Other artists have led far more adventurous, dramatic, flamboyant lives than Marcel Duchamp. In terms of international popularity and media impact, Warhol, Pablo Picasso, or even Salvador Dali easily out-dazzled him. Yet, perhaps more than any other artist in history, save Velazquez, Duchamp managed to make his life...not into A work of art, but into THE major expression of his creativity, thereby providing a great inspiration for Andy Warhol, and for the many much less-accomplished who followed. Still, Duchamp's Life was not sacrificed to Art any more than his practice of Art was given up for playing chess. What Duchamp quit was PAINTING, although he turned his back on a great deal else besides, including the stupid, cloying, lunatic suffering associated with artists' lives in the minds of many Frenchmen, the pressure to please the taste of others, and the crassness of commercial exploitation that corrupted the process of creativity and spoiled what should be a honeymoon of fun. Asked by Pierre Cabanne about that so-called decision to quit painting, Duchamp replied,

I never made it; it came by itself, since the "Glass" wasn't a painting; there was lots of lead, a lot of other things. ["Glass" refers to Duchamp's multimedia construction also known for short as, The Large Glass, or the full title, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachellors, Even (1915-23).] It was far from the traditional idea of the painter, with his brush, his palette, his turpentine, an idea which had already disappeared from my life.

[ Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues, p. 67. ]

Although art history has flowered as an academic discipline only in the twentieth century, its roots can be traced back to the sixteenth-century writings of the Florentine architect and painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574). The first (Tor[r]entino) edition of his renowned study, Lives of the Most Famous Painters, Sculptors and Architects was published in 1550. This book has enjoyed continuous popularity down through the years, and today is held to have set the general pattern for a biographical appoach to art history, while providing "the first coherent account of Italian Renaissance art."

[ H. W. Janson, History of Art. Third edition, revised and expanded by Anthony F. Janson, Harry N. Abrams, New York (1986), p. 473-474. ]

Paying tribute to the biographical model supplied by Giorgio Vasari's approach to art history, let us recapitulate the twentieth-century life and work of Marcel Duchamp. He was born in 1887, in Blainville Crevon (Seine-Infèrieure) eighteen kilometers northwest of Rouen, in Normandy. Although Marcel demonstrated an early attraction to graphic art, his serious practice began only toward the end of the first decade in the Twentieth century. The significant events are summarized in the useful chronology incorporated in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the New York Museum of Modern Art's publication edited by Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine. In addition to depending on this study and other standard monographs on Duchamp, the following synopsis also draws substance from French chronologies.

[ See especially, Jennifer Gough-Cooper and Jacques Caumont, Plan pour ecrire une vie de Marcel Duchamp: 1. Chronologie gnrale, 2. Les trente premires annes. Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Muse d'Art Moderne (1977). ]

Young Marcel Duchamp volunteered for military service in 1905, and in order to avoid an otherwise obligatory second year, he sought a special artist classification, working for a printer in Rouen. By 1910, his two older brothers were both established as artists, to the chagrin of Duchamp, père, which led them to adopt the names Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon. Their studios and the haunts of a community of poets and Cubist artists were in the Parisian suburb of Puteaux. Among those who regularly got together there on Sundays were the painters Albert Gleizes, Roger de la Fresnaye, Henri Le Fauconnier, Fernand Léger, Jean Metzinger, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and others. Around the same time, he met both Francis Picabia and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, both of whom were to become close friends. Among the occasional visitors was the American Walter Pach, who, a few years later, was to select several pieces of Duchamp--notably the dramatically influential Nude Descending the Staircase, No. 2 (1912)--for inclusion in the great 1913 Armory Show in New York that brought Duchamp instant international artistic recognition.

Marcel established himself in the nearby suburb of Neuilly, where (as it turned out, after several moves and much traveling) he also died at the age of eighty-one in 1968. Around 1910, and on into 1911, Duchamp developed a keen interest in the technical problems of painting the illusion of motion, as can be observed (perhaps just coincidentally) in the work of another Puteaux painter, Franz Kupka. The chronophotographs of Etienne-Jules Marey, showing in one image successive stages of the figure in motion, came to his attention, as did also, perhaps, the work of the American photographer Eadweard Muybridge who, earlier in the nineteenth-century, had worked with the Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins.

