A Research Of Why M. Duchamp Rejected Fauvism

Society has only recently accepted the subjectivity of art. We have been bending the rules of artistic expression and value, aesthetic norms and traditions, questioning what can and cannot be art. However, this liberation of artistic expression did not occur naturally. It, as radical changes often do, required individuals ready to challenge the system and create their own rules for art-making. When we speak about the evolution of modernism, one figure stands out – French artist Marcel Duchamp. Fuelled by extreme curiosity, a tendency to philosophical speculation and an individualistic character, Duchamp managed to completely revolutionize and remodel the art world. In this essay I will explore M. Duchamp’s creative journey in order to better understand the modernist epoch and to uncover the artist’s motives in rejecting artistic trends of his time.

The start

To fully comprehend Duchamp’s attempts at distancing himself from the Fauvists and ultimately devoting his energy to conceptual art, it is crucial to take a look back at the very start of his creative journey, when Duchamp was first introduced to the world of art. Coming from a French bourgeois family keen on music, chess and collective reading, with his father spending his elderly years painting and leaving behind a huge collection of works that were highly valued and respected in the household, Marcel Duchamp naturally took on painting. He started by painting portraits and figure compositions of his family members and friends, but already it was evident that there was more, a mysterious depth, that laid beneath the surface of Duchamp’s work. Perhaps one of the best examples of such emotional complexity being conveyed in his early pieces are the pictures of his parents. In “The Artist’s Father” (1910) we see Duchamp’s father, seated in a chair with his head rested on his arm, looking straight at us. His presence is quite clearly large, yet he seems to show no signs of judgment one might expect from a member of the middle-class. The father’s gaze is understanding and, as Jerrold Seigel (1995, p.18) put it, “He is at home inside the skin that both protects him from the world and puts him in touch with it”. However, the painting of Duchamp’s mother called “Sonata” suggests a more complicated and perhaps even darker theme. Painted one year later, it clearly demonstrates Duchamp’s change of artistic style that had now moved on from fauvism and was transitioning to cubism. In it, we see the mother surrounded by three of her daughters, two of which are playing instruments while the third reads in the foreground. This seems like a peaceful family scene, but in his book “The private worlds of Marcel Duchamp” Jerrold Seigel shines a different light on this piece. He states that Marcel Duchamp’s mother had become deaf by the time “Sonata” was painted, which presents a lot more space for interpretation. One might say that a deaf mother keeping her daughters company while they play music she cannot experience along with them is an act of selflessness, but Robert Lebel, who interviewed Duchamp for one of his studies, claimed that “Of his mother Duchamp today remembers above all her placidity, even her indifference, which seems rather to have hurt him…”. This lets us to believe Duchamp was trying to convey his mother’s cold, distant personality and separateness that pained him as a child, but that we will later discover was a trait he aspired to master himself, and one that played an inevitable part in his career and artistic development. The rapid shift of styles clearly indicated Duchamp’s wish to explore mysterious, psychologically complex concepts in his works. The abstract nature of cubism and later other abstract styles allowed him to do this better than fauvism could.

Artistic exploration

However, Duchamp did not dwell on a particular style for too long. An onset of WWI saw radical social and cultural changes, making people aware of the rapid pace of life. It was not long before Futurism, a new and exciting movement preaching industrial power, motion and adventure, started to dominate the cultural realm. Duchamp undoubtedly got caught up in the action of the epoch and developed his own fascination with motion, describing himself in that period as “being driven by extreme curiosity”. Excited with the newly emerged futurist atmosphere and intrigued with concepts of form and function, in 1911 Duchamp created a series of paintings that were open investigations of the conventions of movement: “Sad Young Man on a Train” (1911-12) and “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912). According to J. Seigel (1995, p.60) “These two pictures are variations on the same subject: a body represented simultaneously in a series of close and interlocked positions in order to create a kind of simulacrum of motion.” The two pieces are considered a pair leaving spectators perplexed about their meaning. Some call it a sexual confession: an autobiographical piece and a sexual fantasy; others believe the train to be an allegory for the rapidness of cultural change, while the man in motion-the artist himself. J. Seigel (1995) notes that “Nude Descending a Staircase” is testimony to that exact clash of motions, as the piece confuses the notions of both cubism and futurism at once, clearly demonstrating Duchamp’s inability to conform to one set of standards. The painting features flat colours that link it to cubism, yet the exploration of movement ties it to futurist ideas and beliefs, that the cubist rejected so persistently. This and perhaps Duchamp’s separateness and esoteric nature seemed to have caused certain tension between him and those in his artistic circles. His concepts and ideas began to stand out as being too different and eventually, after being asked by the cubists to withdraw the “Nude” from Salon des Independants in 1912, Duchamp was inclined to pursue an individualistic career, which only deepened his detachment from the world and his audience. Even though Duchamp did not oppose to being excluded, he later mentioned that the incident “gave me a turn” and reinforced his decision to leave for Munich for two months, where he admitted to acquiring “full liberation” and where the idea for his next big project, the Large Glass, matured.

