In the summer of 1912, at the age of 25, Marcel Duchamp spent three months in Munich: not a particularly long sojourn and one that was interrupted by several journeys. He did not try to contact avant-garde artists in the city, such as Kandinsky or the members of the Blue Rider group, nor did he participate in exhibitions or otherwise appear in public. Towards the end of his life when describing his stay, he wrote: ‘I never spoke to anyone, but I had a great time’.
Is an exhibition focusing exclusively on Duchamp’s time in the Bavarian capital justified? Or is it hyping something that may have been little more than a brief interlude? Even a cursory look at the show made it clear that these months in Munich were far more than just a meaningless intermezzo in Duchamp’s life.
In fact they marked a period of the most intense artistic productivity. In a short time he made six works, including two major oil paintings and several well-developed studies. That the exhibition showed these works all together for the first time was something of a sensation in itself.
These dramatically staged exhibits were bookended by two key pieces. Firstly the painting Nude Descending A Staircase, No. 2 (1912), a canonical work of Modernism which was rejected from the Salon des Indépendants in the spring of 1912 by the Cubists Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger. This devastating episode,as well as the artist’s unfulfilled love for Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, the wife of his friend Francis Picabia, prompted Duchamp to turn his back on Paris and to set off for Munich. And secondly, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–23) – shown here in Richard Hamilton’s London reconstruction of 1965/66 –which Duchamp began preparations for in Munich. The show also brought together all four of Duchamp’s ‘boxes’ for the first time: The Box of 1914 (1913/14), The Green Box (1934), The White Box (1966) and the famous Box in a Suitcase (1935–41). The notes in The Green Box, which include various references to the works made in Munich, could also be perused in the exhibition.
The compact focus of the exhibits clearly showed how Duchamp freed himself from Cubism and found his way to a theme that would come to occupy a central position in his work: the mechanical portrayal of relations between the sexes. In the pencil drawing First Study for: The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (Mechanism of Shame / Mechanical Shame) (1912), the harassment of the bride by the bachelors is obvious, while the drawings Virgin (No. 1 and 2) (1912) prepare for the mechanization of the female body. The two oil paintings however, The Passage from Virgin to Bride (1912) and Bride (1912), show a new, sexually charged mix of fleshly, organic elements with technical components. Their blend of pistons, transmission belts and connector rods with rosy flesh tones (inspired, according to Duchamp, by the works of Lucas Cranach the Elder in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek) is still disturbing today. Duchamp’s later claim that Munich had been ‘the scene of my total liberation’ can thus be related above all to his artistic self-discovery during his stay.
In this light, links to the city played a lesser role. In the gallery’s back rooms, the show brought together documentary artefacts including photographs by Duchamp’s friend Max Bergmann, an actual diesel motor from the Deutsches Museum, tubes of paint that Duchamp continued to order from near Munich throughout his life, theatre programmes, news clippings, a painting by Kandinsky and various other materials with a more or less direct link to Duchamp. Of course these materials all paint a picture of Munich in 1912. But what did the city offer that would not have been available in similar form in Paris, and does it even make sense, especially in Duchamp’s case, to attribute much significance to such ‘influences’? Only a few facts are known for sure, such as his visits to the Pinakothek, the Bavarian Industrial Fair, the Hofbräuhaus and the Nymphenburg Palace. Much else remains speculation. The hypothetical aspects of the exhibition, especially where Munich was concerned, were due not least to an unconcealed fan-like admiration for one of the great revolutionaries of Modernism. This approach made the show contestable in parts, but far from disagreeable.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell