elements—diagonal composition, the variations in shape, and the slight
changes made to the pure geometric forms—to give visual interest.
Malevich called his abstract style suprematism, which he believed was the
highest, purest way to express artistic feeling. It is easy for students to
dismiss paintings like Malevich’s with offhand remarks like, “I can do that,”
but it is worth remembering that this was a daring, completely
unprecedented way of working in 1913. Malevich felt strongly about the
profound ideals in his painting. He was even imprisoned after the Russian
Revolution by Soviet authorities who found his work threatening (the
accepted style in Russia at the time was an artistically conservative socialist
realism).
DADA
A much different approach to art—but one that is as daring and profound
as pure abstraction—is found in the dada movement. This movement,
which began in Zürich in 1916, celebrated absurdity, a reaction to the
absurdity the dadaists saw in World War I. Dada artists, like Marcel
Duchamp, juxtaposed objects and words to inspire free associations, and
they welcomed chance occurrences. Many of these works questioned the
very nature of art itself.
Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)
is a window—a reference to the idea in Western art that painting is like a
window through which we see another reality. In Duchamp’s work,
however, we only see the objects on the other side of the glass, perhaps
other works in the museum or other people looking at this piece from the
other side. The forms on the glass look like machinery, but the title, and
Duchamp’s own writings, suggest that they are charged with sexual tension.
Chance plays an important role in this piece: the beautiful gradations of
tone on the conical shapes on the lower half are made by dust falling on varnish, and the cracks in the glass
occurred accidentally after the piece was finished, but they were considered part of the work by Duchamp
himself.
Click to learn more about how the Large Glass was made and some of its meanings.
Some of Duchamp’s most challenging pieces are simply utilitarian objects
that he set on pedestals and placed on display. Although these
readymades, as he called them, were produced in factories, Duchamp
would sometimes add elements to them. A famous example is called
Fountain. The piece is a urinal turned upward so that it cannot possibly
serve its real purpose. Duchamp “signed” and dated the work, “R. Mutt
1917” —a joke that plays on the names of the manufacturer (Mott) and the
character from the Mutt and Jeff cartoon. Duchamp surely wanted to
shock, but he also wanted to make us think:
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