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Marcel Duchamp is the father of conceptual art and had a great influence on contemporary art and design practice. Being one of the icons of the 20th Century art world, Duchamp’s ideas about art makes him an enigmatic figure. According to Allan (2007), from the urinal signing to his ideas on chess as an art, Duchamp completely overhauled the practice of art-making even Picasso’s name to fade in most art discourses. As such, the legacy of Marcel Duchamp promulgated design practice to its present status. Through the baffling ideals presented by Duchamp as a result of the different aspects of the environment he was operating in, art and design were upgraded from the physical (retinal) to the intellectual (conceptual) realm.
The Context of Marcel Duchamp’s Works
Born in 1887, Duchamp was one of the many artists who were deeply devastated by the carnage of World War 1. As a mixed media artist, he sought to express his displeasure about the political, economic, and social aspects of his surroundings through his works. Though he was keen to avoid any alliances, many associated him to Surrealism, Dadaism, and also Cubism (Moffit, 2003). Dadaism used anti-art and anti-war ideals to address war situations.
As such, they constantly confronted the conservative ideals and artistic values with outrageous productions and performances. This also included an outspoken critic of the cultural and the social conditions that gave rise to the war. To them, the conservative artistic values were critical to the upholding of the status quo. As such, the artworks of most artists at the time, especially those who subscribed to this thinking were influenced by the desire to topple the political, economic, and social status quo as enshrined in the conservative views on art (Allan, 2007).
During the time when Duchamp and other artists were starting their artist careers, the world had experienced one of the most devastating and callous events in its history. The world war, which reflected the negative side of technology and social decadence, had claimed millions of lives and left cities and towns that were once vibrant on their knees (Moffit, 2003). In rebellion to the anarchy of war, Duchamp’s works were characterized by heightened humour, unconventional media, and rebellion against the existing art boundaries. Among Duchamp’s works that manifest the sensitivity to the prevailing conditions is the L.H.O.O.Q, 1919.
This artwork is a reproduction of the Mona Lisa with the additions of a moustache and a goatee and a caption written L.H.O.O.Q. According to Demos (2006), the initials in the caption translated to “she’s hot in the ass.” The artwork was rapidly embraced as an icon of Dadaism in the international spheres. However, many critics claim that the ideals of Duchamp clearly transcended the concerns of the Dada movement (Perlman, 2002).
Duchamp’s insistence that art ought to be about ideas as opposed to physical appeal was Duchamp’s most definitive and outstanding claim that still resonates with many in the contemporary art world. Rather than merely appealing to the eyes of the perceivers, Duchamp advocated for an intellectual perception of art and design works (Meggs & Purvis, 2012). Distancing himself from Dadaism was a way of man according to his works the intellectual perception he was advocating. According to Witham (2013), Duchamp went to the extent of merely signing an artefact and presenting it as a work of art that required intellectual perception. This concept explains most of his ready-mades, such as the Bicycle Wheel and Fountain.
Duchamp’s Influence in Graphic Design Practice
Despite that Duchamp is not widely cited as a prominent printmaker of the 20th Century, several aspects of his works still hold importance and relevance for many print artists and graphic designers. While undertaking his compulsory military service in 1905, Duchamp worked for a printer where he acquainted himself with printing skills and typography. These skills proved vital in his later productions, such as The Large Glass and the Green Box, which was its verbal accompaniment (Allan, 2007).
Perceived as an artwork in print form, the constituent notes in the Green Box bear notable similarities with the hallmarks of the 20th Century print production (Meggs & Purvis, 2012). Developed in a printing medium, the artworks feature an excellent choice of paper medium and ink, and even though they were not personally printed by Duchamp, they were produced under his directions and guidance. As such, the Green Box fully reflects his most felt ideals about art and design works that, rather than merely depicting a visual appeal, artworks should be packaged in a way that they also inspire the intellectual appeal of the audience.
Duchamp’s ingenious employment of photomechanical printing techniques, as opposed to the autographic printing commonly used at the time, separated the Green Box from most design works of the time (Demos, 2006). It is through this work that Duchamp is acclaimed by many as the pioneer of photomechanical print in the design world. The idea of accompanying photographs with explanatory text is common in modern graphic design. The juxtaposition of text in pictorial compositions is considered effective in enhancing Duchamp’s goal of appealing to the intellect rather than focusing on esthetics.
Commercial printing was becoming more and more vibrant by the 1930s. As such, when Duchamp was reproducing his notes for the Large Glass, he would have made a choice between halftone letterpress and rotogravure (Witham, 2013). He would have even considered offset lithography (Allan, 2007). These choices had the potential of devising wonderful simulations of artworks and photographs at the time for any kind of illustration. However, Duchamp opted for photomechanical print (collotype), according to Witham (2013). To him, this technique was better than the others in that it was capable of reproducing visual information without the slightest distortions.
Duchamp’s ingenious use of printing methods to provide information for his artworks precedes many of the design theories that emerged later. His insistence of the intellectual appeal and originality of artworks currently influences the art conceptualization of many contemporary artists and graphic designers. With other print-artists such as Richard Hamilton carefully imbibing his notions and ideals, it is without any doubt that Duchamp’s legacy still lives on in the world of art and graphic design (Meggs & Purvis, 2012). Hamilton reworked some of Duchamp’s works such as the Large Glass, integrating both the visual and the verbal aspects of the artwork to produce the Typo/topography of Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, 2003 (Allan, 2007). This revived the relevance of the work in the contemporary art world.
Marcel Duchamp’s contribution to the present practice of art and design can be traced back to his controversial statements about art. His desire to transform the practice of art by initiating a paradigm shift from ‘retinal’ art to cognitive art through his works still inspires many professionals and starters in the visual communications industry. Even though some of his works resonated with the concerns of Dadaism, Duchamp was keen to disassociate himself with the school of thought so as to preserve his agenda for art to be perceived intellectually.
Allan, A. (2007). Anarchy and Art: From the Paris Commune to the Fall of the Berlin Wall. New York: Arsenal Pulp Press. Web.
Demos, T.J. (2006). The Language of ‘Expatriation’. In D. Jones (Ed). Dada Culture: Critical Texts on the Avant-Garde. New York: Editions Rodopi. Web.
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Meggs, P.B., & Purvis, A.W. (2012). Megg’s History of Graphic Design. Hoboken, NJ: John Willey & Sons. Web.
Moffit, J.F. (2003). Alchemist of the Avant-Garde: The Case of Marcel Duchamp. New York: New York Press. Web.
Perlman, B.B. (2002). American Artists, Authors, and Collectors: The Walter Pach Letters 1906-1958. New York: New York University press. Web.
Witham, L. (2013). Picasso and the Chess Player: Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and the Battle for the Soul of Modern Art. London: University of New England Press. Web.