and puzzled reporting in the popular press, gradually elevated it to the status of a national treasure, competing for popularity and publicity at one point with a celebrated strip-tease dancers as well as masterpieces by El Greco and Gainsborough, and The New York Times put it on a par with the pyramids and the Empire State Building – later on it would draw just enough xenophobic criticism from McCarthyite voices in Washington to sustain its radical credentials.
Meanwhile, in the very different environment of European painting, the French historian Robert Lebel began to prepare and eventually publish in 1959 his monograph Sur Marcel Duchamp, the first serious attempt to analyse the artist’s work in its entirety. This had the effect of pre-empting any attempts by American historians who, with all of Duchamp’s major works at their disposal in national collections including, of course, the four versions of the famous Nude, had not by this time to put into any historical or national context an estimation of the status of the artist who had come to stay with them. When Duchamp’s first major retrospective took place in Pasadena in1963, it was accompanied by the sensational razzmatazz of the septuagenarian artist outperforming a naked girl in a game of chess; a scenario that, no doubt Duchamp was perfectly happy to go along with, but which also deflected attention away from a more complete understanding of his aims as well as continuing the deception that he had given up art for chess.
This publicity, as well as the uncritical approval in Robert Lebel’s text, conspired to generate a sense of unease with a younger generation of painters in France who were concerned about the materialist direction of modernist practice that Duchamp was leading them towards. Duchamp’s acceptance of American citizenship further contributed to this dissatisfaction, which found its most virulent critique within the Marxist collective of Arroyo, Aillaud and Recalcati. It is at this stage in her account that Fleuriet develops the most engaging and sustained treatment of the legacy of the Nude through their signature work To Live and Let Die or The Tragic End of Marcel Duchamp, and I think this is her main contribution to a greater understanding of the subject. The critical protest by these artists has been documented elsewhere, of course, and Fleuriet, while scrupulously acknowledging her source material, revitalises it in this altogether new context of the hyperbole surrounding The Nude Descending a Staircase. The insights to be drawn from reading Fleuriet’s methodical tracing of these popular responses in newspaper coverage that over a period of 40 years developed a set of recurring tropes based on the painting’s illegibility, its subject’s invisibility, while always setting it against the painting’s escalating monetary value. Duchamp’s legacy, one that was gradually being invented by a form of publicity, which at the same time began to claim him for its own – is, I think, a major contribution to the canon.
This decision to deal with an artwork, rather than the artist’s development across the 100 years of its history is preceded, on the multiplying bookshelves of Duchamp scholarship in, perhaps, only two other works, which like hers are devoted to the analysis of a single work only: John Golding’s The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, even (1973) and the much later Étant Donnés by Michael Taylor (2009). However, Fleuriet’s agenda is more specific than either of these monographs in that she traces the vicissitudes of this work through its appearances in the popular press and in its redefinition in subsequent art works in the form of advertisements and shop window displays, usually arranged by Duchamp himself, and occasionally given magisterial treatment by other artists such as Yves Klein and Robert Rauschenberg. Except for the notable exception of the French agitprop group, mentioned above, these homages were made in America and aimed at American audiences. In a separate section entitled The Nude’s Descendants 1965-2013 Fleuriet traces a second wave of artists with more or less overt references to Duchamp’s painting but notwithstanding the quality of some of these works, they appear very much as a coda to the work without a clear connection to the main thesis, which depends very much on the way the shifting perceptions to the Nude were exploited and developed by Duchamp or his promoters while he was alive. This section demonstrates the esteem that subsequent artists held for the artist and the popularity of the work under review, an enthusiasm that certainly I share – however, for me the weight and importance of Fleuriet’s work comes to a close in 1963, while the artist was still alive and when he could assess the extent of his legacy across two major responses to his work. On the one hand, we see the eight panels of the collaborative painting To Live and Let Die or the Tragic End of Marcel Duchamp painted by Arroyo et al, and the second is in Robert Rauschenberg’s magisterial composite painting Express. They are both to be seen in Madrid in adjacent museums so that these two oppositional strands of Duchamp’s effect can be seen almost in one go. Go, and see them to judge which one handles the responsibility better – if you go, take a copy of Fleuriet’s book with you.