[ See the multiple-exposure photograph by Eakins, George Reynolds, Pole Vaulting (1884-85), a 1941 gift of Charles Bregler to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; illustrated with brief commentary, for example, in Frederick Hartt, Art, fig. 1128, p. 850-851. ]

During this critical period of gestation, from 1910 to 1911, Duchamp's artistic approach also began to manifest other of its distinguishing characteristics. His older brother Gaston (Jacques Villon) was instrumental in forming the Puteaux Cubists into the exhibiting group calling itself Section d'Or, after the "golden section" of classical mathematics. Their first show--of two hundred works by thirty-one artists--was installed at La Botie gallery in October, 1912, and included the Sunday afternoon regulars together with Alexander Archipenko, Andr Lhote and Juan Gris. (By this time, both Picasso and Braque had arranged to exhibit exclusively at the Kahnweiler gallery). While Duchamp's early training as a printer no doubt helped to establish his aesthetics of precision, the concern for mathematics was also stimulated by frequent discussions of the Section d'Or members, among whom was also a character, Maurice Princet, called "the mathematician." The topics ranged from implications of the Golden Section itself (intimately related to the logarithmic growth spiral), and debate about the pictorial significance of the multiple exposure techniques of chronophotography, to speculations about non-Euclidian geometry and interpretations of the fourth dimension.

Duchamp's openness to being influenced by poets as much as (or more than) by visual artists is attested by a series of drawings illustrating some poems by Jules Laforgue, spangled as they are with cosmic similies of astres and toiles. He developed his boyhood attraction to the game of chess into what would remain a lifelong devotion to the game, exhibiting his oil painting The Chess Game at the 1910 Salon d'Automne. In November or December of 1911, according to later statements from the artist, Marcel painted the Coffee Mill, intended for his brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon's kitchen.

This painting was one of a small collection of paintings, all of the same size, which some of my brother's friends--Gleizes, Metzinger, La Fresnaye, as well as my brother Jacques Villon, contributed to decorate his kitchen. They formed a kind of frieze on the doors of small cupboards, just below the ceiling....

I made this old-fashioned coffee mill for him. It shows the different facets of the coffee grinding operation and the handle on top is seen simultaneously in several positions as it revolves. You can see the ground coffee in a heap under the cog wheels of the central shaft which turns in the direction of the arrow on top.

[ Letter from Duchamp to Arturo Schwarz, quoted in Schwarz, Complete Works, p. 108. The second quotation above, without any more specific attribution, appears in D'Harnoncourt and McShine, p. 256. ]

Some scholars find other of Mr. Schwarz's references in his discussion of this piece--especially those related to alchemy--much too far-fetched. Let us bypass the issue here, without venturing any Last Judgment on the merits of his approach (which, for all we know, may owe its inspiration to the mysterious medieval alchemist Berthold Schwartz, one of the legendary inventors of gunpowder), since it is secondary to our immediate purpose of placing With Hidden Noise in a general context; but we do anticipate exploring the important topic of alchemy in a later, more appropriate section of the present study.

The Coffee Mill is Duchamp's first mechanomorphic painting, the earliest proto-Dada piece, in which he abjures conventional subject matter for the machine and the complexities of space/time. As in the Analytical Cubism of Braque and Picasso, the simultaneity of vision involving different points of view is here shown by dislocations of exterior and interior space (as in Australian aboriginal cave and bark paintings), and by temporal permutations, since the mill's handle spins in stop-action and has a four-dimensional, space-time rotary motion indicated schematically by the clockwise arrow. With this first appearance of arrows begins a recurrent verbal/visual pun, attaining subsequently the status of a central theme in Duchamp's ouevre, with a variety of plays on the homophones: arrows, Eros, Rrose, arouse. Most Duchamp scholars find the earlier works interesting mainly for their autobiographical and familial content, including a 1910 Cézannesque portrait of his father, who was providing "consistent financial help" allowing the young artist to study and then to transcend the prevailing academic approaches to painting. Among Marcel Duchamp's early, break-through exercises is a double portrait of his two younger sisters, Yvonne and Magdeleine Torn in Tatters (1911).

