Duchamp: The Paradigm of the Cartoon Dider Semin, essays translated by John Brogden and Stefan Banz, edited by Stefan Banz 116pp, Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2015
Artist, readymaker, conceptualist, anartist: just exactly who was Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968)? Didier Semin’s Duchamp: The Paradigm of the Cartoon sets out the innovative premise that the artist’s cartoons, drawn for Parisian newspapers in the early 1900s, played an integral role in his artistic formation. This book offers a very concise study, with a relatively short essay on Duchamp’s cartoons (printed in French, English and German) alongside a compelling array of images, including examples of the artist’s cartoons strategically placed alongside his readymades and letters. Offering a highly original contribution to existing Duchamp scholarship, Semin convincingly argues that the paradigm of the cartoon, its ingenious artistic satire and effective combination of drawing and caption, should be seen as the theoretical framework for Duchamp’s later conceptual works, most notably his readymades.
Semin begins his argument by questioning why these works have been largely overlooked in Duchamp’s oeuvre. In 1967, L’Express critic Otto Hahn questioned Duchamp about a drawing he had uncovered in a 1910 copy of Le Rire; Duchamp contested the date, stating instead it was from ‘either 1904–1905 or 1906–1907’, adding, ‘I’m not proud of it though’ (55).1 Although the artist admitted the earliest part of his career was spent living among cartoonists in Montmartre, his ambiguous response would seem to indicate that Duchamp himself conceived of a clear separation between his artistic beginnings as a painter and cartoonist, and his later readymades. For Semin, the fact that Duchamp’s cartoons have gone largely unnoticed – it was not until Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert’s fastidiously detailed study, published seven years after the artist’s death, ‘before one could simply consult a list of Duchamp’s published cartoons and their dates’ (56) – is a symptom of Duchamp’s own lack of interest in them.2 Nevertheless, given that Duchamp created these drawings in the period directly preceding his infamous Fountain (1917), it seems logical to investigate the possibility of a continuity stronger than Duchamp himself admitted.
Semin continues by exploring the context of the cartoon in early twentieth-century Paris, a time when many artists, including Duchamp and his brother Jacques Villon, were regarded as earning an honourable living by creating satirical drawings for the newspapers of the day, including Le Courrier français and Le Témoin. Despite what he describes as their ‘academic calibre’ (68), Semin nevertheless admits that Duchamp’s eighteen published cartoons cannot compete with those of his brother, containing none of ‘Villon’s virtuosity and experience’ (58).
Where Villon followed the traditional route to the art world via the École des Beaux-Arts, Duchamp’s failure to gain admittance in 1905, compounded by the rejection of his Nude Descending a Staircase by the Salon des Indépendents in 1912, destined him for something of an outsider status. For Semin, these infamous and deeply embarrassing failures provided the catalyst for Duchamp to mobilise those satirical skills honed during his time as a cartoonist, and ignited his subversion of high and low art.
Duchamp’s untitled drawing published in 1910 in Le Rire opposite a story by Roland Dorgelès entitled ‘Time is Money’, where a woman dressed in a coat is depicted ‘waiting for her gentleman friend to finish combing his hair’ (68), alongside a humorous caption by Duchamp, is a particular highlight. Works like this function on the level of ‘the laboured pun’ (68), playing on the verbal, visual and most importantly, the comical. Duchamp’s skilful wordplay provokes a laugh, a feature which returns in later works such as L.H.O.O.Q. (1919). But in Semin’s opinion, it was with Duchamp’s readymades that he ‘was best able to turn the cartoonist’s weapon against the world of art’: the caption (71). His first three readymades known to us featured captions not below the artwork, but ‘on the object itself’: the quintessential blueprint of the cartoon (71). Duchamp scholars have long discussed the artist’s use of movement in Nude Descending a Staircase as having derived from Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs, but Semin makes the thought-provoking claim that a source of inspiration may in fact have been Paul Richier’s drawing Descente d’un escalier – double pas, printed in Physiologie Artistique De L’homme En Mouvement in 1895.
According to Semin, if ‘we were to consider the consequences – within the context of Duchamp’s career as a whole – of those few years spent among cartoonists rather than among painters, a completely different story would have to be told’ (60). A lengthier analysis of the drawings would have been beneficial, but understandably this book is in keeping with the small printed format of the series of which it is part. The author places deserved weight upon a lesser-known area of Duchamp’s artistic career, one that – as Semin argues brilliantly – displays ‘the intelligence behind the aesthetic hoax of the readymade’ (74). It seems that, as always, Duchamp has the last laugh.
- Marcel Duchamp quoted in translation from April 11 1967 from Otto Hahn, ‘Marcel Duchamp’, VH101, 3 (1970), 60-61.
- Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert, ‘Duchamp m’harcèle, contribution à une archéologie de Marcel Duchamp’, (1975) Étant donné_Marcel Duchamp, 4 (2003), 61-83.