Marcel Duchamp Stripped Bare: A Journey through the Existential Process

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Duchamp sitting in front of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even
(Marcel Duchamp with The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Photograph: Mark Kauffman/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image)
“The spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” 
 – Marcel Duchamp


In 1912 Marcel Duchamp left Paris on a train and went to Germany. His painting Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) had just been rejected as an entry in the Salon des Indépendant’s Exhibition in Paris: an exhibition he had shown work in every year since 1909, and an exhibition whose jury was made up of his friends, his colleagues, and his own brother. This rejection triggered something in him and marked the beginning of how Duchamp would interact with the world around him moving forward throughout the 20th century. 


(Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), Marcel Duchamp, 1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

So much has been written about, discussed, argued, theorized, and rehashed regarding Duchamp’s life, that it seems a moot point to revisit it, and this would be a valid argument if yet so much of his life didn’t remain speculative. Duchamp became a master of evading questions regarding himself leaving others to fill in many of the blanks they had about him for themselves. It is this very aspect of his nature that leads me to believe that Duchamp experienced an existential crisis at this point in his life. 

Despite the fact that philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Edmund Husserl, among others, had been developing these concepts in philosophy since the industrialization of Europe in the previous century, the word existentialism hadn’t been coined yet in 1912 or used in philosophical parlance. At this point in Duchamp’s life, the world was still a generation away from the theories and writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus; in fact, Gabriel Marcel wouldn’t even first use the word for another thirty years after Duchamp’s rejection in Paris.

This, however, does not discount that it happened. Existentialism, reduced to its most basic of concepts, is what its name suggests: it is the philosophy of examining one’s own existence. The philosophy operates on five given tenets. First, one must accept that he has free will. It rejects the concept of pre-determinism or pre-destiny of any kind. Next, existentialism posits that having free will, one then must make his own choices; he must understand that not all the choices he makes can please or satisfy everyone; and, he must accept that once he makes a decision, he must commit to it and see it through. The burden of existence is put upon the individual and it is this responsibility for his own decisions and actions that play heavily into the philosophy. Finally, existentialism demands that one understand that there are things in life that are simply absurd and have no meaning: That there is no greater plan or higher purpose in place to explain them: The universe, and all that is in it, is indifferent to the wants or needs of man. Since it is man’s inherent nature to need to give things in the world meaning, the philosophy insists then that it is up to the individual to give himself, to give his life, and to give everything in it that meaning himself.

When Duchamp boarded that train for Germany, it may have been that the physical separation from his friends, his colleagues, his brothers, and his Parisian environment, provided the necessary detachment required for him to acquire the freedom of mind to develop his own ideas. What Duchamp experienced after his rejection at the Salon des Indépendant’s Exhibition in 1912 is, for all intensive philosophical purposes, the first stage of the existential process: existential anxiety; and, over time, I believe he came to understand this, perhaps not in today’s philosophical terms, but by using his time in Germany to explore this moment of existence, and take control of his life by defining what it meant to him, and no one else, allowing him to come to a resolution of his own design.

The existential process contains three stages. The first, anxiety, is what most people are familiar with. It is that feeling that overtakes an individual in which he no longer feels that he is in control of his life or his decisions. Many people, philosophers have said, have lived their entire lives in this stage without any deeper understanding or resolution. 

Next, philosophers identify what is called an existential moment; a moment in time when one realizes his anxiety and its cause. He understands that his life is being guided, led, or directed by forces other than his own and chooses to take charge of his own destiny. The final existential stage, resolution, occurs when an individual rejects external forces bent on keeping him from experiencing life on his own terms and resolves to live a life of his own choosing and making. 

