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Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 (1912): Duchamp’s Stirring Piece

Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 is a Modernist masterpiece that incorporates elements Cubism and Futurism to deal with the subject of depicting movement. In this article, Singulart discusses the intricacies of this masterpiece in the context of Duchamp’s life and work.

Who was Marcel Duchamp? 

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was born in Blainville, Normandy in a family where all his siblings also became artists. From 1904-1905 he studied at the Académie Julian and his early paintings were influenced by MatisseFauvism and Post-Impressionism. In 1911, he developed his own style of Cubism, which was equally Futurist in its inspirations and characterized by his 1912 work, Nude Descending a Staircase. From 1913, Duchamp rejected what he described as “retinal” art and began to make “readymades”. The readymades were appropriated everyday objects, which Duchamp used to question the notion of art and to remove the notions of adoration and attraction surrounding art which he found unnecessary. His first readymade was the 1913 version of Bicycle Wheelin which he mounted a wheel on a wooden stool. Another of his most famous readymades was Fountainwhich was made up of a urinal signed R. Mutt. Duchamp’s readymades had a huge influence on the conventional understanding of art and paved the way for many other revolutionary artists to follow. 

Fountain
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917)

After the outbreak of World War I, most of Duchamp’s friends left Paris to serve at the Front, however Duchamp, who was exempt from service due to a heart murmur, decided to emigrate to America. After the success of Nude Descending a Staircase, Duchamp was able to finance the move himself and was met with relative fame upon his arrival in New York. During this time, along with artist Francis Picabia, he was part of the New York Dada group and developed his ideas around “anti-art” and kinetic art that he had already begun with the readymades. 

Duchamp also worked under pseudonyms, such as Rrose Sélavy, which he used in addition to his readymades to question the romanticization of the artist figure. He was also interested in music and made several aleatoric compositions which influenced the work of John Cage in the 1950’s. From 1918, Duchamp largely stopped producing art and began to play chess. He traveled to Buenos Aires to play before continuing to live between Paris and New York, staying more permanently in Greenwich Village from 1942. During this period, he was more of a consultant to artists, dealers and collectors. He died in 1968 at his home in Neuilly-sur-Seine in France.

What’s happening in Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2?

Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 is a Modernist masterpiece by Marcel Duchamp that treads the line between Cubism and Futurism. It was rejected from the 1912 Salon des Independants in Paris by the Cubists for being too Futurist and was met with much criticism at the 1913 Armory Show in New York. 

Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 is a painting in oil on a 147 x 89.2cm canvas which depicts a nude figure in movement, supposedly descending a staircase. The figure is fragmented and made up of abstract, geometrical parts, which fuse together to depict the stages of movement. In the background, we see the staircase depicted in darker colors. At the bottom of the composition, Duchamp indicated the title in french: “Nu descendant un escalier”. 

The color scheme is dominated by tones of brown and beige, placing the focus on the movement depicted in the composition. This sense of movement is achieved by superimposing images, inspired by stroboscopic motion photography and the work of photographers studying movement in the late 19th century, such as Eadweard Muybridge. 

Depicting movement was a key preoccupation for many artists in the early 20th century, particularly the Cubists and the Futurists. Duchamp’s attempt in Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 caused quite the stir, in part due to the original subject matter of a nude descending a staircase which combined the provocative subjects of nudity and movement. Another reason was also Duchamp’s suggestion of depicting movement that transcends the purely physical to include the emotional and social. He often worked with the theme of passages of time, with the transition of virgin to bride appearing in many of his works. Consequently, Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 is one of Duchamp’s most remarkable and renowned paintings.