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April 21, 2008

The works of Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia have not lost their capacity to make us laugh, says Christie Davies - They are as absurd, French and disgusting as ever: Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia: The Moment Art Changed Forever at Tate Modern

Posted by Christie Davies

Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia: The Moment Art Changed Forever
Tate Modern, London
21st February - 26th May 2008
Sunday - Thursday 10am - 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)
Friday & Saturday 10am - 10pm (last admission 9.15pm)

There have been many exhibitions about humour in art, but none has ever really succeeded. Gallery directors and art historians do not do laughter. It would disrupt the sacred silence of their somnolent spaces. It would be like chuckling in a church service, the profane sullying the sacred. Hence curators can't do it at all, for the same reason that vicars are no good at telling jokes from the pulpit. You can't break the habit of a lifetime.

But the current exhibition Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia at the Tate Modern, succeeds very well in telling jokes, though this is possibly not the main intention of the curators. The curators do acknowledge, though, that these three artists, when lampooning the pretensions of high art, cleverly employ humour and word play, bizarre eroticism, incongruity and irony. They are ridiculing established artists, fatuous critics, po-faced art historians and rich collectors who shell out money for art works they neither like nor understand. They are even laughing at the visitor to the exhibition, or indeed any viewer who fails to see that to put a urinal like Duchamp's Fountain 1917 or a mobile made of coat hangers like Man Ray's on display is levity as well as gravity.

Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia were French, and Man Ray, Emmanuel Radnitzky, though from a schmuttery Jewish family in Brooklyn, spent much of his life in France. They were close friends and teammates who spent much time together and often incorporated one another's images into their own works. Their humour is very French and as you might expect, much of it is about puns and sex and particularly puns about sex. It is the comic France we have all loved from Rabelais through Diderot and Feydeau to the present day, the land where l'arrière pensėe, c'est derrière pincė and punsters love les bons mots de Cambronne.

In the exhibition is Marcel Duchamp's famous L.H.O.O.Q, 1919, consisting of a cheap coloured postcard version of Leonardo's Mona Lisa on which he has drawn a moustache and a goatee beard.

We instantly recognize that Mona Lisa is and always was a man, an expression of the notorious homosexuality of that confirmed bachelor Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo was at one point arrested by the Officers of the Night, Florence's vice-squad (Germans still call a gay man a Florenzer) for sodomising a 17-year-old youth Jacopo Saltarelli and many young boyfriends.

Hence Duchamp's strange title L.H.O.O.Q, for when these letters are pronounced in the French manner it becomes elle a chaud au cul, what a hot arse she has. That is why, whenever a British football team plays A.C. Fiorentina from Florence, our hooligans sing "Lay-oh-Nardo takes it up the…. (Deleted by censor)" to offend the locals and put them off their game. It's what the French call le fairplay.

At times Duchamp would even dress up in drag and he produced works under the pseudonym Rrose Sélavy, which is also Eros c'est la vie, a land fit for Eros to live in. There is a photograph of his face here by Man Ray from 1921 as a flapper-vamp in modernist hat and fur boa, seductively looking out of a very traditional oval frame. But they were not playing buggers, merely silly buggers.

Their lives were entwined with many beautiful women who were the subjects of their shared pursuits. Duchamp painted his Bride, 1912 , showing a male machine copulating with a female machine at a time when he was obsessed with Picabia's wife. He then gave it as a present to Picabia. It was an artistic form of cuckoldry, the central theme in French humour throughout the ages. It was the product of a society that tried to combine a strong tradition of family honour with women having considerable freedom as individuals. The French tradition is a Muslim's nightmare. When Muslims murder their erring daughters, wives and sisters-in-law it is their way of saying "we are not French".

We see puns again in Duchamp's title Fresh Widow, a freestanding French window whose panes of glass are black and opaque. It was painted just after World War I, when France had several hundred thousand fresh widows, freshly widowed when their husbands were killed in the war. But they were seen by his colleague Picabia as fresh widows, alluring to the point of getting fresh and looking for fresh excitements. Picabia called his fast and expensive car La veuve joyeuse, The Merry Widow and he certainly lived in the fast lane. Man Ray took Picabia's photograph seated behind the huge steering wheel and bulbous horn of a 1920s super sports.

Picabia incorporated this snapshot into a painting. In the top half of it is Ray's photo, labelled photographie, fixed to the canvas and below it labelled dessin is a black sketch of the photo, reducing it to its basic lines. Appropriately this makes Picabia look like Toad of Toad Hall, M. le Crapaud de Château Crapaud.