Introducing humor for the first time in my paintings I, so to speak, tore up their profiles and placed them at random on the canvas. You can see four profiles floating in mid-air. There again we have a very loose interpretation of the Cubist theories --two profiles of each sister of a different scale and scattered about the canvas; in other words, I was trying very hard to get away from any traditional or even Cubistic composition

[ D'Harnoncourt and McShine, pp. 243, 251. ]

Duchamp's other sister, Suzanne (born in 1889, just two years after Marcel), was closer to him throughout his life than any other member of the family, the intimacy of which relationship has occasioned speculation on the part of some critics and historians fascinated by Freudian rationales. Suzanne married a pharmacist from Rouen in 1911, and although that marriage lasted only a few years, its associations may have inspired the title for Duchamp's first deliberate "Readymade," Pharmacy (1914): a commercial print of a winter scene to which Duchamp added in gouache, two dots of color.

The genre of the Readymade received its formal designation only later, after Duchamp came to New York in 1915, but already with the renowned Bicycle Wheel (1913), featuring the inverted front forks and wheel of a bicycle mounted on a kitchen stool, he casually anticipated this momentous innovation. The Readymade was a concept with which Duchamp endlessly toyed; but it can be understood generally as the display of a common object (or objects), later embellished with a signature and humorous, epigrammatic or cryptic inscriptions, that studiously avoided the desiderata of conventional taste or aesthetics. With Hidden Noise (1916) is an evolved example of the Readymade idea, portending emphatic consequences for the history of twentieth-century sculpture as for the art of assemblage, Dada, Surrealism, Pop art and the entire aesthetic worlds of "High and Low" art.

[ See Walter Hopps, Ulf Linde, Arturo Schwarz, Marcel Duchamp: Ready-mades, etc. (1913-1964), Galleria Schwarz, Milan (1964). Also, Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik, High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, MOMA and Harry N. Abrams, New York (1990), p. 273 f. ]

Marcel Duchamp associated not only with the Cubist pals of his two older brothers but also, for example, made friends with the Italian Futurists Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini. In February, 1912 Duchamp frequently visited the sensational exhibiton of Futurist artists organized by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery. Avant-garde provocations of the Futurists were already well-known to the Parisian art world, in particular through the raving Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto, printed on the front page of Le Figaro (February 20, 1909), and the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting, published in Milan by Boccioni late in 1911, assaulting notions of harmony and good taste, and pointedly reviewed by the Parisian press.

Duchamp's growing friendship with Guillaume Apollinaire and Francis Picabia lead to extensive proto-Dada activity, challenging the norms and conventions of fine art well in advance of the 1916 forma-tion of Dada at the Cabaret Voltaire (now called the Meierei) at No. 1 Spiegelgasse, Zurich. The three young men, with Gabrielle Buffet, drove together by automobile to the Jura mountains near Switzerland, an experience which generated strong emotional associations for Duchamp's art. Apolllinaire, Duchamp and Picabia all attended the outlandish performances of Raymond Roussel's Impressions d'Afrique at the Théatre Antoine, one of the principal inspirations for the harlequinade of punsmanship displayed in later Readymade inscriptions, and of the literary style that beginning to emerge around 1920 from Duchamp's alter-ego, Rrose Sélavy.

Young Marcel's break with the coterie of Cubists at Puteaux came in March, 1912. Duchamp submitted his newly-completed painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 for inclusion in the exhibition of the Salon des Indpendents, each of whose members were to be allowed one unjuried work. However, certain personnel of the hanging committee --some say especially the dogmatic Gleizes and Le Fauconnier--begged both of Duchamp's brothers to intercede, asking him to change the work. Duchamp's radical, startling painting challenged the local Cubist's prevailing doctrine that proscribed multiple imagery, then too closely associated with the resented Futurist imagery of Giacomo Balla as, for example, his Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912). The rule-making Cubist mentality had declared against any representations of the nude; and Duchamp's unorthodox inclusion of lettering (the title of the piece is written across the bottom of the painting) was perceived by them to be a further, deliberate slap in the face.

This final version of the Nude Descending a Staircase, painted in January 1912, was the convergence in my mind of various interests among which [were] the cinema, still in its infancy, and the separation of the static positions in the photochronographs of Marey in France, Eakins and Muybridge in America. Painted, as it is, in severe wood colors, the anatomical nude does not exist, or at least cannot be seen, since I discarded completely the naturalistic appearance of a nude, keeping only the abstract lines of some twenty different static positions in the successive action of dscending. Before it was shown at the Armory Show in New York, in 1913, I had sent it to the Paris Independents in February 1912. But my fellow Cubists did not like it and asked me to, at least, change the title. Instead of changing anything, I withdrew it and showed it in October of the same year at the salon of the Section d'Or, without any opposition this time.

