Tate Modern, 21st Feb – 26th May (…another exhibition I review while it’s still open! Three weeks… three shopping weeks before this shuts!!!)
i) Against All Art
It’s interesting to see this show so soon after the orthodox Modernism on offer in From Russia. This couldn’t be a comparison any more by way of contrast; it’s like yang to yin, anti-matter to matter or… closer to the point… anti-art to art.
Most Modernist movements were about kickstarting art into catching up with progress, finding a new method of painting that would place it beside telephones and automobiles instead of haywains. These guys, however, would rather be a spanner than the works and had soon vowed to offer art not a helping hand but a thumbed nose. They set themselves against both art and their times, in a bid to render problematic the very notion of individual expression. They didn’t want us to see art in a new way, they wanted to create works which restrospectively undid all the old ways. Picabia called it “the disintegration of the concept of art.”
However about the worst thing you could do to this show, worse even than take it as an art exhibition, would be to portray it as chinstrokingly dull and academic. (“But then what is art? Hmmmm…”) Instead of the hermetic, cerebral world of movements and manifestos it’s relentlessly playful and often laugh-out-loud funny. The endless tongue twisters, puns, in-jokes and false identities don’t come across as sugar on the medicine but integral to the point. Picabia enthused over “lively, childlike, happy art.” Traversing it’s like spending an afternoon in the company of acute philosophers who are simultaneously master raconteurs. Though their agenda’s entirely negative you emerge exhilarated not constrained. Duchamp described its ”nihilism” as “a way to get free.”
That three-name title comes in here, in it’s way as innocuous-sounding but significant as was From Russia. It’s chiefly significant for what it doesn’t say – Dadaism. Instead of a blow-by-blow account of a movement we have instead the story of a three-way friendship, of the sparks that flew between three active minds. (It also helps considerably that the rooms are as often arranged thematically as chronologically.) While of course all art movements have different wings, their singularity here is such that you start to wonder whether ‘Dadaism’ is a useful term after all.
The Berlin Dadaists in particular were rigorously anti-art, embracing the Marxist notion that it was nothing more than the imposed culture of the ruling orders. (“There is art”, asserted Grosz, “so the bourgeoisie have something to hang in front of their wallsafes.”) But these three were not politicos but philosophers, seeking not to smash art items but challenge its very concept. Duchamp spoke of “denying the possibility of defining art”, perhaps suggesting his aim was not so much to slay art as render it forevermore volatile and unsafe. Perhaps correspondingly there’s no sense of urgency to their project, or for that matter very much concern whether they even succeed or not. Quite often they refer to their own work in terms of a Zen exercise, which might well be both futile and worthwhile. Duchamp commented “my intention was always to get away from myself, though I knew perfectly well that I was using myself. Call it a little game between ‘I’ and ‘me’.”
Their feet were planted, of course, in different ground. You can read in any art book about Dada being a reaction to the horrors of the First World War. The Berlin Dadaists were certainly responding to the devastation and political turmoil they saw about them. But our three here began the anti-art path in the early Nineteen Tens, before the war. (Even if the show’s own press release seems confused about this.) Similarly, though outside of this show’s remit, Russian Dada preceded the war – though there it confusingly called itself ‘Futurist’. Moreover, their antagonism to art doesn’t seem to have stopped them leading d the fairly privileged life of the successful artist-playboy, jetting between Paris and New York and generally living it up. (Picabia may have owned up to a hundred and fifty cars!) And of course, as an American, Man Ray, would have been barely affected by the war for most of its duration.
The Great War’s importance is doubtless overplayed anyway. Reading art books you sometimes picture two guys in the trenches, one saying bitterly to the other; “You know what I blame for all this? The traditionalist form of painting!” the smarter money would be on looking at what a transforming time the Tens and Twenties really were. If, to borrow the show’s byline, this was “the point art changed foreover”, it’s correspondingly the period where society shifted too. Adam Curtis has called the last century ‘The Century of the Self’, but it was in these incubator decades that the notion of the private self was truly cooked up. Before then most people were defined by little more than their social location, and lived essentially to replace and duplicate their parents. Outwardly paradoxically the rise of the private self also had its corollary in the rise of mass production. You define your self against that mass, but you create that definition through the items you consume.