The Large Glass

It is safe to say that the idea for the Large Glass, or “A Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” illustrates an artistic turning point for Duchamp. Back in Paris, he completely withdrew himself from the Cubists and became a librarian in the Latin Quarter, which allowed Duchamp to read about perspective and geometry, concepts now greatly important to him. Approach of The Large Glass was different from Duchamp’s earlier works; yet it was still a painting that incorporated “Duchamp’s interest in physics, perspective, chance, the poetics of language, and eroticism (Franklin, P. 2013) and originally, as the artist stated in one of his notes, had to be done on a large upright canvas. Motion was also still key; obviously, The Large Glass was inspired by themes Duchamp had already embraced. However, the decision to replace canvas with glass and to be relatively uninvolved in marking this piece was due to Duchamp’s new passion for complex dimensions, metaphysical concepts and growing fascination with indifference and detachment. According to Jerrold Seigel (1995, p.87) “The conceptual germ of the Large Glass was the relationship of virginity to bride hood which allowed him to replace his interest in linear movement through space with attention to a kind of motion that was purely formal and intellectual”. He later adds that the motion portrayed was not conventional- it was a kind of motion that happens entirely in one’s mind in a frozen moment, a psychic, mental movement preserved in a person’s inner experience. The marks themselves were made with regard to Duchamp’s fascination with chance and accidents. This all ties in to the idea that Duchamp had started nurturing by now- an artist should not be distinguishable by his works. Chance and spontaneity are the true pillars of great art. This explains his choices to not only apply this logic to the Large Glass, when, for example, using a slingshot to fling balls covered in paint to create marks, but also Duchamp’s constant efforts in separating himself from his pieces. Another common trait seen in Duchamp’s art figures in this piece- irony. The veil of subtle satire covers the whole of the Large Glass, starting from the strange and misleading title (who are the bride’s bachelors, and what does “even” imply?) and leading up to the abundance of symbols that populate the picture which raise “Duchamp’s old tactic of drawing us in and keeping us at bay by holding the promise of meaning forever just out of touch.” The Large Glass is no exception to the claim that Duchamp’s art is anything but easy to interpret, but the majority of critics agree, that this piece is indeed an exploration of “male and female desire as they complicate each other”. Clearly, themes of motion and sexuality still figured heavily in Duchamp’s artistic practise when he made the Large Glass. Yet, it would be unfair not to refer to this piece as unique, even if Duchamp’s later creative steps were even more radical and ground-breaking than anyone could have ever imagined.

The Revolution (Redymades)

Modernist art had been provoking curiosity and concern before Duchamp’s experiments; yet his most famous works - the readymades - challenged the public far more than Cubists or Fauves could. Cubists, for example, utilized novelty simply to expand a work’s perceptual power or thematic range but Duchamp’s readymades questioned the very notion of art and “mounted their challenge from outside the recognized sphere of artistic practice.” (Siegel, J. 1995). They paved way for vanguard practice to evolve into what American art critic Clement Greenberg called “avangardism”, embracing the shocking and outrageous as inherently valid, and not additory or consequential to artistic newness. Yet, while Duchamp understood that presenting a bicycle wheel or a urinal as a piece of art as defined by the space (gallery) it was viewed in was scandalous and was bound to dismantle every aesthetic and conceptual convention, he noted that his were slightly different. J. Seigel (1995) suggests that “The readymades were a defence against personal fixity”. Duchamp had long believed that to acquire one style or to submit to one trend that was distinguishable to the audience as being a certain artist’s was merely “the repetition of something already accepted.” He wished to eliminate his character as an artist from the work he was making- the contrary of what most artists, even today, are trying to achieve. “He spoke of how using prefabricated objects freed him from the 'trap' of developing a particular style or taste“. It has already been mentioned that Duchamp practised indifference and valued the beauty of chance, and the readymades are a clear testimony of such a worldview. The artist took the experiment of being uninvolved in creation, something he had done while making the Large Glass, much further; this time by not allowing any sort of preference to figure in the creative process. In order to completely distance himself from these pieces, Duchamp would commit to designate an object at a random time in the future- this way he would not be able to predict where he would be, thus making the objects he would later choose completely random. Despite reoccurring themes of sexuality, detachment, machinery and irony, Duchamp succeeded in rejecting notions of “personal style” or “taste” and rid himself of responsibility while creating. His readymades are now considered the face of conceptual art which opened up a new space for modernism.

In conclusion, Duchamp completed his mission to detach himself from everything, even his works infused with both personal intimacy and analytical precision. Undoubtedly, the modernist epoch and World War I had an influence on Duchamp’s art. Yet it was his dialectical mind, cold indifference and his astounding multiplicity that led him to pursue deep, emotionally and socially complex themes that the narrow nature of Fauvism could never allow.


  • Seigel, J. (1995). The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp: desire, liberation, and the self in modern culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Riggs, T (1997). Marcel Duchamp. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/marcel-duchamp-1036 (Accessed 15 Jan. 2019).
  • Franklin, P. (2013). Marcel Duchamp: Between Art and Life. Available at: http://blog.barbican.org.uk/2013/02/marcel-duchamp-between-art-and-life/ (Accessed 15 Jan. 2019)
  • Schwartz, A. (1969). The complete works of Marcel Duchamp. London : Thames & Hudson.
16 December 2021
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