[ D'Harnoncourt and McShine, p. 256 f. ]

When Duchamp took his work, turned around, and walked away from the Independents, he resolved to have nothing more to do with artist's groups unable to live by the terms of their own agreements. Only once again was this resolve tested, in the controversy over the Readymade sculpture, Fountain (1917), the opéra bouffe events surrounding which have received replete documentation by Doctor Camfield, et alii.

In November, 1912, Walter Pach and two other artists from America, Arthur Davies and Walt Kuhn, visited Paris to select works for the following year's spectacular International Exhibition of Modern Art (the "Armory Show"), installed at the 69th Regiment Armory, on Lexington Avenue in New York City. In addition to the above-mentioned Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (January 1912)--the surprise pièce de résistence of the entire event, heralding Duchamp's fame in America (like that of mythical Arion in ancient Corinth) long before he arrived there himself--they selected three other recent canvases by Duchamp, Portrait of Chess Players (1911), Sad Young Man in a Train (December 1911), and a work about which Duchamp wrote:

Done immediately after the Nude Descending a Staircase in the Spring of 1912, this oil painting called King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes is a development of the same idea.

The title "King and Queen" was once again taken from chess but the players of 1911 (my two brothers) have been eliminated and replaced by the chess figures of the king and queen. The swift nudes are a flight of immagination introduced to satisfy my preoccupation of movement still present in this painting.

[ D'Harnoncourt and McShine, p. 260. ]

During a visit to Munich during the summer of 1912, Duchamp began work on a vast project that would absorb much of his creative energy for over a decade, and still be left definitively incomplete. Sketches and studies called Virgin and Bride extend the mechanomorphic direction of the Descending Nude.

This painting [Bride] belongs to a series of studies, made for the Large Glass...[which] I began three years later in New York. Replacing the free hand by a very precise technique, I embarked on an adventure which was no more tributary of already existing schools. This is not the realistic interpretation of a bride but my concept of a bride expressed by the juxtaposition of mechanical elements and visceral forms. My stay in Munich was the scene of my complete liberation, when I established the general plan of a large-size work which would occupy me for a long time on account of all sorts of new technical problems to be worked out.

[ D'Harnoncourt and McShine, p. 263. ]

Returning to Paris, he painted The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride, and executed other studies that eventually became part of his audacious, revolutionary, complex, fragile, extraordinary masterpiece La Marie mise nu par ses Clibataires, meme, or The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even known also as The Large Glass (1915-1923). Shortly thereafter, he abandoned conventional oil painting media and techniques altogether (but NOT "art") as he began the careful accumulation of note scraps and documents related to The Large Glass, assembled and published (in an edition of three) as The Box of 1914 (1913-14). Elements of chance were explicitly incorporated into the "creation" or "execution" of works of art; one of the most important of these pieces--to be discussed more fully later--was 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-14), and the related painting Network of Stoppages (1914), both also related to The Large Glass. This was an important period also for the prototypes of later Readymades, and included such pieces as Bicycle Wheel (1913), Pharmacy and Bottlerack (1914), in advance of In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915), the first work explicitly titled a "Readymade," made upon his arrival in New York.


The remarkable transformation Marcel Duchamp's creative imagination underwent in the year 1913 proved to be immediately expressed in both his art and life. Duchamp proceeded to embody the aesthetics of precision, in that historical moment an uncommon style: archly cerebral, leaving behind the practice of "retinal" painting without any further attempts to push that technique beyond the Impressionists and through Czanne, nor to follow the newly declaimed, doctrinaire paths of his Cubist confrres. In fact, he abandoned almost all conventional artistic approaches and methods. In 1913 Duchamp attended the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky's radical ballet, Sacre du Printemps at the Théatre Champs-Elysées. At this time he also authored works of highly theoretical performance pieces, such as the Musical Erratum (1913), with aleatory principles of composition (the arrangement of notes were picked out of a hat), while the lyrics, taken from a French dictionary, comprised the definition of the verb "to print," therefore both immediately self-referential and also recalling his employment as a printer in Rouen.

