In 1912–13, Pablo Picasso made Bouteille, verre et violon (Bottle, Glass and Violin), one of the first collages that would usher in Cubism’s synthetic phase. That same year, he met the then-Cubist painter Marcel Duchamp, whose work he would shortly thereafter recommend for inclusion in the Armory Show in New York. By 1913, Duchamp – whose international reputation was secured at the Armory when he exhibited Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912) – had broken with Cubism and produced the first of his readymades, Bicycle Wheel. Not only did this gesture mark a significant shift in the course of Modernist art in the West, it also inaugurated a heated rivalry between the two artists. Indeed, as the story goes, upon receiving news of his rival Duchamp’s death in 1968, an increasingly embittered Picasso commented merely: ‘He was wrong’.
This narrative surrounding the artists’ purported antagonism forms the backdrop for ‘Picasso/Duchamp “He Was Wrong”’, an exhibition that attempts to reassess, 100 years after their initial meeting, the relationship between two of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists. Consistent with a string of recent exhibitions at Moderna Museet featuring Claude Monet, Yoko Ono and Cy Twombly, among others, ‘Picasso/Duchamp’ seems designed to appeal to a general audience. Even the posters for the show depict Picasso ‘The Painter’ versus Duchamp ‘The Brain’ as boxers about to square-off in a match for the ages. Yet, however sensational its framing, the exhibition – curated by Daniel Birnbaum, Annika Gunnarsson and Ronald Jones – offers a rare opportunity to view works by the two artists both with scope and attention to detail. As Jones remarks in his catalogue essay: ‘At last, the comparison will have the true hearing it deserves.’
Staged in three parts, the show is organized as a collection of arguments. At one end of the galleries, selections from the museum’s significant Duchamp collection – comprising, in part, replicas of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–23) and various readymades fabricated in collaboration with the artist by the Swedish art critic Ulf Linde – have been installed in a space made to resemble the interior of Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Suitcase, 1935–41). Literally grouped inside a labyrinth built at the opposite end of the space, several of the institution’s Picasso holdings are also on display, including the painting La source (The Source, 1921) and the etching La Femme qui pleure III (Weeping Woman III, 1937). Between these two spaces, a central gallery uses the years 1912–13 as the exhibition’s fulcrum – the beginning of the dispute.
Here, Picasso’s Bouteille, verre et violon and Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913/60) are installed opposite a vitrine containing issues of the Surrealist magazine Minotaur (for which both artists designed a cover) and ‘Time Machine’, a large circular timeline which is mounted on the wall and which viewers are encouraged to gently spin. On the walls flanking the space are quotations from the artists (such as this gem from Picasso: ‘Give me a museum and I’ll fill it’) as well as two billboard-size images – on one side, a portrait taken for Life magazine in 1949 by photographer Gjon Mili, showing the Spanish painter beachside, wearing a bull’s head mask; on the other side, Man Ray’s iconic 1924 portraitof Duchamp looking every bit like a lathered-up satyr.
This is the second instance in which oversized photographs of the artists are displayed in the galleries. Before even entering the show, audiences are confronted by larger-than-life portraits of Picasso and Duchamp (taken by Arnold Newman and Irving Penn, respectively). The inclusion of such imagery is unsurprising, especially given the exhibition’s overall reliance on the artists’ personalities and, by extension, their biographies. But this and other such gestures undercut the curators’ calls for serious art-historical reconsideration, as does the exhibition’s tendency to reproduce established art-historical positions: Duchamp as the ironic consumer who turned art into a game of intellectual amusements; Picasso as prolific, passionate and emotionally receptive. Aside from this failure to problematize received narratives, the show is also prone to exagerrate them, almost to the point of parody. In particular, the emphasis placed on Picasso’s self-stylization as the minotaur makes him seem laughable, especially when compared to Duchamp, whose work is treated with reverence. Even in David Douglas Duncan’s sympathetic series of black and white photographs documenting the production of Tête de Femme (Head of a Woman, 1957), the aging painter is shown working in nothing but a pair of boxer shorts.
According to the narrative presented here, it appears that ‘The Brain’ outmatched ‘The Painter’, an unsurprising outcome, especially given the fact that this is the first in a series of planned exhibitions at the Moderna Museet that will pit Duchamp against other contenders. If what is at stake in all of this is the title of ‘most influential modern artist’, then Duchamp’s legacy seems like a foregone conclusion (at least at this institution). Hopefully, all his victories won’t be this lopsided.