If you go to the Barbican before June 9, you can see some extraordinary things. The most extraordinary of all is a men’s porcelain urinal. In 1917, it was turned upside down and named Fountain by the French artist Marcel Duchamp. Having done that, he declared that this urinal was henceforth a work of art. And the world believed him. It had indeed become a fountain – the precise opposite of what it once was. Out of this commonplace, even repellent object, the mainstream of art has flowed, in a sprawling, erratic way, ever since.
The beautifully designed exhibition at the Barbican is about Duchamp and his influence. However the beautiful design, though enjoyable, is perhaps rather inappropriate, considering what is in it. There is not only the urinal, but also some of Duchamp’s other outrageously destabilising works. There is the bicycle wheel sitting on a stool that, as the godlike ‘dada of Dada’, he consecrated in the same way as the urinal. There is a replica of his enigmatic painting on a large sheet of glass, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, in which generations of viewers and scholars have struggled to grasp the significance of the strange clusters of objects representing the bachelors and the bride. As I watched young students still struggling with it, I could not help feeling that it was the most successful tease in art history.
In fact, Duchamp and his artist friends in the early 1920s, Dadaists and Surrealists, wanted to destroy all previous assumptions about art – and it was a very exciting time for them. One can see that, incidentally, in the exhibition of work by the photographer Man Ray now on at the National Portrait Gallery. At this period Man Ray, trying to be a Dadaist himself, lived among the rebellious artists in New York and Paris, and took pictures of them all. Their jokey poses and merry smiles reveal what tremendous fun they were all having.
It was understandable. They were conducting a wildly successful revolution, with the prospect of anything they offered now being hailed as art – at no cost to themselves. The Man Ray photographs still have the capacity to infect one with their enthusiasm.
But what were they giving up? What were they leaving behind? Ironically, another show now on at the Courtauld Institute lets one see exactly what it was, just as it was about to slip into the past. The show is called ‘Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901’, and it offers a group of paintings made by Picasso for his first Paris exhibition in that year, when he was nineteen. It was an amazing debut. The pictures blaze with a colour and energy that is still as powerful as when they were painted. There is the dwarf Spanish dancer, gazing fiercely at us from the whirl of orange, green, yellow and blue around her. There are the drinkers at cafe tables, carrying forward a theme of Manet’s. They include a woman drinking absinthe and a Harlequin figure, both with long, mysterious fingers, who thrust themselves out at us arrestingly with the aid of the dark lines enclosing them. There is Picasso’s self-portrait, boldly signed ‘YO – Picasso’ – ‘I, Picasso’ – in which he glares defiantly out at us, with a strange, pale impression in his eyes that speaks of deep and fascinating depths. There is his haunting picture of a friend of his who had committed suicide, full of a sadness conveyed through its intense dark blues.
For a little longer Picasso continued painting in this vein. But soon he turned, with Braque, to the invention of Cubism – elegant, intelligent, but spare on deep emotion – and then, as the twentieth century moved on, to his drawings and paintings of nude women, grossly distorted, but always drawn with a masterly, beautiful line. These nude pictures are affectionate and, frankly, funny – just like the lecherous satyrs he was thereafter constantly drawing with the same unsurpassable touch. In fact, to my mind Picasso, in his greatest years, was essentially a comic artist. In this vein he was to have no successors.
Meanwhile the Duchamp revolution, if we may call it that, expanded by leaps and bounds, especially in America. Out of it, in the 1940s and 1950s, came Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting, and their
apparently meaningless strokes or dribbles of paint that were supposed to be expressions of the unconscious, with Jackson Pollock the leading figure. Then came Pop Art, exemplified by the soup tins consecrated, after Duchamp’s fashion, by Andy Warhol – though one never knew if the consumer culture they symbolised was being satirised or celebrated – and the paintings based on comic strips by Roy Lichtenstein.
What is really sad, now, is that one hundred years later the revolution is still going on, prospering through what is effectively a conspiracy between artists, critics, curators and collectors. Contemporary art is dominated throughout the world by conceptual art. This might be said to have touched Duchamp’s bicycle wheel and set it spinning. It consists mostly of manufactured objects – either bought or made by the artist – doing supposedly interesting things to illustrate, symbolically, some ‘concept.’
At least, at its best, it can be witty. It is hard to forget a Chinese exhibit in Charles Saatchi’s opening show in his Chelsea gallery, which had a fleet of dodgem cars steered by effigies of world leaders and repeatedly crashing into each other. But far, far oftener it is visually uninteresting and banal.
As for the Young British Artists, Tracey Emin’s unmade bed and Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde are just straightforward imitations of Duchamp’s urinal. The idea behind them is one hundred years old – a long time for anyone to believe that it could be in the least degree shocking. All trace of that first excitement has gone from it. One feels that one day the urinal, the bed and the shark will be of no more interest to anyone than, say, a quaint old Victorian powder-puff.
As it happens, there is a Roy Lichtenstein show at the moment in Tate Modern. The comic strips and advertising posters, copied in their garish colours on a gigantic scale by the painter, loom over one from the walls. I noticed that most of the visitors to the show were wandering about from room to room, rarely stopping to look closely at anything. They wore wistful expressions on their faces. But what was there to look at? Just blown-up comic strips, with no originality or subtlety in them except the fact that they were there. There might have been some humour in the originals, but it had not survived.
Another current exhibition is the Light Show at the Hayward Gallery. It consists of manufactured objects that produce light effects. A crystal tumbler goes round on a turntable with light refracted through it. A spiral of blue neon tubes hangs from the ceiling. A room glows with simulated moonlight cast by two hundred and eighty-nine lightbulbs. The show would be useful to interior decorators trying to provide fresh effects for large shops. I went, after seeing it, to an underground wine bar near Charing Cross, and I felt nearer to art just watching the candles burning on the tables.
The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp
14 February 2013 – 9 June 2013
Man Ray Portraits
National Portrait Gallery
7 February 2013 – 27 May 2013
Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901
The Courtauld Gallery
14 February 2013 – 26 May 2013
Lichtenstein: A Retrospective
21 February 2013 – 27 May 2013
30 January 2013 – 28 April 2013