There was at least one traditional area in which Duchamp did seek to sharpen his artistic skills: he undertook both extensive and intensive study in the renowned Renaissance discipline of perspective rendering. Duchamp's Apollonian study of space, and formal ways of representing it, were among the concerns least passionately held by other artists of that time. But Duchamp, resolute against the tide of taste--whether of the bohemians or the bourgeoisie--enthusiastically explored perspective, precision graphics, and theoretical geometry. These he documented in part by a sequence of sketches, references and ideas, published later as part of A l'Infinitif but probably dating from 1913. Among such notes was the following, addressed to himself:



See Catalogue of Bibliothque St. Geneviève

the whole section on perspective:

Niceron, (Father Fr., S.J.)

Thaumaturgus opticus

[ Sanouillet, Salt Seller, p. 86. ]

Through the agency of Picabia's uncle, Maurice Davanne, who was a librarian at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Duchamp obtained a much-needed job: one which enabled him to read extensively on the subjects of perspective and scientific notions of the fourth dimension. The wonderful reading room in which this process took place, over a period of about two years, had been designed by Henri Labrouste between 1843 and 1850, and remains noteworthy for its innovative use of exposed cast iron in architecture. In such an ambience of historical importance, Duchamp very well may have assimilated deep lessons about the interaction of decorative and structural elements, Labrouste's pathfinding use of new materials, and memories of the critical arguments originally elicited by the frank expression of industrial components in a fine arts context.

So, during 1913 Duchamp worked at the Bibliothque Sainte-Genevive in Paris, where reading and research nourished a fundamental reformulation of his artistic vision. A dry style of mechanical drawing graces the exquisitely deliberate studies which led to his magnum opus: The Large Glass. The artist's revolutionary use of non-traditional media in this great piece is widely appreciated: vestigial appearances of oil and varnish remain, but one can also find lead foil, lead wire and dust on two glass panels, each of which has been cracked and then mounted between two other glass panels within a wood and steel frame. More emphatic and thoroughgoing than merely pasting a piece of le Journal into a tidy space on a painting, Duchamp selected non-traditional materials and choice fragments from the ordinary world for incorporation into the work of art, abandoning the old-fashioned political-economics of art as a scarcity commodity--even though, in this paradoxical instance, these elements were combined into a rare and fragile work regarded as one of the great iconic masterpieces of modern art. The initial thrust of this signal turn from the precious stuff and ways of fine art did lead Duchamp--as seen in the array of his work throughout the following half-century--to construct a modern aesthetic out of the miasma of mass manufacturing, the tricky treats of technology, and the quaint subterfuges of quasi-science.

With the outbreak of World War I in Europe, Duchamp accepted an invitation from Walter Pach to visit the United States, and in 1915 set sail aboard the S.S. Rochambeau, bound for New York. He was met at the dock by Pach, who took him directly to meet Louise and Walter Arensberg, and through them, a sparkling circle of artists and fresh friends, including many leading lights of the literati in a land that already saw Duchamp as a revolutionary and heroic apostle of the new.


Throughout Duchamp's life he was fascinated by the subtle interplay of a corny, uncommonly perceptive sense of common humor, archly played against the taste-conscious self-righteousness displayed by many denizens of the art world and high society. As much as any other abstract feature of his art, whether of subject matter, style or other content, this penchant for ironic humor may be said to have fanned the flames of Duchamp's creativity and expression.

Duchamp eventually provided a major influence for many levels of our contemporary culture through his focus on the key function of language. He was interested especially in the varieties of formal relationships between images that were visual (but not limited to being "retinal" pictures of this or that) and that older, primary vehicle for language, sound (but not limited to conventional music). The deeper he explored the formalities of language in its two modern expressions (as sounded or seen, spoken or written, e.g. Prakrit or Sanskrit), the more closely Duchamp's placing art at the service of the mind approximated mathematics. A generic theory proposing to explain Duchamp's immense influence in our time might be based on his recursive consciousness, that unremitting sense of self-awareness, which, as always, can be proven by the way one laughs at oneself.

One of the most intriguing orders of Duchamp's following in the art world has focussed on the very shapes and graphic forms by which language itself (whether French or English) may be represented. In the world of letters and the intellect there has emerged a veritable sub-species of critical writing style saturated with Duchampesqueries, and inspired by the droll content (if not always by the terse style) of the master. The writers have either divined or stumbled across the key to the real Duchamp enigma in realizing the import, for Duchamp, of language in one of its most profound and powerful abstract of senses. After becoming aware of Duchamp, it seems that no such sensitive person could ever again talk about art in quite the same way.