Perhaps Man Ray's most famous visual yet also verbal pun is his photograph Le Violon d'Ingres in which he has painted black marks on the naked back of his mistress Kiki to make her look like a musical instrument, a sort of Botticello, with strings on the other side on which music can be played. In French le violon d'Ingres means a hobby, from Ingres' liking to play the violin just for enjoyment, to relax between his stressful sessions of painting nudes, his objets de luxe, like the Valpinçon Bather 1808, parodied by Ray.

Man Ray was saying that Kiki was his hobby. Some spoilsport in France is now claiming that the woman in the photo is not Kiki but then a man may have more than one hobby. The real Kiki is though to be found in several works in the exhibition either naked or dishabille.

Even Duchamp's most famous "Readymade", Fountain 1917 a mass produced white urinal, "the most influential artwork of the twentieth century": was a sensation because it was an "unmentionable", unlike his less well known bottle racks.

It is particularly funny to us because we know that the French refuse to use public lavatories and prefer to relieve themselves at the side of the road. In every little alleyway in France you will see a sign that looks like a no entry sign, a white bar on a red circle, but inscribed interdit d'uriner.

It was in recognition of this French practice that Duchamp rotated it and gave it the paradoxical name Fountain 1917. He did not send it to a French venue but, under the name of Richard Mutt, submitted it to the New York's Society of Independent Artists exhibition in 1917. He knew it was a symbol of the superiority of the hygenic American way of life over that of corrupt France.

Duchamp's is an ordinary piece of mass-produced American plumbing, the epitome of American hygiene, of a kind exhibited in plumbers' stores across the United States and sold in tens of thousands. All Duchamp has done is to sign this "Readymade" with the name R. Mutt, 1917. This was a deliberate undermining of the ideal of the artist as an individual, skilled, inspired creator; hence the phrase in the title of the exhibition "the moment art changed for ever".

In theory it should also have meant that any readymade chosen in this way, however inspired the choice in terms of formal properties and emblematic qualities, should have no commercial value. Anyone wanting one could go to a plumber's shop, buy one and sign and date it anything they liked.

It does not seem to have worked out that way. There was no forever. After the original was thrown away by accident by a humourless American (they don't do irony) four museums including the Tate Modern paid Duchamp a fortune to make four reproductions. I don't mean to take the piss but why did they not get a new one from the plumber's, cheap?

As well as the "readymades", there are "adapted readymades". Man Ray's Cadeau 1936 is an iron whose base carries a line of spikes, which would tear up the toughest of shirts. This ironic poisoned gift is deadly for the schneiders, like Man Ray's father back in Brooklyn who was a stereotypical Jewish tailor. Man Ray was the oppressor of the pressers. Pressers of the world unite, you've only your irons to lose.

Even in the endgame there were jokes. When Duchamp learned that Picabia was on his deathbed in 1953, he sent him a telegram, saying A bientôt cher Francis = Marcel. (See You Soon, Dear Francis) Duchamp later explained:

It is hard to write to a dying friend. One doesn't know what to say. You have to get around it with a sort of joke.
Duchamp understood exactly what jokes do. Jokes get around things. Jokes are ways of evading the taboos that tell us what not to say, for example in relation to sex or aggression or ethnicity… or as here, sentiments. This is why we send humorously offensive birthday cards to those we care about, because we can no longer send treacly ones in the way that our ancestors did.

Jokes are tricks for evading the habitual inhibitions we have concerning the ways in which we may use language. Duchamp merely took it further than anyone else: he always had.

When in the late 1950s Man Ray felt depressed at the rise of that despicable abomination abstract expressionism, he produced his "natural paintings" by squeezing paint directly onto a board, placing another board on top and then pulling them apart. He had exposed a fraud with a joke. In fairness abstract expressionist paintings do have their uses. They make good dartboards and if the frame is half decent you can get an art student to paint something else on top.

Yet cheerfulness did break through, much to the disgust of the arid philosophers of abstract expressionism. Pop Art and New Realism arrived which revived the ideas of Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia and particularly has its roots in the later Picabia's ironic kitsch that used images from girlie magazines.

Likewise Picabia's film with Rene Clair L'Entracte 1924 now being shown in the Tate Modern exhibition was the precursor of Monty Python, right down to the Ministry of Silly Walks, which owes more to Picabia than to the Greek army. The ancestor of John Cleese' la marche futile is Picabia and Clair's march of the mourners at a funeral where the hearse is pulled by a camel. It was not just art that changed forever with Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia.

Christie Davies is the author of Ethnic Humor around the World, (Bloomington, Indiana UP 1990 and 1997), a comparative study of the hygiene and perfection obsessed Americans and the seedy, grubby French. In its sequel The Mirth of Nations, (New Brunswick NJ 2002) he uses this to prove that the Quebecois are not French at all but like all Canadians deep down Americans.

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