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Marcel Duchamp - Ekphrastics and Forensics: Hermeneutics


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Marcel Duchamp - Ekphrastics and Forensics: Hermeneutics

Bianca De Fanti (1913-1927)
2012, oil on canvas, 30×22 cm

Marcel Duchamp - Ekphrastics and Forensics: Hermeneutics

Bianca De Fanti (1913-1927)

Marcel Duchamp - Ekphrastics and Forensics: Hermeneutics




Glyn Thompson
Ekphrastics and Forensics: Hermeneutics*

Ekphrasis: Aesthetic transformative process whereby body parts became relics.

Forensic: Suitable or analogous to pleadings in court.
A speech, or written thesis, maintaining one side of a given question.

Hermeneutics: The art or science of interpretation.
[Hermeneut; messenger of the Gods: Hermes. Hermes Trismagistus: the founder of occult science and alchemy.]

Since its aim is the removal of obstructions, my practice is echphratic, (its object, an echphasis, a plain declaration,) since it seeks to restore forensically a corpus previously constituted through ekphrasis, the poetic, lyrical and affective reproduction" through the medium of words .. (of) .... sensuously perceptible objets d'art",[1] which erases the distinction between the work of art being venerated and its affective evocation, dissolving its frame and the difference between subject and object. Thus my practice constitutes a disinterment of Duchamp's corpus, the delineations of which, by the late 1970's, had all but disappeared under accretions of subsequent practices subsuming its identity into their own.

Thus it constitutes a stripping away of hermeneutically generated attributes in order to retrieve the primary material of Duchamp's original practice residing primarily in the work itself, augmented by various contemporaneous forms of documentation - letters, news reports, interviews, reviews, memoirs, photographs and so on - which also serve to qualify both the received wisdom of contemporary hermeneutics and Duchamp's own post-apotheosis reflections.

Marcel Duchamp, 1912, Photograph Heinrich Hoffmann.

Marcel Duchamp, 1912, Photograph Heinrich Hoffmann.

Evidence for the establishment of an identity for a Saint Marcel of the popular imagination is plentiful in Duchamp hagiography. A comprehensive overview is presented in the section of d'Hamoncourt and McShine's Marcel Duchamp, entitled A Collective Portrait of Marcel Duchamp,[2] and in Amelia Jones' Post-Modernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp.[3] The second page of her Preface offers the following, symptomatic, example.

These quotations, several of which provocatively evoke the usually suppressed erotic charge motivating interpretive analysis, confirm that Marcel Duchamp has been an obsessive object (and subject) of desire (in the intersecting scenarios of overt desire and oracular respect) for art writers and artists in the United States, particularly those involved in challenging the hegemony of abstract expressionism. In texts discussing post-abstract expressionist art, Duchamp is fixed simultaneously and paradoxically as seductive and eroticised enigma; "not to be found, open for everybody, impossible to write about' yet eliciting a 'sweet taste' in the body of the writer, 'inexplicable' yet 'continually explained.

One might judiciously add to this any number of equivalents, such as this quotation from Andre Gervais, which Jones cites at the head of her Intertext, on page 191, which reads as follows:

(T)he onlooker is involved literally from head to toe in analysing and interpreting Duchamp's oeuvre ... (T)he entire body of Duchamp's .... works is mapped onto the onlooker's body .... (T)he "creative act" ... is basically the erotic exchange between author and an onlooker who responds to ironism with oculism. The viewer becomes a voyeur. .. the reader becomes a writer. .. from this … I find my authorization to proceed.

Typical of the ekphrasis which then seems to have become the stock-in-trade of the 'Fine Art as Criticism' which has become Duchamp's legacy, are the two examples cited, not intentionally, by Jack Spector[4] who discusses an exhibition by Mike Bidlo in 1995 entitled Fountain Origins of the World, referencing Courbet, of course, in which a urinal was installed in front of a copy of a vaginal flower painting by Georgia O'Keefe, ala Steiglitz in Blindman 2. Unsurprisingly, the O'Keefe flower is a Rose. Bidlo went on to produce more than 3000 variations on the Fountain motif. The second cites Tim Thyzel's exhibition, at the Cynthia Broan Gallery in N.Y.C, in the 1990's, of an ensemble of" Bathroom Brancusi's" which had been preceded by an endless column of toilet bowls; the artist is assumed to be interested in drawing comparisons between Duchamp and Brancusi's androgyny.