Partly as a result, Modernist art objects had their own paradoxical relationship to this period. As argued in the From Russia review, for all it’s futuristic claims “Modernist art relied upon a Medieval means of subsistence”, single hand-made objects purchased by a patron. A benevolent patron would publicly display his goods, like a landowner throwing the village a feast. In fact in an era of mass production, the personalised, handmade quality became a feature people expected of art. In short, the artist epitomized the self as the concept grew in importance to a society becoming increasingly anonymised. In the very early days of Modernism, three of its practitioners saw through all that and turned instead to upending it. Their aim, in Duchamp’s pithy phrase, was “to annihilate the ego of the artist.” (A quote which really should be in the show, but isn’t.)
Perhaps their philosophy is best expressed in one of the films shown here Ent’racte (directed by Rene Clair, but scripted by Picabia). Though interpreting such things may be a fool’s errand, I couldn’t help but see the funeral procession as their impression of art – something revered in a stately fashion, but dead. The procession then speeds up, first into a brisk canter then careering out of control, a parody of the Modernist notion art must be “speeded up” into current times. (It flies past cars and bicycles.) Finally the carriage-hearse crashes and a magician emerges from the coffin who makes everyone disappear, including (finally) himself – anti-art personified. The magician is perhaps a fusion of all three, though he makes me think most of Duchamp.
ii) Movement Against Progress
Consequently, it’s possible to read the show as a toolkit designed to dismantle Modernism. Modernism frequently concerned itself with reflecting society’s self-belief in progress, which often took the form of capturing motion – society was no longer bound by tradition but dynamic and forward-looking. (This was particularly true of Italian Futurism, their first manifesto boasting “we have created eternal omnipresent speed.”) We see motion again here, but almost all of it is circular. There are simply so many circle motifs on view that they can’t be coincidental, and are surely a kind of skit on notions of linear progress. They are also frequently married to the portrayal of dancing, which also conveys their playful approach. Ent’racte, for example, has repeated cross-cuts to the below-view of the undulating skirts of a dancer, while Duchamp’s first readymade (more on those later) was a bicycle wheel.
One of the main places we see circles is in cogs and gears. As we’ve seen Modernism often had a contradictory relationship to the machines – frequently venerating them, yet continuing to insisit upon the authentic touch of the individual artist upon his work, as if that ‘’private self’ was merely being poured out onto the canvas. So our boys chose to collide these two in what Picabia called ‘mechanomorphic’ drawings. These often blurred the distinction between the human and the machine, with a particular favourite the reduction of sex to the mechanical. (However, the distinction might not have been as clear-cut as some make out. Leger for example, a loose associate of this crew, often painted man-machine combinations but in a much more positive light.)
This interest also spilt over into an appropriation of the style of technical drawings, with machine diagrams themselves sometimes merely plagiarized. (Picabia took a set of these then claimed them to be ‘portraits’ of various associates, defying us to see the person in the gears.) These drawings became a way to (in Man Ray’s words) “remove all traces of manual dexterity” from the art. Works instead became diagrams of ideas, aiming to explain the workings of concepts in the most lean and economical matter possible. Duchamp later bundled the notes he made creating Large Glass into a work in their own right. And you suspect if he’d have had to get rid of one of the two, it wouldn’t have been the notes…
iii) Art From the Assembly Line
But if the three took up arms against many foes, you get the feeling painting was their Moriaty. So you’re not surprised when they abandon painting altogether; for kinetic art objects, photographs, works on glass instead of canvas and much else. Man Ray declared himself “free” from “the sticky medium”! But perhaps their greatest escape lay in what Duchamp would later call his biggest contribution – the readymade.
To understand what readymades are we must first understand what they aren’t. Picasso once ‘made’ a sculpture that was nothing more than a gas hob. Realising that if you turned it to an unusual angle it formed an image he liked, he found himself satisfied and exhibited it as it was. But Duchamp emphatically did not aesthetically appreciate the urinals, snow shovels and bicycle wheels he exhibited. When his urinal was rejected for exhibition as “plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing”, he insisted it didn’t matter how the readymades were made. The point was he, the artist, had chosen them. He’d then insist that he’d taken care to choose the objects as randomly as he possibly could, that they were “object[s] that absolutely do not interest you… which do not have any chance of becoming attractive or beautiful.”
Norbert Lynton has written on the importance of collage for the Dadaists, as “works of art that tease and threaten our awareness of all art [by] juxtaposing pieces stolen from the world.” You will find very little collage in this show, but the readymades bear close similarities – it is merely the feature they are juxtaposed against is their gallery setting.
‘Readymade’ was then a colloquial American term for a manufactured good, a ready antonym for hand-made. With mass production then in relative infancy, Duchamp is juxtaposing it against the artist’s cult for original and unique objects. Many objects here (not just the readymades) are actually latterday copies. In an art show, that would be heresy. Here it allows them to make their points better.
