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  • Hooman Razavi

The Art Of The Possible: Marcel Duchamp (2019)

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

By: Hooman Razavi


Documentaries bring to life aspect of reality that is worth the exploration from the artist’s perspective, and at the same time suited for the general and more astute audience. In this genre, biographical documentaries serve that goal more pointedly by making a life of a well-known social character visible and comment on the legacy left behind by this individual. Marcel Duchamp, in not unknown to the world of art and even cinema, but the general audience can finally get a chance to see slices of his life, Avant-grade nature of his aesthetic thoughts and influence on a generation of artists. Mathew Taylor in one of his earliest documentaries created that venue to present the life of one of the most celebrated and influential 20st century artists.

Marcel Duchamp

Matthew Taylor, the director of this film, comes from a rich background. He explored filmmaking, sculpture, photography, and studied urban planning and data analysis too. This unique course of professional life and understanding the interconnected nature of knowledge are seen in the assemblage of shots and the whole documentary. The number of interviews with well-known artists, music, real footage of Duchamp's life, and strong editing has made the viewers follow not only the trajectory of his life but how his conceptual contribution to art and art history has been significant. In the film, one can see Marcel in different phases of his life and influence by the artistic movements of those periods; these footages are superimposed with his significant works of art belonging to that era- Urinal (1917). As a result, the viewer can understand the context and the dynamic of his evolving thought process. Moreover, by providing needed information on the family background of Duchamp, his extensive traveling and influence of Berlin and America on his thought, the viewer can easily understand his life journey, artistic trajectory, personal life challenges and his enduring impact of the artists in the U.S and around the world.

Art & Nature of Art

Interestingly, as much as the documentary is on the celebrated and rich life of Marcel Duchamp, it is on the nature of art and what it means to be an artist. The dialogues and visuals make the viewers understand the complexity of this concept and its different aesthetic manifestation vis-à-vis the work of him. In various times, the viewer may be conflicted as to what he may perceive to be an art. The director clearly makes his intention clear that this question is not settled even by the protagonist who seems too iconoclastic. Interestingly, this notion of what constitutes art is very well tied and narrated to how art is so entwined with other human endeavors such as science, chance, and role of the audience in the act of art creation. The magic of art including the film is that it is self-reflexive, and it makes us think about the language of art and the forms of artistic expression and thinking such as conceptual art.


As a biographical documentary, the film is a success to present us with the character’s rich and eventful life. Also, it is quite apt through editing and narration to present his main body of works. The viewer clearly understands the significant role that paintings as Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), Bicycle Wheel (1913), Fountain (1917), 3 Standard Stoppage (1914), Etant donne (1946-1966) have had on artistic elites, movements and conception of what art is and ideas behind the nature of art. Interestingly, the film provides a more conceptual background of these aspects, that may sound too technical for the viewer. For instance, the idea that dimensionality was seen very differently by him and other avant-garde painters and how the discovery of non-Euclidian geometry changed artists' perceptions are well infused in the dialogues and context of the interviews. The takeaway from this part is those documentaries as much as they are subjective works of art by their creators, but they can reflect reality and educate the audience on complex topics as modernism, conceptual art, and their genesis.

The other aspect that is well explored is how he came up with the idea that art is not sacred, and the old conventional of forms, perspectives, and colors are all questionable. In this context, the viewer easily associates his earlier failures and rejection of his work in 1912, notes as signs of his intellectual maturity and expression, a trip to Berlin, the ascendency of science, and meetings with likes of Einstein to be the contributor to his avant-gardism. In the absence of these backgrounds, which are vital in documentary making, one cannot understand why chance-based art, participatory art, and performance art fields could emerge and be accepted among generations of new artists. In a sense, this documentary has a subtle message to the young artists that as Marcel broke many conventions, rejected and exiled, this can be done by you and through your art as well. One can view that as advocating artistic relativism and anything can constitute art, but the deeper message is that art is not only inspired and created but it can be radically redefined by artists, irrespective of the social and artistic norms and existing conceptual heritage.

The other open questions and food for thought left by the film is as discussed in relation to the nature of art, and the role of the artist. In one sense, a viewer from a science background can be taken back by Duchamp openness to blend art and science, thereby delimiting both; on the other hand, a philosopher of art can question if a replica of a work of art the same aesthetic quality as has the original as Marcel questioned. Additionally, the more significant question is what takes priority, an idea of art, or the object of art created by the artist. Once again, the documentary, though providing some leads but it makes the viewer to think about these fundamental questions and even compel one to create a work of art with a shovel. This explicit support for unorthodox openness to art creation is a good signal to young artists who are now living in the age of digital and coronavirus inflicted world. They are open now to create arts that inspire, vex, and push the boundaries formally, conceptually, and operationally.

The last point one can make of the documentary is the valorization of certain geographies and thinking about if in the other context, they can universally be the harbinger of artistic movements. It is true that Marcel was born in France, moved to Paris in the early years of the 20th century, and was part of the generation experimenting and challenging traditions painting. However, his trip to America, as narrated in the film, and as shown to be such influence on his career, intellectual contribution and celebrity status among world artists, attest to the fact that America is unique in harboring the freedom of expression and environment that avant-garde movements as conceptual art can thrive and spread to other countries. These are not questionable facts, but one can think if the art of possible or impossible, and likes of Marcel can rise from Iran, China, India, Egypt, Sudan, Argentina, and other artistic corners. If peripheries, due to their unique distance from mainstream artistic centers are places with potentials for artistic innovations, can other places not visible in the documentary raise such artists. The hint to this fundamental question is that digital and conceptual art, may have no boundaries and digital technology/AI-inspired Art, interconnection among world artists and limitless capacity of human ingenuity can lay the ground for these emergencies.

Final Words

The film as directed by Mattew Taylor heavily focuses on the life achievements of Marcel Duchamp. In the course of the film, his failures and critiques, life supporters and inspired friends and movements are depicted in a decent manner. The audience can see how this background and his many classic works as Fountain (1917) is still relevant as pieces of art that can inspire thinking on what art means, who can create it, whether materiality matters and what role audience play in conceptualizing and understanding the work of art. His ideas as much as it has led to new artistic movements such as body art, participatory art, and art grounded on freedom and individuality, is so much poignant and important today as it can make artists think deeper on the dialectical and complementary relations that art has with new technologies, media mediums, sciences and our sense of meaning-making as human subjects in the 21st century.



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