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Why Barbican is honouring Marcel Duchamp – the father of modern art

Amy Dawson for MetroThursday 14 Feb 2013 6:05 am

Five-way Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, who is being honoured by the Barbican (Picture Association Marcel Duchamp)
Five-way Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, who is being honoured by the Barbican (Picture Association Marcel Duchamp)
A new Barbican exhibition dedicated to French artist Marcel Duchamp is aiming to show his impact and influence on the modern art world.

It all started with a urinal. In 1917, when French artist Marcel Duchamp tried to present his ‘ready made’ Fountain sculpture to the Society of Independent Artists, he caused a scandal.

Some thought it vulgar, others dismissed it as a ‘plain piece of plumbing’. As far as Duchamp was concerned, it was actually a bit of fun.

‘People took modern art very seriously when it first reached America because they believed we took ourselves very seriously,’ he told a New York newspaper. ‘A great deal of modern art is meant to be amusing.’

Duchamp’s belief that art didn’t have to be representational but could be about ideas has since spawned 1,000 ‘Yes, but is it art?’ conversations down the pub.

Yet Duchamp expert Paul D Franklin believes the impact of this early-modern prankster of the art world cannot be underplayed and that a new five-month season at the Barbican will make many of us reconsider him.

‘If we had only had Picasso and Matisse, art really wouldn’t have gone anywhere since 1945,’ he says. ‘We’d still be using canvas, we would still be idolising the idea of an artist individual.

‘Duchamp totally redefined the whole terrain of what it meant to make art and the kind of questions he posed allowed others to go in all sorts of other directions that he foresaw.

‘I hope this season will allow us to finally talk about Duchamp as a key cultural figure, not just as an artist.’

Most of us are more familiar with Duchamp as a visual artist, albeit one whose work has sometimes encouraged a somewhat literal reponse: performance artist Pierre Pinoncelli urinated into one copy of Fountain during a 1993 exhibition.

Yet his influence on music, dance, theatre and film has also been incomparable.

The cornerstone of the Barbican season will be The Bride And The Bachelors, the first exhibition to explore the links between Duchamp and composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and visual artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

Working within the playful, chance-inspired Dadaist tradition that Duchamp was instrumental in framing, the four men totally transformed the direction of art and performance in the 1950s and 1960s – and opened the doors for pop art.

It is no ordinary display, either: French artist Philippe Parreno, best known for co-directing revelatory footy film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, is staging the exhibition in a manner befitting Duchamp’s wild imagination. ‘I really wanted to play with the mental choreography of the show,’ says Parreno, ‘and to make the space come alive.’

Duchamp tried his hand at some radical curating: designing a surrealist exhibition in which visitors were given torches; almost obscuring the artwork with string; planting children skipping rope in the gallery.

Parreno hasn’t gone quite so far: ‘Visually, it’s less overwhelming but it has his spirit, in a way.’

Duchamp’s impact on the Theatre of the Absurd was equally acute and a Barbican highlight will be Théâtre de la Ville- Paris’s production of Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist 1959 classic Rhinocéros, about mass metamorphosis in a provincial town.

Director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota says: ‘The absurd in Rhinocéros lies in how we relate to the norm, to the other and to society. These questions remain relevant, disturbing and amusing, they transcend time and borders.

‘I’ve no idea how British audiences will respond but I can’t wait to find out.’

Franklin hopes the season will reboot Duchamp’s reputation as a perplexing intellectual giant: ‘I had the same impression of him when I began studying him but actually Duchamp was a fantastically kind and generous human.

‘And he wasn’t responsible for all the derivative art that his genuinely fresh ideas unleashed.’

Duchamp was evangelical about the importance of the spectator’s part in ‘creating’ art.

So, with a season of excitements and oddities including a cinema programme, an anarchic Cabaret Duchamp and performances of Cunningham’s radical choreography by the Rambert and Richard Alston dance companies, it’s time to see what weird wonders you can help to co-create.

Dancing Around Duchamp, at the Barbican from today until June.




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