Monday, March 11, 2013

The painting that made people crazy

Exactly 100 years ago today, a painting was making people froth at the mouth. Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2" was on display at the Armory Show in New York, which ended March 15, 1913. The painting, which mixes Cubist and Futurist elements, seems to show the body parts of a figure merging into itself as it comes down a flight of steps.

Reporters and reviewers were not kind. One critic referred to it as "an explosion in a shingle factory." Another redubbed it "Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush Hour in the Subway)." A world that had yet to come fully to grips with Pablo Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," a much more figurative work from six years earlier, had no idea what to make of Duchamp. Naturally, most folks raised on realistic art mocked him. Duchamp couldn't have been surprised: He had already submitted the piece to the Cubists' Salon des Independants in France, and even one of their jurists had asked him to withdraw it.

The hubbub was somewhat forgotten after an even more famous artistic riot, the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's ballet "The Rite of Spring" in Paris that May. (Audience members actually exchanged blows at that event.) But Duchamp's painting intensified a discussion we're still having today. What IS a painting? Do we have to recognize elements in it? Does it have to have some kind of back story or narrative meaning?

I have seen the painting, which hangs permanently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It immediately looked to me like a figure walking downstairs, as if seen in a succession of movie stills that break motion down to its rudimentary forms. The person next to me saw nothing but "a stack of sticks," if I remember rightly. And one of the great things about art is...both of us were right.


Anonymous said...

It's obviously a group of cornhusk dolls at a dance.

spinelabel said...

Thanks for this reminder of the "shock of the new." Has anyone ever done better than Duchamp in capturing motion as opposed to freezing time?