London’s Tate Modern museum is a cavernous, industrial-seeming building on the banks of the Thames. I have never much liked the building itself, both for its architecture and located as it is equally inconveniently distant from three tube stops. Nonetheless, I went to see the Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia exhibit there recently.
These three wackos were key figures in the history of modernism. Famous for creating the post-WWI Dada movement in New York and Paris in 1915-20, they became friends and influenced each other’s work.
Early on as painters they experimented with cubism and produced strange, scandalous paintings that substituted shapes for flesh, in works that resemble multiple-exposure photography. Check out Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Later abstractions produced blobs of paint on colored backgrounds.
One of their signatures was to challenge the prevailing notion of what constitutes “art”. The foundation of Dada-ism is “anti-art”. Duchamp was famous for entering a mass-produced ceramic men’s room urinal, The Fountain, in an art show. Man Ray created rayographs by laying objects on photo paper and exposing them to light. Picabia, collected fast cars and created transparencies, paintings in which multiple images overlay and show through each other.
They worked in paint, sculpture, mechanical objects, photographs, and film and their careers spanned decades. No chilly artist’s garret and soul-sapping anonymity for these guys: they were famous and influential and lived and worked into the 1960’s. One of Duchamp’s best-known works is L.H.O.O.Q. – an image of the Mona Lisa with a moustache and goatee added. Picabia’s work even graced the cover of Vogue magazine.
And they were fun guys. For example, Picabia wrote a film script, featuring Duchamp and Man Ray playing chess, among other things. The resulting movie was shown during the intermission of a new opera and its stated intent was to get the audience to go home. A lot of modern art leaves me cold but I enjoyed the sheer whimsy and bravado of these works.
The Tate show itself was well-organized, with over a hundred pieces, and nicely annotated. The audio guide (a very worthwhile expense) included recordings of comments on the works by the artists themselves – a very personal connection. You can see a lot of the exhibition here.
It was interesting to see that some their works, painstakingly created “the old fashioned way” with materials then available to them, are the predecessors (and possibly the foundations) for digitally-created images and videos we see today. “Solarization”, layering, and video scene quick-cutting are but a few examples. One wonders what these artists could have done with modern digital tools or if they would have had any impact at all in today’s visually overloaded world. If the show travels to the U.S., I recommend it to you.
Incidentally, one of the principals of the Dada movement in Berlin after WWI was an artist named Raoul Hausmann.