Marcel Duchamp, 1917, Photograph Edward Steichen.

Marcel Duchamp, 1917, Photograph Edward Steichen.

As his title suggests, and that of his article in Source XVIII.4 (Summer, 1999): 40-47, entitled A Symbolist Antecedent of the Androgenous Q in Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. confirms, neither Spector himself, nor the magazine in which he writes, tout-fait, is exactly immune from this condition. This inclination is confirmed by Andre Gervais' blatantly unashamed encomium in the 1999 issue of the same organ entitled For a Portrait of Marcel Duchamp: The Dedications Speak.

But this affect is neither new nor untypical, since the foundation of what is manifest by the time of Duchamp's death was deeply entrenched at the beginning of his career, since a lyrical approach to Duchamp's work, dissolving the boundaries between producer and consumer, was inaugurated in 1912 by Apollinare, which Raynal noted in the first issue of Montjoie!, of 1914:

All men, all beings with whom we have passing contact have left traces in our memory, and these traces of life have a reality whose details can be examined and copied. Together these traces thus acquire personalities with individual characteristics that can be captured in art through a purely intellectual process.

Such traces are to be found in Marcel Duchamp's paintings.[5]

This same transformative power of affective evocation is present in Breton's equally solicitous soliloquy on Duchamp's equally seductive exterior, from Litterature, October 1922, which consolidates the tradition:

The admirable beauty of the face imposes itself through no striking detail, and likewise, anything one can say about the man is shattered against a polished plaque that discloses nothing of what takes place in the depths; and those laughing eyes, without irony, without indulgence, that dispel the slightest shadow of concentration and reveal the solicitude of the man to preserve a perfectly amiable exterior; elegance in its most fatal quality, that goes beyond elegance, a truly supreme ease: thus Marcel Duchamp appeared to me in the course of his last stay in Paris; I had not seen him before, and, because of certain strokes of his intelligence that had reached me, I had expected something marvellous.

The role and importance of the March 1945 issue of View Magazine, series V (25), in this process cannot be over-estimated, not least because, in perpetuating Breton's aesthetic, it simultaneously rehearsed the curatorial strategies of Sidney Janis who, in the 1950's, retrieved and reinstated, via replication, the hitherto invisible genre of the Readymade. This canonisation of Duchamp's persona was rehearsed earlier by the hagiography Janis co-authored with his wife Harriet, which was printed in the edition of View, all of whose articles comprehensively venerate Duchamp in this rich vein. Here we learn of the counter-wise arch-rebel anti-artist under whose apostatic aegis new works miraculously and mysteriously come into being out of the depths of the serenity that surrounds, and the tranquillity that informs, his life and person. Here the man and his miracles emerge from the same crucible, to be cast from the same mould, this time, of an unfathomable serenity. So authentic are his works, so unorthodox, so far removed from centuries-old patterns of material and conceptual substance as to be scarcely recognisable as the products of creative activity at all, since their thaumaturge has departed from all existing norms. Typical is the veritable maze of cobwebs made from three miles of string, conjured for the surrealist exhibition dedicated to the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies in 1941, which defied the un-initiate to see, perceive or understand (much as a Christian martyr's catacomb-enfolded shrine might defy the comprehension of the pagan.)

Janis' final, baptismal, paragraph, enriched by the rhetoric of chthonic excavation, (in which tapping the resources of the deeply embedded, little explored veins results in the rich yield of the treasure trove, born of the pulsating and fecund esthetic sensibility, still essentially untouched,) reads as follows.

As fascinating as are the many techniques and philosophic ideas in themselves, they serve the more important function of being aids to the reexamination of esthetic concepts, of contemporary culture and its relation to culture in general. That Duchamp's esthetic sensibility enabled him to do this on a high spiritual plane adds immeasurably to his achievement. Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries he has rediscovered the magic of the object and its esoteric relation to life, for centuries obscured in the Greek concept of sculpture. Contemporary points of view may be found in Duchamp's work, cubism, futurism, collage, dada and surrealism. This is not eclecticism, but the varied activity of a creative nature too large to be confined in anyone movement. So all-encompassing, so pulsating with contemporaneity and so fecund is his work that as various phases of vanguard art unfold and develop, they find it in their counterpart ..... the treasure trove of subtleties of creative ideas and techniques is still essentially untouched. Tapping these resources will provide a rich yield for the new generation of painters, in whose awareness lies the future of twentieth century painting: for here, deeply embedded with meaning, is one of the great, little explored veins in contemporary art.

