Unreal Nature

May 29, 2017


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… Ever since it appeared, the museum, whether large or small, has been the vanishing point of the desire to paint, whether painters admit it or not.

This is from Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade by Thierry de Duve (1991):

… We cannot be too skeptical of the image of a casual and dilettantish Duchamp, as popularized in legend. Quite the contrary, we must imagine him as a young man who, after having dabbled in painting — and in caricature, like his brother Gaston — because of a family penchant, we might say, and after having superficially participated in the Julian Academy from 1904 to 1905, decided to follow the path of his brothers and embrace the career of the artist.

[line break added] A career that began with a failure — quite harmless, and rather flattering when seen from a distance, yet still felt harshly like a failure since in 1905 Marcel failed to pass the entrance exam for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. It is not an exaggeration to suppose that this failure — whose delayed effect was the refusal of the Nude by the Indépendants — would act like a light “initial trauma,” quickly “forgotten” but nonetheless sufficient to keep alive a worry about his identity as a painter and to establish his determination to become a painter, no matter what, as if by revenge.

… he was ambitious and enough of a painter to know that a real avant-garde painter could innovate significantly only if he succeeded in imposing a new “definition” of painting on the sensibility of his epoch, but also only if he showed that he had assimilated history by transgressing it. And he was lucid enough about himself to know that he would never be this sort of painter — that he would never be Picasso.

[line break added] From 1902 to 1910 he had evolved, with a curious mixture of distant mimicry and technical industriousness but, above all, with very little invention, in all the styles that seemed avant-garde, successively painting in the manner of Impressionist, of Cézanne, of Matisse, but without ever stopping at those pictorial problems that, at some point, must obstruct the path of a young painter.

… When Duchamp declares that he wants to introduce “gray matter” into painting, we must not try to understand this as a mark of intellectualism or, even less, of rationalism. Quite the contrary, it was the orthodox Cubists — as they repeated often enough — who wanted to restore an intelligible and rational order to the chromatic chaos of Impressionism.

[line break added] And when Duchamp imputed to Courbet the dire responsibility of having pushed the entire history of painting toward the fostering of mere retinal titillation, his judgment was certainly unfair to Courbet, but it was an exact interpretation of the cubist impasse: Cubism had been and remained a realism, something that Cézanne’s painting no longer was. Duchamp’s critique of retinal painting was a critique of realism and not of the visualness of painting …

[ … ]

… if they innovated, the Salon would refuse them, and if they innovated significantly, they would have done more than conquer the Salon: they would have conquered the Museum. This is the historical law of modern painting, the particular form of the historicity of the avant-garde: it functions inevitably according to this retroactive verdict. A scandal is necessary to legitimate aesthetic innovation. There are a million examples in all the artistic domains.

… Here is a rejection that has become institutionalized, officially recognized, albeit involuntarily, as an integral part of a process of legitimation. The two stages of the dialectic implode: first the rejection of innovation and then its recognition; these two moments become synchronous. Rather than succeeding each other in time, they become juxtaposed in space: on the one side, the official Salon, behind the times, and on the other side, the Salon des Refusés, ahead of the times. Logically, this means that whatever strategic pictorial innovation the Déjeuner sur l’herbe contained addressed itself equally to both Salons: it is one and the same strategy that “desires” the refusal of the official Salon and participation in the Salon des Refusés.

… Ever since it appeared, the museum, whether large or small, has been the vanishing point of the desire to paint, whether painters admit it or not. This is true for ambitious painters as well as for modest ones, for vain painters on whom an ephemeral academic success has heaped honors as well as for those audacious artists who bypass the most avant-gardist of institutions and who, as a result, condemn themselves to speak only to a more or less distant posterity. This was true for Duchamp.

In his painting, as in all avant-garde painting, innovation was strategic, and its strategy desired the museum — let us use this name to refer to that sort of imaginary and anticipated parity with the masters that must have been filling up the head of a young, ambitious artist.

To be continued.

My previous post from de Duve’s book is here.




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