In the five years that Anne Collins Goodyear, assistant curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery, and James McManus, professor emeritus of art history at California State University, Chico, prepared the Portrait Gallery’s new exhibit "Inventing Marcel Duchamp: The Dynamics of Portraiture," they had a few key revelations.
First off, says Goodyear, "Although Duchamp is a giant, one of the most influential figures in modern art, he is still not terribly well known to the American public." When most people think of Duchamp, usually what comes to mind is either the urinal, named Fountain, and signed with the pseudonym "R. Mutt," or his parody of Mona Lisa with a mustache and a goatee. But there is much more to his body of work. His Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 ruffled feathers for being scandalous at his American debut at the 1913 Armory Show in New York City. His The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, also known as The Large Glass is one of his masterpieces. He was a leading Dadaist and Surrealist who flipped the traditional notion of art, portraiture in particular, on its head.
What also doesn’t often come to mind is the artist, the face, behind the work, which leads to one of McManus’s revelations. "No one has seriously looked at Duchamp as a subject," he says. But he and Goodyear are trying to fill that gap. The exhibition features 100 portraits and self-portraits of Duchamp, pared down from about 800 that they found, by close to 60 artists. The vintage photographs, prints, drawings, paintings, sculpture and film date from 1887 to the present.
Yes, the present. Many of the portraits in the exhibition were made after Duchamp’s death in 1968 but are heavily influenced by his revolutionary ideas about constructing multiple and elastic identities. He played around with profile, creating mug shots and silhouettes of himself, and aliases, even posing a few times in drag as his alter ego, a woman by the name of Rrose Sélavy (Get it? Eros, se la vie). And later artists would do the same, which leads to the third thematic-rendering revelation that guided the co-curators’ conception of the exhibition. "He’s an artist that reaches beyond the grave," says Goodyear. After all, as the exhibition notes, in his last years of life, the artist carried in his pocket a piece of paper that read, in French, "Besides, it is always the others who die"—and the words became his epitaph.
"Inventing Marcel Duchamp: The Dynamics of Portraiture" opens today, March 27, and runs until August 2.