At the turn of the 20th century, the modern world was moving at a pace faster than it had ever experienced before. New technologies, communication, weapons, and industrialization were growing faster than people had ever experienced. By the end of its first two decades, the 20th century will have seen a revolution in Russia and the complete annihilation of its monarchal dynasty, a world war that encompassed an entire continent and more, and yet another, revolution that would redefine Mexico, the Americas, and its people. Greater weapons of mass destruction like machine guns that could fire several rounds of bullets at once, chemical weapons like chlorine gas and mustard gas that could eradicate huge numbers of people instantaneously, and bombs falling from the air being dropped by planes above them making even the heavens a threat to existence, were new in a world being forced to move forward quickly. 20th century anxiety was growing, knowingly and unknowingly, at a pace social evolution had never experienced before. 

Duchamp had no control over his rejection at the Salon des Indépendant’s Exhibition in 1912 and he knew this. Many would believe it is here where he gave up painting – of course, they were wrong – but it is here where he would change how his life would evolve moving forward. Duchamp would leave Paris and the world of what he called “retinal” art behind and embark on a lifelong journey of challenging himself and those around him with art on his own terms: “cerebral” art. 

It is important to note that in April of 1912, a month after his rejection from the Salon des Indépendant’s Exhibition and two months before he would depart for Germany, that he completed two drawings featuring a king and a queen surrounded by animated nudes, a theme drawn from the principal components of a chess game and the movement of its pieces. Duchamp’s fascination with chess wasn’t new, and it would be a love and obsession he would enjoy the rest of his life, but it would now define his approach to his work, his interaction with his colleagues, and his relationship with his critics. Chess was a game that one had to engage his mind in, think several moves ahead in order to outwit his opponent. It was a cerebral endeavor. Learning how to predict and out-maneuver others would enable Duchamp to deal with his anxieties by learning how to take control of his life by thinking it out and put him on the path of creating a body of work that would redefine what art was in the 20th century. His king and queen would evolve on this journey as he would.  


(King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes, Marcel Duchamp, 1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

In June 1912, Duchamp arrived in Munich and during his three months there, he immersed himself in the center of a German-speaking environment where he  became fascinated with the writings of 19th century philosopher Max Stirner, a precursor to Nietzsche, who dealt with themes of isolation and nihilism and whose writings may have provided the most extensive theoretical basis for Duchamp’s newfound artistic freedom. Anarchists and nihilists inhabited the political fringe in early 20th century Europe, and a new breed of artist was starting to attack the very concept of art itself. It is during this decade that we see the emergence of Dada, an artistic and literary movement that flouted conventional aesthetic and cultural values by producing works marked by nonsense, travesty, and incongruity. Artists and writers like Tristan Tzara, Hannah Höch, and Hans Arp, among others, were already testing the boundaries of conventional concepts in art. It may also have been, as some have suggested, that the paintings and aesthetic theories of Wassily Kandinsky and the Blaue Reiter artists, a loose-knit group of expressionist painters including Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Franz Marc, united by Kandinsky’s dictum that “the creative spirit is hidden within matter,” as they were, then, in Munich, influenced Duchamp’s thoughts about the potential of abstraction as both a thematic and stylistic component in his work. Paris, he came to believe after previously trying his hand at Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, etc. rejected his painting because he was still creating pieces that were retinal, made for the eye, and not the mind, and his aesthetic was never going to fall in line with that of those at the Salon des Indépendants.

When he was asked later in life to identify a specific philosopher or philosophical theory that was of special significance to his work, he cited Stirner’s only major book, Der Einzige und seen Eigentum (The Individual and His Own), which was originally published in 1845 but appeared in a French edition in 1900. In this highly provocative book, Stirner outlined a controversial treatise in defense of philosophic egoism, the theory that one’s self is, or should be, the motivation and the goal of one’s own action. Stirner believed, based on his observation, that all people possess unique qualities unto themselves. He championed  the right of the individual to assume a superior position in society.

That same year Duchamp began sketches in which he replaced the identity of the chess king and queen he painted earlier in Paris with their more familiar and domestic counterparts: an alluring “bride” and her frustrated “bachelors.” These sketches would result in his first fully realized new piece of art created since his Paris rejection: The Bride.