What is of interest here is that, interpolated between these eulogies, introducing Duchamp's whole oeuvre for the first time, is the first public identification of Duchamp with Roussel, and chess. In this centrefold triptych, produced by Duchamp himself, and Frederick Kiesler, Duchamp is represented as an adept in his laboratory, in a collage which conflates the Large Glass with the Etant Donnes he was to commence the following year. The significance of this is that, in that year, 1946, in an interview with J J Sweeney, Duchamp announced, for the first time, that it had been Roussel who was responsible for his Glass, in 1912.

* Glyn Thompson; Unwinding Duchamp: Mots et Paroles à Tous les Étages. The University of Leeds, 2008. pp. 22- 25.


[1] From The Ode on a Grecian Urn, or Content versus Metagrammar, by Leo Spitzer, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962, p. 72.):

"Viewing relics from the perspective of rhetoric and art", Patricia Cox Miller, in The Little Blue Flower is Red: Relics and the Poetising of the Body. (Journal of Early Christian Studies 8:2, 213-236.2000 The John Hopkins University) examines the" essentially aesthetic transformative process whereby body parts became relics" in the "Early Christian religio-aesthetic environment in which the remains of special human beings could be regarded as spiritual objects worthy of ritual devotion", through the particular use of the rhetorical form of ekphrasis, which she highlights as a major component of the " aesthetic style which vested bones with a signifying capacity, as relics, within in the sensuously intense atmosphere within which the cult of relics achieved expression."
A work of art about a work of art, the literary form of Ekphrasis - described in antiquity as " a descriptive speech bringing the thing shown vividly before the eyes" - was the rhetorical device used to construct what Thomas Matthews describes , in The Clash of the Gods: A Reinterpretation of early Christian Art as the "wraparound environment", paralleling art in its role as a "visual stimulant for engaging the active interpretive imagination of participants in the cult" in which "bones became relics." Its subject matter, in most cases, was art, and what it presented was not a technical art-historical description, of a painting, mosaic or building, but rather, according to James and Webb, in To Understand Ultimate Things and Enter Secret Places: Ekphrasis and Art in Byzantium, Art History 14 (1991): 4., it represents "a living response to works of art, conveying emotional response, not objective observation, and rivalling art in its ability to bring its subject alive. "The purpose of ekphrasis is then to induce the "reader who has become viewer" to be "taken into a visionary world beyond objects" in order to experience that" uncanny moment of intensity in which", as Elsner puts it, " the ontological difference between the artist's imitations and their objects" is erased.
It was according to such a process that Duchamp' s own corpus would assume an equivalent status far removed from the identity his original intentions bestowed upon it since, as Miller continues, as a consequence, it is at "this moment of effacement of the boundary between an opaque object and a living body", that" the artistry which produces the poetics of the body in the Early Christian cult of relics" can be situated.
Miller illustrates this by citing Bryson (p. 222, n. 41) on an example of an ekphrasis from Prudentius' Peristephanon, on the underground shrine of the martyr Hippolytus, after whom the street into which Duchamp moved in the autumn of 1913 was named, in which words both in and as pictures collaborate "to produce a hyper-real, sensuously intense experience that goes beyond the limits of both". For Miller, this ekphrasis typically interrupts a narrative in order to present a work of art. This is not, " as Martha Malamud has explained, a digression", since it " dissolves its own frame, erasing the distinction between the painting being described and the poem describing it", a view confirmed by Gabriel Bertoniere who remarks that" it is .... curious that the description of the painting is not only mentioned in the context of the narration, but serves as a part of the narration itself ...... ( so that) ..... one is not sure where the description of the painting ends and the thread of the story is taken up again." (Miller 223 n 46.)This erasing of the distinction between exegesis and hermeneutics, inscribing the practise of scholarship within Fine Art practice, thus establishes the fundamentally rhetorical character of this text.

[2] d'Hamoncourt and McShine. Eds. Marcel Duchamp. The Museum of Modem Art and the Philadelphia Museum. 1973. A Collective Portrait of Marcel Duchamp. pp. 179-230.
[3] Jones, Amelia. Post-Modernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp. Cambridge Univ. Press. 1994.
[4] Spector, J. Duchamp's Gendered Plumbing: A Family Business? ( footnotes 1 and 9) in tout-fait, 2005.
[5] Item 6. Marcel Duchamp, p. 75.