Happy Birthday, Marcel Duchamp

“I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.” – Marcel Duchamp

He might be known as the artist behind the most important urinal in history, but that’s not Marcel Duchamp’s only claim to fame. From shaping the art periods of Cubism, Futurism, and Dadaism to pretty much being the father of Conceptualism, Duchamp was one of the most important artists of the twentieth century.

But that’s not the only thing we love about Duchamp. He was also a mastermind when it came to pranks and visual puns – a champion, we like to think, against the idea of taking art too seriously. He scribbled a mustache on Mona Lisa. He submitted a porcelain urinal to a very, very serious art society. And then, after all his hard work, this iconoclast of twentieth century art abruptly left it all – to focus on his chess career.

To celebrate what would have been his 129th birthday, here are five of our favorite pieces from Duchamp’s illustrious portfolio:

1. Fountain (1917)

Duchamp's original Fountain, photographed by Alfred Stieglitz at the 291 Art Gallery (1919).
Duchamp’s original Fountain, photographed by Alfred Stieglitz at the 291 Art Gallery (1919).

Considered one of the most controversial art pieces of the twentieth century, Fountain is part of Duchamp’s Readymades series, in which he chose objects and presented them as artwork, challenging the notion of what defines “art” in the first place. In this case, it was a urinal – which Duchamp signed with his pseudonym and submitted to the Society of Independent Artists’ first-ever exhibition in 1917. It was promptly rejected.

2. L.H.O.O.Q. (1919)


Another piece in Duchamp’s Readymades series, this parody of Mona Lisa features a mustache and goatee scribbled on a cheap postcard of Da Vinci’s masterpiece. No one’s really sure what the letters L.H.O.O.Q. stand for, but Duchamp’s cryptically said in a an interview that it loosely translates to “There is Fire Down Below.”

3. Duchamp’s female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy

Rrose Sélavy, portrait of Duchamp photographed by Man Ray (1921).
Rrose Sélavy, portrait of Duchamp photographed by Man Ray (1921).

Not one to be restricted by any boundaries, Duchamp presented several of his Readymades pieces under the female pseudonym Rrose Sélavy. (Sélavy = c’est la vie = such is life. Get it?) Sélavy made her first appearance in a portrait series photographed by Duchamp’s pal Man Ray.

4. Bicycle Wheel (1913)

Duchamp with Bicycle Wheel (1913).
Duchamp with Bicycle Wheel (1913).

This famous bicycle-stool hybrid Readymade was never submitted to any art exhibition, but Duchamp kept it around in his studio for inspiration. “I enjoyed looking at it,” he famously said. “Just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in the fireplace.”

5. Reunion (with John Cage)

Reunion, Cage & Duchamp. (1968)
Reunion, Cage & Duchamp. (1968)

“I have come to the personal conclusion,” Duchamp once said, “That while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”

After departing the New York art scene in 1918, Duchamp pursued his other passion – chess playing. But that doesn’t mean he left the art scene for good. Duchamp carved his own chess pieces, designed the 1925 poster for the Third French Chess Championship, and played games with his fellow art friends, including Man Ray and John Cage. Pictured above, even, is a performative electronic piece that synced up Duchamp and Cage’s chess moves with individual electronic frequencies, turning their match into a musical piece. So sure, Duchamp switched over to chess – but he never stopped being Duchamp.

There’s also an iconic photo of him dueling a chess opponent in the nude, but we’ll let you Google that on your own.

At Classic Specs, we’re always inspired by artists – the way they live, the way they think, and the beautiful things they create. And we love working with them, too. Check out our Classic Specs Artist Collaboration Series to see the glasses and sunglasses we’ve made with artists Jean Jullien, Margherita Urbani, and Tim Lahan.

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