(The King and Queen Traversed by Swift Nudes (Sketch),  Duchamp, 1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art)


(The Bride (Sketch), Marcel Duchamp, 1912, Bilbao Fine Arts Museum)

The Bride is a 20th century prototype for a new world society: a dehumanized version of a human being; the manifestation of 20th century anxiety. The small canvas depicts an expanse of organic and mechanical structures that merge into one another to become a single body. Duchamp’s brushwork and strategic use of lighting give a sculptural weight to the forms, to the network of partial organs and clipped gears, that compose her. A chromatically limited palette further accentuates this unity and eases the transitions of the seemingly opposed orders of forms into a coherent whole. The contradictory tension between machine and flesh, and volume and design, gives The Bride an unresolved and disquiet quality. She is not (yet) fully machine, disassociated with her individuality and the human experience, but she is no longer wholly human either, affected by the anxieties and isolation of a rapidly changing world. This, I believe, marks the point, the existential moment, when Duchamp takes control of his life and addresses not just the anxiety he’d been experiencing in Paris, but that all people were experiencing in the modern world at this time. It is one of the last painted works by Duchamp before the advent of his readymades, (another example of existential manifestations), and it would become the basis for the upper register of his most ambitious piece, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), which he would begin in earnest once leaving Germany and Europe and emigrating to the United States and New York City in 1915 addressing man’s 20th century anxieties in as large and transparent a display that he could. 


(The Bride, Marcel Duchamp, 1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Duchamp described The Bride simply as a “juxtaposition of mechanical elements and visceral forms,” but this combination holds potent and historically contingent valences that suggest a deeper meaning. In 1914 while still in Europe, one year before fully engaging The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), Duchamp read Franz Kafka’s The Trial. The story is a tragic quest-narrative in which a man accused of a crime he is never told about and has no recollection of ever committing is sentenced to death. It is a parable of how Kafka perceived the cold, inhumane rationality of 20th century society. Kafka questions justice, law, ethics, resistance, and subjectivity all to no avail. The novel is viewed, hopelessly, as society’s responding to a context of rapid modernization, and the most mundane challenges of everyday life. 

Five years later in 1919, now in New York City and working on The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), he would discover another of Kafka’s works, In the Penal Colony, and the two stories would have an overwhelming impact on him. In In the Penal Colony Kafka writes of a society dominated by an elaborate execution machine known as the “Harrow.” Under an inscrutable and irrational justice system, characteristic of Kafka’s fiction, those condemned to die in the machine are neither informed of their charges nor are they presumed to be anything but guilty. Duchamp had been quoted as saying this book about dehumanization and dystopian societies, common themes in Kafka’s writing, had a profound effect on him. His bride and her bachelors are a manifestation of this isolation, dehumanization, and dystopian 20th century anxiety … and yet she, his bride, is still ‘soft’ and anthropomorphic. While acknowledging and addressing it, Duchamp hadn’t resolved to give in to Kafka’s mindset completely. It would take years and an unfortunate accident for him to come to a fully formed resolution concerning these anxieties facing early 20th century man.

When Duchamp returned to his home and studio outside Paris from Munich in the late summer of 1912, he did not go back to his old life. During the months that followed, he drew away from artists and colleagues, like Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, whose circle he previously worked in and took a job as a librarian in the city’s Latin Quarter. Further separating himself from his old surroundings, he exchanged his studio in Neuilly, where he had been close to his brothers’ house in Puteaux, for one in Paris. Later in life Duchamp would claim that his time spent in Munich had been “the scene of my total liberation.” No longer content with being the passenger in his life’s journey, he was now determined to be its driver.

In 1913, Duchamp began sketches of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). In doing so he would revisit many of his older subjects in the hopes of giving them new purpose. There are infinite explanations and interpretations of Duchamp’s masterpiece, and most all of them make valid and enduring points and arguments. It is for this reason that I choose to limit my essay’s thesis to the existential aspects of it and the process of its making so that I might add another dimension, a philosophical one, to the theories and understanding of it.   