The random means by which the readymades were chosen would also become a watchword, as works were devised to be more and more subject to chance processes. Duchamp went to great lengths to ensure that almost every shape and form on Large Glass was chosen by chance, devising elaborate stratagems to limit his own involvement. One day it was packed poorly for transport and the glass cracked right across. (A detail not reflected in the copy on show here.) Exultant, he pronounced it “finished!” Systematically, all the hallmarks of the artist are swept away…
iv) What Dada Did Next
So if the rapid social developments of the Tens and Twenties incubated anti-art, what then? Having changed the concept of art forever, what do you do for an encore?
Its generally agreed Duchamp’s hit singles were the urinal and moustachioed Mona Lisa, while Large Glass is his album track. But his greatest work is surely something else. Like the magician in Ent’racte, he upended everything them disappeared. Though his retirement from art was largely symbolic, that doesn’t prevent it from being his most effective statement. Art is supposed to be a compulsion, a calling. Duchamp calmly stated he’d rather play chess. (I’d always romantically pictured him sitting by a board in some Parisian café all day, but it turns out he played competitively for France.) It was as if he saw his job done, art upended, so had no reason to stick around.
However, that grand gesture doesn’t mean his work led to a dead end, or only made sense inside of an era. Neither (despite most reviews of this show) was his influence only felt by chancers like Damian Hirst. The conceptual art movement was a logical step forward from Duchamp’s work. If the art object itself is immaterial to the concept, why not do away with it and just have the concept? That way no-one will be distracted by the silly snow shovel at all!
Another place we see Duchamp’s influence is in post-punk. If punk had been more attracted to Berlin Dada’s iconoclastic fury, Duchamp’s detached cerebrallism supplied post-punk with the perfect rejoinder. When, after the break-up of the Pistols, John Lydon announced a new band that would be “anti-music of any kind” it’s hard to think of anyone else. Lydia Lunch even name-checked him: “I consider myself a conceptualist. I feel more akin to Marcel Duchamp than any musician ever.”
Rachel Campbell-Johnston opened her piece in The Times, by saying “as far as art history is concerned, it was like mixing ammonia, nitrate and a match.” Duchamp is soon revealed as the match, but who is who for the others? In The Independent, Charles Darwent is less circumspect:
“it's clear that we are dealing not with a three-legged race but with gold, silver and bronze… Over Francis Picabia's inclusion, hangs the question: why bother?”
With Duchamp and May Ray’s subsequent activities better-known, why not focus on Picabia here? It’s true at first he looks washed up, the only one to stick with painting. His ‘Transparencies’, paintings composed of classical images but overlaid, just make you think how much better they’d be if they were overprints rather than overpaintings, pages shoved through a printer twice to really create a chance element. As it is their cluttered forms suggest someone trapped in painting. (Or, in the case of the work Otaiti, buried alive in it.)
But his later, more lurid and pulpy paintings are a triumph. Stolen from porn mags, packaging and pulp illustration (in the way he previously stole from industrial design), they exude roughness and bad taste. Pilloried in their day as both incomprehensible and retrograde, they now look ahead of their time. Even his final works have their appeal – minimalist cosmic scapes, like later Miro but with a more visceral quality. Picabia perhaps does desrve the bronze of the three. But they don’t award the bronze for just showing up! It’s a prize handed out to those who stood above the pack.
v) After Art Changed
Duchamp later commented “I was trying to destroy certain traditions, to leave the field clear again for a new approach to things.” So what does this show have to offer us today, beyond historical curiousity? It’s perhaps ironic to see this show only three weeks apart from From Russia, Modernism and its antithesis head-to-head. And in perhaps the most uncharacteristic thing I’ve ever put to print, perhaps From Russia is the show we need to see today.
If Man Ray had found painting “sticky”, we’re now mired in a cloying swamp of post-modernism. If the ego of the artist has been annihilated, as a privileged person possessing a special insight into things, has that merely left us with the Damian Hirst syndrome – the artist as celebrity? (You can see the unintentional roots of that in the three-way in-jokes here, clear as day.) After the Readymade, modern novels often list brand names as triggers for characters – people become Gucci-shoes wearers and the like. Is detatched cool, the very source of attraction for the post-punks, now all played out? Was a war with art best not won but made into struggle to be fought in perpetuity. We can’t authentically recreate Modernism any more than we can take a Tardis back to 1911. But perhaps what we need to be reminded the most is that a bit of commitment isn’t always such a bad thing to aim at after all.