Paris Celebrates: A New Art Center and the Brothers Duchamp


by Francis Steegmuller

The new Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou in Paris, inaugurated this past winter, was built to house four institutions: the Musée National d’Art Moderne; the first large public library in Paris permitting free access to books (its goal is a million volumes); an Industrial Design Center; and, underground, the “Acoustic/Music Research and Coordination Institute,” to be directed by Pierre Boulez.

Set in the heart of one of the city’s oldest quarters, known as the Plateau Beaubourg (on the Right Bank, behind the Hotel de Ville), the center produces an architectural shock. What seem at first glance to be its exterior walls are really an extramural forest of six-story vertical pipes and ducts, painted brilliant blue, red, yellow, green; and these are cut across by great tubular diagonals resembling gigantic caterpillars on an upward crawl. The bright verticals are the conduits for the building’s heating, cooling, ventilating, electricity, and telephone, brought out by the architects from conventional concealment inside interior walls to form a display. (There are no interior walls in this building: each floor is a vast open space, to be divided as the occupants wish by movable partitions.) And the caterpillars are escalators. This weird tubular ensemble, praised by many as “an architectural expression of our time,” is commonly referred to by Parisian non-avant-gardists as “The Gas Factory,” or “The Refinery.”

To celebrate the inauguration of the floors occupied by the Musée National d’Art Moderne, the French government bought, for a high price, the last available major Cubist painting by the artist Jacques Villon (born Gaston Duchamp in 1875)—Soldats en Marche (1913). The museum assembled the sculpture of Villon’s younger brother, Raymond Duchamp-Villon. And it featured the first true retrospective show ever held in Paris of the youngest Duchamp brother—Marcel. It was a Brothers Duchamp triumph.

When Gaston Duchamp left his native Normandy for Paris at nineteen and began to sell humorous drawings to newspapers, he took a pseudonym partly in deference to his fond but bourgeois notary father, who preferred there be no overt family connection with bohemian Montmartre. Gaston chose “Jacques” because he liked Daudet’s novel Jack, and “Villon” because of what he later called “une incontestable parente spirituelle” between himself and the poet Frangois Villon.

When Raymond Duchamp became a sculptor, paternal reluctance weakened, and there was a compromise: Raymond signed his works Duchamp-Villon. (He died in 1918 from the effects of typhoid caught at the front.)

Marcel never called himself anything but Marcel Duchamp.

All three brothers made their American debuts in 1913, at the first large American exhibition of twentieth-century European art, held in the 69th Regiment Armory at Lexington Avenue and 25th Street, New York, and known in art history as “The Armory Show.”

Sixty-two years later, in 1975, Jacques Villon’s first American retrospective, organized by Daniel Robbins to celebrate Villon’s centenary in cooperation with the French National Museums, hung in the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge.

New York, self-styled New Capital of the International Art World, exiled the Villon retrospective to the Neuberger Museum in suburban Purchase. The Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street owns many of Villon’s prints (he was a master etcher, as well as painter), and displayed them all as its own celebration of Villon’s centenary. The Art Institute in Chicago did the same. MOMA has apparently never bought any of Villon’s oils: these have become expensive, and MOMA has borrowed them for loan shows, is soliciting them as gifts, and waiting for bequests.

The best known of Raymond Duchamp’s sculptures, his bronze Horse, is a familiar sight in MOMA’s garden, and other examples stand in the sculpture galleries.

And Marcel, who began as a competent conventional painter? “Le génie du siecle, ” some now call him. Others, “Le Grand mystificateur, ” or “Prankster Triumphant.”

Before World War I the three brothers saw each other continually, and worked together, in the adjoining houses Villon and Raymond had rented in the Paris suburb of Puteaux (and where one continued to see Villon, surrounded by objects often found in his paintings, until his death in 1963). Those modest, almost rural houses have now disappeared, their places taken by skyscrapers.

Such were the three brothers whose work was celebrated at the inauguration of the Centre Georges Pompidou. But Marcel Duchamp was, and will remain, at the center in another guise as well.

The building’s architects were an Italian, Renzo Piano, and an Englishman, Richard Rogers. Its art director, K. G. Pontus Hulten, is a Swede. All are members of what might be called The International Marcel Duchamp Admiration Society. In its overall aspect, the Centre Culturel is a Duchamp. Those of us who knew Marcel remember the double sound he used to make —a “Hmm?” and then a chuckle on a similarly rising note—when he invited us to share something funny. Wherever he may be (he died in 1968), one suspects that he may be uttering that invitation as he contemplates his Parisian apotheosis.

That laughter of Marcel’s echoes down from the very early years of this century.

Jacques Villon was one of the last painters of consequence to work in the classic, humanist tradition as it can now be seen to have renewed itself through Impressionism and Cubism. Although personally he was, like both his brothers, delightfully humorous, his work is always intense and cerebral, whether in the black and white of his etchings, in the generally sober tones of his Cubist canvases, or in the brilliant colors he used in his later work, much of which celebrates the fields of France. His landscapes, portraits, and still fifes attain a nobility which reflects that of their creator. Duchamp-Villon’s sculptures are similarly powerful: compact with energy, static dynamos. It was not easy for these men and their colleagues to win respect for their Cubist works in the early 1900s: public and critics jeered.