(Bachelor Apparatus (Plan), Marcel Duchamp, 1913, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
(Bachelor Apparatus (Elevation), Marcel Duchamp, 1913, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Bachelor Apparatus (Plan) and Bachelor Apparatus (Elevation), both sketched in 1913, were drafted in Neuilly, before Duchamp took a new studio on the Rue Saint-Hippolyte in Paris, and are the earliest surviving sketches for The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). They are a testimony of the precise technical methods with which Duchamp approached his work.  The lower register of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), the bachelor’s domain, is illustrated in both these sketches.

Ten years in the making, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), would develop gradually from a series of sketches and studies and experimentation into what we know it as today. It was never a static piece of art. Like time and man himself, it was always going to grow and evolve. 

The bride’s section, the top half, holds two main elements: first, the bride herself on the left is itself the image taken from the painting Duchamp did years earlier in Munich; secondly, he presents an image that invokes a theme of universality –  the Bride’s “halo,” also referred to as the “milky way,” across the top center. Because this is made on sheets of large glass, it intentionally includes everyone and anyone who views it. They become a part of its story. Their existence is just as much a part of it as is the Bride’s or the Bachelors’. “The Large Glass” seems to contain both forms, ours and its, we, too, are a part of the experience: for all the recurrence, (eternal or otherwise), of seeming nonsense and contradiction and meaninglessness in life, there exists here a recognition of the absurdities of life and we are forced to face them, see through them, and assign meaning to them. 


(The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), Upper Register, Marcel Duchamp, 1915-23, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Because existentialism dictates that the universe is indifferent to the wants and needs of man, the concept of chance which often results in absurdity, is visibly inherent in this register of the piece. The three nearly square openings in the “milky way” reproduce images Duchamp obtained by photographing pieces of gauze hung in front of an open window, allowing them to be blown and stretched by the breeze; thus they bear the name “draft pistons,” the first of several testimonies to the role assigned to chance in The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). A second example of randomness, or chance, appears in the eight small marks or dots visible below the milky way on the right-hand side of the top section; their locations were obtained by shooting matchsticks dipped in paint out of a toy pistol; the ninth is less easily seen, inside the milky way. If, as existentialism dictates, there is no greater power directing the lives of man, then one must accept that chance and randomness are its result and learn to not give in to their indifference to us, to their isolating anxieties, and instead learn to take control of them. The bride is still in a state of “becoming.” Her state of “being” will be entirely of her own choosing.

When first seeing it in 1957, the artist Jasper Johns spent a long time in front of Duchamp’s masterpiece. He was struck by this nine-foot-high, multimedia enigma on two sheets of plate glass. The fact that “you could look at it and through it at the same time” fascinated him. “Many paintings try to place you somewhere else,” he was quoted as saying, “but The Large Glass doesn’t do that. It involves you with yourself and with the room you’re in, and it seems to require a kind of alertness on your part. It is very much in the present tense.” 

Knowingly or not, Johns had succinctly summarized existential thinking. 

The bachelor imagery is more complicated and less self-aware. While the bride is a concept derived from his earlier period of existential enlightenment, his bachelors seem to be more derivative of a less insightful society still striving to achieve for what it can’t attain. His bachelors all represent an aspect 20th century society: the priest, the delivery boy, the gendarme (armed guard), the cuirassier (soldier), the policeman, the undertaker, the flunky, the busboy, and the stationmaster. All of these men, in his own way, is frustrated and unsatisfied. Illustrating their own lack of individuality, Duchamp connects them all with rods that are connected to sieves that are suspended over a chocolate grinder – a symbol he employed frequently to represent (sexual) frustration – and displays them, not as individual men but as a collective mass. He constructs how they would fill with an “illuminating gas,” meant to denote a mode or release of male (sexual) energy that produced no satisfaction: their (ejaculatory) marks always missing the bride. Like Kafka’s Harrow in In the Penal Colony, their machine-like behavior would reinforce his themes of dehumanization and isolation further illustrating their lack of individuality and self-awareness. Their existence was, indeed, “harrowing”.


