Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Marcel Duchamp gave up painting to play chess and we can’t help but feel that the world lost a champion of Simple Reality because he had such profound insights into the insanity of P-B. Robert Hughes gives us a masterful interpretation of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (or The Large Glass) 1915-1923, oil and lead wire on glass which can be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The painting is of a machine and the purpose is clearly to question the efficacy of the intellect and more specifically, science. Duchamp realized that “if an engineer were to use it as a blueprint he would be in deep trouble since, from the viewpoint of technical systems, it is simply absurd: a highbrow version of popular ‘impossible machines’ that were being drawn, at the time by Rube Goldberg.”
Duchamp left notes that indicate his purpose in painting Glass and what it meant to him. “For instance, he talked about the machine in the Glass running on a mythical fuel of his own invention called ‘Love gasoline,’ which passed through ‘filters’ into ‘feeble cylinders’ and activated a ‘desire motor’—none of which would have made much sense to Henry Ford.” Duchamp could perhaps see that if humanity was putting all of its eggs into the “technology basket” we were going to be disappointed and indeed in “deep trouble.”
“In the top half of the Glass, the naked Bride perpetually disrobes herself; in the bottom section, the poor little Bachelors, depicted as empty jackets and uniforms, are just as perpetually grinding away, signaling their frustration to the girl above them. It is a sardonic parody of the eternally fixed desire Keats described in his Ode on a Grecian Urn:
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”
The illusion of technological solutions is joined by the illusion of romantic love and sentimentality. Seeking love and affection, we imagine the mirage that pleases the senses and attribute to it qualities that it does not have. Thus, we are seduced by the false self and create significant suffering, that we are loath to admit, and which will never produce the happiness we seek.
In addition to the illusions inherent in technology and romantic love, Hughes sees Freud’s sex drive also contained in the Glass. (Freud had written The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900.) As Freud described it: “The imposing mechanism of the male sexual apparatus lends itself to symbolization by every sort of indescribably complicated machinery.”
Hughes continues his interpretation: “The Bachelors are mere uniforms, like marionettes. According to Duchamp’s notes, they try to indicate their desire to the Bride by concertedly making the Chocolate Grinder turn, so that it grinds out an imaginary milky stuff like semen. This squirts up through the rings, but cannot get into the Bride’s half of the Glass because of the prophylactic bar that separates the panes. And so the Bride is condemned always to tease, while the Bachelor’s fate is endless masturbation.” The disappointment inherent in the pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power in P-B is again revealed by an insightful artist.
Marcel Duchamp began The Large Glass soon after the First World War had begun and almost as if he had predicted it. The “benevolent machine,” the technology so full of promise for humanity, became the “malevolent machine” and wreaked havoc with a vengeance. We still seek a way out of the madness of P-B, but few believe that we will be delivered into a realm of peace and happiness by the latest technological discovery. “In one sense The Large Glass is a glimpse into Hell, peculiarly modernist Hell of repetition and loneliness.” That might have been the warning that Marcel Duchamp had in mind when he painted Large Glass.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.