Through Duchamp's life and art--primarily, that is, through language--he provoked, stimulated, encouraged, supported, and either critically paved the way for, or paralleled, revolutionary changes in many areas besides art. At one of its narrowest ends, this influence has generated among writers of art history and criticism the bizarre stratum of a rarefied database in which appears to be thriving a unique clique among the international intellegensia. One could not imagine some of their exploits enjoying publication and purportedly making sense in any but an art world thoroughly enamoured with Duchamp and quite well-schooled about the art historical minutiae and other obtuse details of the artist's cultural millieu. Most of these pieces demand of the reader painfully close reading, though demonstrating by the mental gymnastics a bemused if sometimes labored cleverness.

Such extraordinary documents in England might be called "too clever by half," hardly destined to become bestsellers in our American age when not even college students read very much any more. But the best of these Duchampian paeans at least reward the reader with some reflections of wit, as in the cute cultic collation by Lucy R. Lippard: The Romantic Adventures of an Adversative Rotarian or Allreadymadesomuchoff, in the volume of studies published by the combined cultural powerhouses, New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, edited by Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine. Ms. Lippard's work comes off as a broadly humorous strung-out self-referential attempt to be what it is while it's doing it. That effort in itself is a noteworthy for cleverness; and it also serves as a remarkable index of some mysterious Marcelline awareness that these belles lettres pieces betray of nigh-maniacal infatuation for French linguistic tricks and a pseudo-Qabalistic penchant for lettrisme and neologisms. The same volume includes an amusing and informative essay by Michel Sanouillet, "Marcel Duchamp and the French Intellectual Tradition" and davidantin's excursis on "duchamp and language," underscoring a general assumption--at least by those museums--of a fertile, well-cultivated field of Duchamp studies.

[ For Ms. Lippard's piece, see D'Harnoncourt and McShine, pp. 117 ff.; for Sanouillet, pp. 47 ff.; for davidantin, pp. 99 ff. ]

We could expand this information net considerably, to include, for example, earlier discussions of Duchamp in the writing of Richard Hamilton, and his tour de force typographic version of Duchamp's Green Box (1934), published in The Documents of Modern Art series, edited by Robert Motherwell. In a still more recent publications, Thierry de Duve has worked up a theory of "Pictorial Nominalism," Carol P. James presents a petit point exercise on "Duchamp's Silent Noise/Music for the Deaf," and George H. Bauer writes on "Duchamp's Ubiquitous Puns," in a style replete with self-referential witticisms--all of which evidence prefigures a readership receptively Duchamp-wise. We may well wonder how such a singular situation in art and letters came about.

[ Richard Hamilton's version of the Duchamp texts were translated by George Heard Hamilton, and published under the title, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, as No. 14 in the Series, by George Wittenborn, Inc., New York (1960). See, Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp's Passaage from Painting to the Readymade, (Theory and History of Literature, Volume 51), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, (1991). Ms. James and Mr. Bauer who carry their craft further than some, can be appreciated in Rudolf E. Kuenzli and Francis M. Naumann, editors, Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, MIT Press (1989), pp. 106 ff. and 127 ff. ]

The creation of a full concordance for all the puns and jests connected with Duchamp and the treasure trove of Duchampiana will be a stern task for the future's scholarly joke police. But in the meantime why not have some fun because, as a matter of opinion, the more conventional questions of art history--such as those about ways in which With Hidden Noise might have generated influences upon the work of other artists, or upon the world of art in a larger context--are not really very important for this specific piece, to which we continually return like a Mozartian rondo or a Kurosawa koan. Because the sculpture was essentially private, both small in scale, intimate in terms of the circumstances in which it was created, and seldom shown, it never achieved the notoriety of the Armory Show's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 or R. Mutt's Fountain. Meanwhile, in the wake of the serious critical attention which all of Duchamp's works began to receive in the second half of the twentieth century, With Hidden Noise still guards, twine-bound, the tumbles and tinkles and the imprisoned identity of its innermost, sound-making secret agent.

[ For a summary of the art historical influences emanating from Duchamp's general oeuvre, see John Tancock, "The Influence of Marcel Duchamp," in D'Harnoncourt and McShine, pp.159 ff. ]


It has been suggested (albeit, implausibly) that a detail in the life of Marcel Duchamp supplied a remote inspiration for the archly humorous Monty Python routine in which John Cleese, in the role of a Mr. Mousebender, attempts to negotiate a purchase in an Edwardian shop, "Ye Olde Cheese Emporium," attended by "Henry Wensleydale, Purveyor of Fine Cheese to the Gentry and the Poverty Stricken Too," played by Michael Palin. The gag is milked with Mousebender, in his decorous but increasingly exasperated manner, successively requesting a long list of cheeses, by name, only to be given some excuse by Wensleydale meant to account for the lack of each particular type. It turns out to be a skit about imaginary cheese.