 (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), Lower  Register, Marcel Duchamp, 1915-23, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The piece’s only public showing at the time took place at the Brooklyn Museum in 1927. Although Duchamp never considered his work “done,” he had decided to leave it permanently unfinished and allowed it to be displayed. When it was being sent back to Duchamp’s friend and patron, Katherine Dreier, who had agreed to buy it six years earlier in 1921, the two plates broke in transport, and it was never sold. Its original owner-to-be, Walter Arensberg, had moved to California and felt it too far away to ship the delicate glass. Without a buyer, this accident would remain a misfortune few would know about for some years. Duchamp kept these shards and pieces of his life’s work crated up for a decade in his studio. 

It is easy to categorize Duchamp’s work at this point as simply an extension of the Dadaist Movement, a form of absurdist “non-art,” or  part of the emerging Surrealist Movement, a release of the creative potential of the unconscious mind. Duchamp’s art went deeper that this art. It had purpose; it had meaning; it had soul. The body of Duchamp’s art is the resolution to a life lived by his own choosing and without apology. It is the existential process come full circle. 

In 1913 Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) would show at the famous Armory Show in New York City. This time he was prepared for its reception, and despite the criticisms it received, the painting sold and made his name known. 

In 1917 Duchamp would enter a porcelain urinal in the Salon des Indépendant’s Exhibition in Paris and walk away the victor despite its not even being on display when the show opened. Applying the existential concepts he had on himself to this inanimate object, and having, over the years, become a more masterful chess player, he had set the board and was ready to play with the very institution that rejected him five years earlier. His Fountain, a urinal set on its side, had been given a new purpose, a new existence. He understood now that it was man’s burden and obligation to assign his own life meaning. Believing that a thing’s existence preceded its essence, Duchamp knew an inanimate object like a urinal was incapable of doing that. Thus, an inanimate object’s purpose is for whatever use man wants to give it. If man want to use a chair as a step-ladder, then that becomes its purpose. If man wants to use a stapler as a paperweight, then that becomes its purpose. And if man chooses to create a sculpture, a piece of art, to make an existential statement of a porcelain urinal, then that, too, is his choice and its purpose. 


(Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, 1950 (Replica of 1917 Original), Philadelphia Museum of Art)

By 1936 Duchamp had developed a thorough commitment to chance and accident giving his life over to unpredictability and developing a whole series of works around that theme. He finally reconstructed The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) after it lay in pieces so long in his studio; then he stood back, looked at it, and declared himself “delighted” and declared that his piece was finally complete. The 20th century thus far had survived several revolutions, a world war, new technologies and industrialization, and the stress and anxiety the world felt upon entering this new century, while not gone … a new world war and nuclear technology lie on the horizon …, Duchamp looked at the glass and was satisfied. 


(The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), Marcel Duchamp, 1915-23, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

People are not machines. 

They are not inhuman machinations lacking their own wills incapable of shaping their own destinies. 

People, while fragile, are capable of more than they realize, and although they may not be perfect, although they may fall and fracture, shatter and break … they do heal. And like his bride and her bachelors, all these years later, it is their scars, their lines, their cracks and imperfections that show their humanity and a life having been lived. 

In 1942 Camus would write The Stranger; in 1943 Sartre would publish Being and Nothingness; in 1949 deBeauvoir would finish The Second Sex, and of course, Gabriel Marcel will have already coined the term “existentialism” that this new generation of philosopher would be attached to. 

Duchamp had already figured it out on his own.


When asked once for his opinion about the various analyses that had been suggested for the Large Glass, Duchamp responded that “each writer gives his particular note to his interpretation, which is interesting,” he added, “but only interesting when you consider the man who wrote the interpretation.”

  Richard Di Via



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