Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Octavio Paz: Apariencia desnuda / Marcel Duchamp, Appearance Stripped Bare (two essays)

Marcel Duchamp: La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (Le Grand Verre) (inachevée, work-in-progress). 1915-23. Oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels. 277.5 cm × 175.9 cm (109.25 in × 69.25 in). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. Image: Wikipedia.
Octavio Paz: Marcel Duchamp - Apariencia desnuda. Ciudad de México: Ediciones Era, 1976. Incorporating two previously published extended essays, here revised and enlarged:
- Marcel Duchamp o El castillo de la pureza. Ciudad de México: Ediciones Era, 1968.
- Marcel Duchamp - Apariencia desnuda. Ciudad de México: Ediciones Era, 1973.
    In English
    Appearance Stripped Bare. Translated by Rachel Phillips and Donald Gardner. New York: Viking Press, 1978.
    Read in Finnish:
    Suuri lasi [direct translation: The Large Glass]. Translated by Anita Mikkonen. Edited by Jyrki Lappi-Seppälä. Graphic design: Kari Puikkonen. Printed: Hämeenlinna: Karisto Oy Kirjapaino. Publisher: Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Taide, 1991. 168 p. Illustrated.

Octavio Paz (1914-1998) was a great Mexican poet and a Nobel laureate. We film lovers know him also from his essays on Luis Buñuel which are among the most rewarding written about the Surrealist.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was a French artist, often seen as one of the handful, or even one of the two most significant artists of the 20th century (for Octavio Paz those two are Picasso and Duchamp). Academically trained, Duchamp soon mastered Impressionism, Cubism, and Futurism. His movement studies such as Nu descendant un escalier n:o 2 are among the key works of art in the film age. He was the inventor of the objet trouvé / Readymade (Bicycle Wheel, 1913, Bottle Rack, 1914) and came close to Dadaism (Fountain). He was also close to Surrealism and created kinetic works (in 1931 Duchamp coined the word "mobiles" at Alexander Calder's studio) and a short avantgarde film (Anémic cinémA). The mathematically talented Duchamp was influenced by Henri Poincaré. He was also a passionate chess player (we see him playing chess in René Clair's Entr'acte). Duchamp was also a composer, perhaps the first one to create aleatoric music already in 1912-1915, and he later collaborated with John Cage. Duchamp loved disguises and pseudonyms; he created a female side persona called Rrose Sélavy; he may himself be the model of his moustached Mona Lisa.

Duchamp's last major work in his lifetime was the unfinished La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (Le Grand Verre), 1915-1923. Duchamp had made preliminary paintings for it already in Munich in 1912. In 1923 it was left "terminally unfinished". After Duchamp's death, Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibited his mixed media installation Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau / 2° le gaz d'éclairage, a work in progress which had been in the making in 1946-1966 and was permanently put on display in 1969. Also for conceptual art, minimalist art, installation art, and body art Duchamp is a key pioneer. Duchamp was against "retinal art" and a champion for the art for the mind. He participated also in performance art, perhaps dramatizing the conflict between the pleasure of the eye and the pleasure of the mind in his chess performance with the beautiful young nude Eve Babitz (later an artist and writer, herself).

Duchamp, who settled in New York's Greenwich Village in 1942, changed the way we see art.

Perhaps Duchamp's strongest statement as an artist was his silence.

Duchamp stopped to be an active artist in 1923. He was a chess master, and he now dedicated his life to chess instead, and also to chess theory. Samuel Beckett was inspired by Duchamp's theme of the endgame.

These years we remember the centenary of the First World War (1914-1918). Duchamp is relevant for me here because WWI meant the end of art - the end of art in the traditional sense. Received notions of the beautiful and the sublime became obsolete - obsolete in great art creating something truly innovative. (Old great art never becomes obsolete. Most new art is always conventional or recycled.) There was a rupture in art, the greatest in history, and Duchamp was a key incarnation of it.

The traditional concepts of aesthetics of the beautiful and the sublime are irrelevant for an artwork such as La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (Le Grand Verre).

In Apariencia desnuda a great poet, Octavio Paz, writes a great book on Duchamp. I'm grateful having stumbled upon it intrigued by a recommendation by a good friend. Duchamp was a poet, too, inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, and Jules Laforgue (fascinatingly discussed by Paz), and his poet friends Guillaume Apollinaire, Francis Picabia, Tristan Tzara and André Breton.

Octavio Paz focuses on La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (Le Grand Verre). The original is in Philadelphia Museum of Art, and there are three official replicas (at Moderna Museet, at Tate Gallery, and at Komaba Museum at the University of Tokyo). La mariée... is an unclassifiable construction which actually also requires studying Duchamp's explanatory remarks called From The Green Box (1957). But it has also been said that Duchamp's explanations only serve to make the work even more hard to understand. The same goes for Duchamp's The White Box / À l'infinitif (1966) and Entretiens (1967).

Based on an intimate understanding of Duchamp and following carefully all the clues Octavio Paz in his essays creates a parallel poetic world with a rich array of fascinating associations.

One of those associations is about La Mariée... as anti-art, about the silence of art, even about the destruction of art (the accidentally shattered glass not replaced by Duchamp), and also about the impossibility of interpretation. La Mariée... is also a parody of modern art, and its explanations a parody of modern art criticism. Also in his position of neutrality and acceptance of any interpretation or none Duchamp was ahead of his time.

P.S. 15 April 2015: I have stumbled upon Massimo Lanzaro's interesting reflections on Marcel Duchamp:

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