Although the three brothers would always remain on closely affectionate terms, Villon and Duchamp-Villon joined their fellow Cubists in asking Marcel to remove his Futurist Nude Descending a Staircase from the Salon des Independents in 1912 because they knew that the title, given as it was to a series of jagged, non-human, downward-moving planes, would cause the picture to be tagged as a joke against Cubism—an “admission” by a Cubist that Cubism was a joke and little more. (Cubism, which stressed the simultaneous vision of different surfaces, and Futurism, which features movement, were lumped together by the public— and by critics—in those days.)

Marcel’s reaction was his version of his more talented brothers’ independence as artists: he gleefully assumed the role of “anti-artist” in which he pretended they had cast him, and moved to New York. There, at first as a member of his own group—the precursor of Surrealism known as Dada— along with Picabia and Man Ray, and later alone, he reiterated his “joke” in one medium or another—paint, metal, glass, “ready-mades”—for the rest of his fife. The humor was sometimes bald: he proposed a urinal as his exhibit for one of the New York Independents’ shows in the 1920s; and in his last years he produced an exquisitely modeled coffee-table ornament called “Coin de Chasteti” (coin in the sense of “wedge”) — a hollow model of a female zone, with meticulously fitting removable metal insert.

Marcel Duchamp was a soft-spoken, utterly charming, sardonic man —his face as recognizable as Garbo’s and with the same ascetic planes. It was quite without self-advertisement that he became the hero of New York’s post-World War II “Art World,” the world of the Abstract Expressionists and Pop artists. He regarded with some amusement the homage these retardataire worshippers paid him in their works, never hesitating to point out that Abstract Expressionism was “just a kind of ‘second wind’ of Kandinsky, Mondrian, and perhaps Kupka around 1910,” and that Pop art was “a second wind of Dada.” He never ceased to admire and promote the work of his brothers: shortly before Jacques Villon’s death he called him “one of the very best painters today,” and a few years later he presided in Paris at the unveiling of a heroic-sized cast of Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s famous Horse. He appreciated the irony of the fact that in the United States each of them, when mentioned, often had to be identified as “Marcel Duchamp’s brother.”

In France, the cult of Marcel—the Marcel Wave, so to speak—began later, after his death and following the “Glorious May” students’ revolution of 1968. By that time, New York had “captured world leadership in the arts”—to use a phrase favored by an art critic of the New York Times but whose meaning remains elusive—and Paris could only try to recapture it by going us one better.

It has gone so far that the entire Centre Pompidou evokes Marcel Duchamp. The center’s painted pipes and tubes, repeatedly flaring and narrowing, and crossed by the snakelike carapaces of the escalators, reproduce, on a gigantic scale, the tubular forms seen in Marcel’s canvases with joke names: The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes-, The Passage from Virgin to Bride; The Bride. The “ceilings” of the center’s six vast floors—veritable overhead railway-yards of iron stretchers—would doubtless remind Marcel of the 25th Street Armory where the Nude Descending a Staircase was dubbed by an American newspaperman as an “Explosion in a Shingle Factory.”

A lover of accidents (he was delighted when his large glass panel, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, was shattered after being exhibited in Brooklyn), he would have relished several Dada contretemps on opening night last January. The reluctance, until the last minute, of any of the fights to come on in the very section containing his great retrospective. The sight of the procession of inauguration notables—the Giscard d’Estaings, the king and queen of the Belgians, Grace Kelly, and several African heads of state among them—descending an escalator which promptly reversed itself and brought them all back up again because they had been put on the wrong one. No wonder: the center’s system of escalators is itself as hallucinatory as Duchamp Dada.

Particularly, Marcel would have enjoyed the center’s nuances of solemnity, even sanctimoniousness. Like the reverent reconstruction, in one corner of the surrounding “piazza,” of what one is told is Brancusi’s studio—but, without Brancusi, a mere unsightly shed — carefully transported here as though it were the Holy Sepulchre, and now, it is said, destined to house what the avantgarde has long elevated to a sacred art form: a circus.

And, above all, the sixteenth-century church of Saint-Merri. Much was made, in the advance publicity for the center, of the fortunate proximity of this late-Gothic beauty at the far end of the “piazza”: we were told of the “harmony,” achieved by “artful intervening space,” of the fine stone tracery of the church and the center’s new blue, red, green, and yellow tubes. What was not said was that the portion of SaintMerri seen chiefly from the tubes is the apse. The tawny old church is turning its very prominent, very protruding, flying-buttressed posterior on the biggest, gaudiest Duchamp in the world. We can hear Marcel’s laughter as he listens to what it is saying.

Meanwhile, the worksof Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon serenely hang and stand in the new museum.