[ Roger Wilmut, editor, The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus: All the Words, Volume 2, Pantheon Books, New York (1989), pp. 141 ff. The "Cheese shop" skit was a part of Episode No. 33, originally recorded on July 1, 1972, and first transmitted in Monty Python's Third Series on November 30, 1972. ]

The invention (or discovery?) of cheese must go way back to the dawn of the Neolithic, when people first began to see value in the domestication of animals in order to derive from them foods and other useful products. The particularities of a cheese depends in part upon the source of milk, and upon the nature of the local fermenting micro-organisms, all the variables of curing, aging, processing and storage. There are many, many kinds of cheese, cheeses without name, and from all parts of the world. In France alone, there are over 400 distinct varieties. But there is one cheese known to true cheese lovers, and of particular interest to us, that Mr. Mousebender did not request: Saint Marcellin. This cheese came to fame around the middle of the 15th century when the Dauphin (who later became King Louis XI of France) found it politically attractive to spend much of his time in the Val d'Isre region at the foot of the Alps. While separated from his hunting party one day, Louis was rescued from a confrontation with an enormous bear by some woodcutters, with whom he then shared a repast.

Louis enthusiastically proclaimed the pungent chevre to be the finest cheese he had ever tasted, and Saint Marcellin came to acquire a reputation as one of France's gastronomic treasures.

But the culinary delight savored by Louis XI bears little resemblance to the cheese produced today in Saint Marcellin. The potent, earthy flavor gleaned from aged goat's milk has given way to a mellow, creamier variation produced from cow's milk, which experts say is cheaper to make and appeals to a broader range of palates. Jean Garsuault, head of the International Cheese Institute in Paris says "The ancient styles that carried a stronger taste are shrinking fast as modern cheesemakers see that huge profits are made off supermarket shoppers, not elite gourmets...." To the dismay of true French gourmets, cheese buyers abroad tend to shy away from an artisan's moldy masterpiece that may come replete with ashen rind, blue bacterial tracks or a powerful odor reminiscent of a two-week-old pair of soiled gym socks.

[ William Drozdiak, "French Bemoan the Cheez Whiz Factor," Washington Post, reprinted in the San Francisco Examiner (August 25, 1991). ]

However much Marcel might have enjoyed his cheeses--or the Monty Python skit, had he lived to see it--a more plausible argument for the origin of the English routine (as if "plausibility" were the relevant in such company!) is suggested by another fact of the matter: namely, that John Cleese's original family name is "Cheese."

Nevertheless, this skit with its peculiar notion of "imaginary cheese," does exemplify the question of imaginary values, which (as we shall see anon) is a central formal quality of With Hidden Noise. Before fleeing Europe and heading west in 1941, Duchamp was obliged to obtain special, fake identity papers in order to con the Occupation forces. These identified him as a cheese merchant when travelling around France, the masquerade enabling him surreptitiously to transport works of art which he gathered together so as to spirit them out of the country, and the necessary elements that eventually wound up in his edition of the Box in a Valise multiples. Nobody ever looked into his "imaginary cheese" sample cases as he made several perilous trips back and forth from Paris, through the Occupied Zone, to the port of Marseilles, still in Free France. From there, Duchamp's "imaginary cheese" was shipped to New York, followed shortly by the artist himself.

In fact, Duchamp's own journey followed the preferred path of flight for French citizens seeking to avoid the war, leading first to Casablanca, where France maintained important interests, and from there to Lisbon. He would have passed through Casablanca when Humphrey Bogart was running Rick's Caf Amricain. There were, really, no such things as "Letters of Transit"--a beautifully-contrived term that came straight out of Hollywood--but one can easily imagine Duchamp handing his own (bogus) documents to whomever was the real functionary, in the role played by Claude Rains in the famous movie. With just a little effort of the imagination, we might fancy Marcel Duchamp and the beautiful actress Ingrid Bergman seated side by side, and taking off together through the mists (in the original Casabanca filming, actually the Lockheed Burbank airport) aboard the same plane, bound first for Lisbon, and thence westward to America, and to Freedom.