Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase at The Armory’s Centennial Edition.
It’s rare that a single work of art can change the course of art history in such a concrete and dramatic way. In fact it could be argued that all contemporary art owes its very existence to one painting: Marcel Duchamp‘s Nude Descending a Staircase. A painting that is considered to be the most influential development in modern visual narrative and what is considered innovative in art. Duchamp’s fractured masterpiece was famously displayed at the International Exhibition of Modern Art (later known as The Armory Show) in February of 1913 and promptly ended up at the center of controversy. The American public, it seems, was not ready for something so scandalous as a nude figure (no matter how stylized and unrecognizable in its figurative form) in motion. As Francis Naumann, Owner at Francis M. Nauman Fine Art explains, the idea of a nude figure advancing towards the viewer, or simply moving was as scandalous as Manet’s reclining Olympia painted half a century earlier.
From the Philadelphia Museum of Art:
The Nude’s destiny as a symbol also stemmed from its remarkable aggregation of avant-garde concerns: the birth of cinema; the Cubists’ fracturing of form; the Futurists’ depiction of movement; the chromophotography of Etienne-Jules Marey, Eadweard Muybridge, and Thomas Eakins; and the redefinitions of time and space by scientists and philosophers. The painting was bought directly from the Armory Show for three hundred dollars by a San Francisco dealer.
As far as the public was concerned, nudes were not supposed to move, they were supposed to do “what they did best – descend from Mt. Olympus and…lay there”. Duchamp’s rebellion against this norm was at the core of the scandal. Cartoons were drawn, anecdotes told and everywhere it seemed, the public ridiculed the painting (or itself?) In the aftermath of the exhibition the painting took on a life of its own, far eclipsing that of its creator. In one telling instance, when Duchamp traveled to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Arensberg, collector friends who bought the work in 1927, the artist learned that the Nude was on loan to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Upon his arrival at the museum Duchamp discovered that the museum knew so little about the artist himself that next to the year of his birth they listed the year of his death – three years prior to the date of the visit. Instead of getting upset, Duchamp looked at the mistake from a philosophical standpoint – his Nude Descending a Staircase became far greater than the artist.
The new era of modern art has officially began.
Interview transcript on page 2