5 Reasons Why Duchamp Rules and Picasso Drools

Kylie Holloway

Kylie Holloway
Tour Guide

If we went into an art gallery and asked guests to choose between Picasso’s The Dreamer and Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, chances are the polls would favor Picasso. His work is digestible, aesthetically pleasing, and familiar.

Duchamp’s work, especially readymades like Bicycle Wheel and Fountain on the other hand, can be a little more difficult to wrap your mind around and tend to prompt feelings of confusion instead of reverence. These artists were two of the biggest influences on art in the last century, and the Duchamp vs. Picasso debate has inspired and infuriated art critics and laymen alike.

Welcome to the art history thunderdome.

Bicycle Wheel, Marcel Duchamp, 1913
The Dreamer, Pablo Picasso, 1932

The dispute over the two artists is deeply rooted in our conceptions of the birth of modern art. Picasso’s evolving style generated new forms and artistic movements, but Duchamp challenged the basic idea of what art could be. The artistic divide between the men is encapsulated in these quotes:

“If only we could pull out our brain and use only our eyes.” – Pablo Picasso

“I was interested in ideas, not in visual products. I wanted to put painting again in the service of the mind.” – Marcel Duchamp

There you have it. Aesthetics vs. Philosophy. Feelings vs. Thoughts. Eyes vs. Brain.

The men were, supposedly, indifferent to each other in their lifetimes. There is very little surviving commentary on each other’s work. However, when Duchamp died in 1968 and Picasso was given the news, all Pablo said was, “He was wrong.” Picasso was ice-cold.

This debate is nearly a century old, and it’s about damn time to wrap it up. Museum Hack is weighing in kids, so buckle up.

Duchamp > Picasso, and here are five reasons why.

Duchamp Outsmarted Nazis

Both men were living in Paris when World War II began. In June of 1940, Duchamp was in the fifth year of a six-year project, assembling miniature reproductions of his previous work. He called the project Boîte en-Valise (Box in Suitcase, pictured below). When the German tanks rolled into Paris, Duchamp hightailed it out of there, packing up his project and posing as a cheese merchant to sneak past Nazi checkpoints.

Boîte en-Valise, Marcel Duchamp, 1935-41

Picasso was super weird about the whole Fascist invader thing. Despite numerous offers of asylum from the U.S. and England, he elected, instead, to hang out in Paris during the occupation.  To this day, scholars have no idea why Picasso decided to remain under Nazi occupation, even though his girlfriend Dora Maar might have been of Jewish descent and was definitely part of a leftist resistance group. All we do know is that conning Nazis is way doper than selling paintings to them.

Darlings, Duchamp Killed It In Drag!

In the 1910’s, Duchamp took a look around the pre-Surrealist art world and thought it wasn’t nearly sexy enough. He said eroticism is “the basis of everything and no one talks about it.” And when Duchamp saw a problem, he fixed it. He debuted his alter ego, Rrose Sélavy (which sounds like “eros, c’est la vie,” or “physical love is life”) in 1920, posing in drag for portraits with Man Ray, and referencing his alter ego in his sculptures.

Portrait of Rrose Sélavy, Man Ray, 1920

Duchamp’s piece Why Not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy (pictured below), is a statement on the societal limitations placed on sexual pleasure. Duchamp was all about challenging our preconceived notions of not only art, but identity and self-representation. His body of work as Rrose Sélavy is a delicious treat of androgyny and gender exploration.

Why Not Sneeze Rose Slavy? 1921, replica 1964 Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968 Purchased 1999 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07508

Picasso, on the other hand, was pretty icky when it came to women. His attitude towards ladies can really be summed up in one quote: “Women are machines for suffering, for me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.” He said this to his 21 year old mistress Françoise Gilot when he was 61. Gross.

Just to be clear:

Duchamp, the gender-bending queen: 1

Picasso, the dirty misogynist: 0.

Duchamp was a New Yorker

In the interwar period, Duchamp started moving away from creating his readymades and got really in to one of his hobbies: chess. When World War II broke out, Duchamp packed up his suitcase, put on his best cheese-monger disguise, and hightailed it to the U.S. where he would spend the rest of his life playing chess in Washington Square Park. We’re a sucker for a hometown hero at Museum Hack, and we love how Duchamp embraced NYC. When asked about his move to the city, he said, “In my case, anyway, I’ve found in America a little better acceptance of my right to breathe.” In other words, Duchamp could let his freak flag fly in New York, so he decided to call it home.

Duchamp got drunk and started his own country

Duchamp stayed in NYC during the fighting (he wasn’t allowed to fight because of a heart condition). He spent his time producing readymades, working on his chess game, and drinking with like-minded artists in Greenwich Village. On a cold night in January 1917, Duchamp, poet Gertrude Drick, painter John Sloan, and a few other Bohemians, decided they wanted to stage an act of rebellion against the Gilded Age capitalist haven that was turn-of-the-century NYC. They decided to take over the Washington Square Arch. The group grabbed some champagne, balloons, and picnic supplies, entered the Arch through the side door (which still exists today, although it’s now locked), and set up camp at the top of the arch. From there, they released balloons, fired off cap pistols, and drafted a formal document establishing the Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square.

The name of this group of rebels? The Arch Conspirators. Because nothing says league of badass secessionists like a good pun.

Duchamp’s impact

As we mentioned at the top of this piece, Picasso and Duchamp were two of the biggest artistic forces of the 20th century. They both challenged previous notions of what art could be and shaped artistic thought for thousands of painters and sculptors who followed. It is because of this influence that their legacies are so frequently pitted against one another. So who wins? Who was the greater force in shaping art today?

Well, we think its the guy who did more than just create a new genre of art, but who changed the world’s notions of what art could be and challenged the possibilities of art. One of Duchamp’s most famous readymades was called Trap, which was a coat rack that he put in the corner of an art gallery. None of the gallery attendees noticed it was art, and Duchamp was like, “Ah Ha!” For Duchamp, art wasn’t about technical skill, although he had plenty of that; it was about the act of choosing what to portray. Duchamp used art to encourage individual thought – what a concept!

You don’t have to take our word for it, however; you can take Picasso’s. In the 1970s, Picasso noted to his biographer, John Richardson, that he was appalled by the growing number of artists who were inspired by Duchamp- Warhol, Basquiat, Pollock, to name a few. Poet Octavio Paz wrote that both artists had the greatest influence on art in the 20th century- Picasso with his body of work, and Duchamp with one single piece of art. So in summary: one urinal labelled “Fountain” had a greater impact on art history that a thousand portraits with the eyes where the mouth should be. Boom.

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