Vol. 8 Duchamp and Japanese Art
Is there any connection between Japanese art and that of modern art pioneer, Marcel Duchamp?
I have to say, I was somewhat surprised when I heard that the Tokyo National Museum would be holding an exhibition of Marcel Duchamp’s work. After all, what possible business could a museum specialising in Japanese antiquities have with Western modern art? And of all people, with Marcel Duchamp, the revolutionary conceptual artist who turned the entire notion of fine arts on its head!
It turns out that the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which holds many of Duchamp’s major works, was planning a touring exhibition of these works through the Asia-Pacific region to commemorate the 50 years since the artist’s death. Having previously dealt with the Tokyo National Museum, it seems that this became the Philadelphia museum’s venue of choice.
However, since a straightforward Duchamp exhibition would be out of keeping with the usual offerings of the Tokyo National Museum, the museum resolved to combine Duchamp’s works with an exhibition of Japanese art as well – and so avoid the appearance of being merely a hired venue.
So, who was Marcel Duchamp?
According to a survey of more than 500 people from the British art world, Duchamp was the creator of the 20th century’s most influential and shocking work of art. This work, Fountain, beat out works such as Picasso’s Guernicaor Les Demoiselles d’Avignonfor this ‘honour’.
This Fountain(in actual fact a common urinal) was an ordinary, mass-produced object signed with the alias, ‘R. Mutt’. Why would this be considered the most influential work of the 20th century?
Fountain was first exhibited in 1917 at the Society of Independent Artists salon in New York. Well, that was the intention, but it was actually rejected before the exhibition opened. So how did Fountain come to be rejected by a forward-thinking society that had stated they would accept any work of art, so long as the artist paid the application fee?
There could have been any number of reasons, such as the ‘impropriety’ of displaying a urinal; or that it would sully the exhibition, or that it was just an object purchased in a store, mass-produced and not an original piece made by the artist’s own hands.
Duchamp and his supporters argued vehemently against this last point. An anonymous editorial attributed to artist, Beatrice Wood, held that ‘whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object’.
By placing it in a gallery, the artist changed the meaning of this everyday object and Fountaincame to be considered a work of art. Duchamp called such pieces ‘ready-mades’. These days we are so accustomed to seeing ordinary objects displayed as art that the Society’s objections may see rather odd. However, the mere fact that the use of ready-made items in art now seems so commonplace is a testament to the extent of Duchamp’s influence.
In ‘post-Duchamp’ modern art, the merits of a work would come to be judged not by the eyes, but by the intellect. That is to say, the concept behind a work would become more important than the aesthetics.
The exhibition is divided into two sections: Part One, The Essential Duchamp, and Part Two, Rediscovering Japan through Duchamp. The first part contains works ranging from Duchamp’s early oil paintings to his ready-mades, such as Fountainand The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even(also known as The Large Glass). Important archival and documentary items from the Philadelphia Museum of Art are also on display.
This is certainly a great collection of Duchamp’s masterpieces. However, the ‘original’ ready-mades have been lost, so the items on display are replicas. Similarly, the Large Glass on display is the ‘Tokyo version’, a 1980 made-in-Japan replica of the 1915–1923 original. All this does seem rather fitting though, considering that Duchamp spurned the idea that art should be created by the artist’s own hands.
The interesting works here are his early oil paintings. They seem to gallop through the history of modern painting, from the Impressionist-style works of his teens to works he created in the style of Cézanne and the Cubists, and culminating in his Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2). In this work Duchamp sought to capture the motion of the human body, much like a series of images captured by high speed stroboscopic photography. Duchamp’s experiment to capture movement against a static background was challenging, but was also where he came up against the limitations of painting and subsequently abandoned the medium. This is where his ready-made objects came in, signalling a shift from the creation of art for visual amusement to the creation of art as an intellectual game.
Part Two of the exhibition is completely different. Here, Japanese art is related to the work of Duchamp.
For example, Flower Vase with Side Opening, Known as ‘Onjoji’, attributed to Sen no Rikyū is compared to Duchamp’s Fountain. This ‘vase’ is simply a length of bamboo with a section cut out of it without any special aesthetic value, but Sen no Rikyū’s idea of using it as a vase is apparently similar to Duchamp’s concept of ready-mades.
Shuten-doji no Emaki, a scroll painting attributed to Takanobu Kanō, is compared with Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2). In a scroll, the narrative progresses from right to left and the same characters appear several times within the same piece. This composition technique, which depicts events that occur at different times within the same picture, is called iji-dōzu. In order to show movement through time, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2)depicts the human body repeatedly at different moments in time. The exhibition likens this to the concept of iji-dōzu, or ‘different times, same picture’.
In another exhibit, the image, Dragon, copies of which were painted by both Tawaraya Sōtatsu and Kano Tan’yu, is related to Duchamp’s Box in a Valise. Duchamp’s work is a portable, miniature fold-out museum, one of many that he made, containing tiny replicas of some of his own best-known works and famous masterpieces by other artists, as well as miniature facsimiles of some of his ready-mades, all nested inside a box within a slim valise. What is the connection between this work and the Japanese works it is displayed alongside? In Japan, individuality and originality were not traditionally highly valued – artists improved their technique by copying works of the masters. The connection here is that Duchamp rejected the idea that a work needed to be original to have artistic merit, and was not averse to making copies.
And here was I, thinking that Duchamp was the revolutionary conceptual artist who tore down the conventions and rewrote the rules of Western art, only to find that all along he was just a late-comer, following in the wake of established Japanese tradition! (This will, however, be of some comfort to those who have long feared that Japanese art might be somehow inferior to Western art!)
But isn’t this taking it all just a little bit too far? After all, the iji-dōzu technique was a feature of not only Japanese art, but also Western art, where it was employed right up until the early Renaissance. And until only recently, copying the works of the great masters was considered an important part of training for budding artists, both in the West as well as in Japan.
When Duchamp came up against and tried to overcome the limitations of modern art, aspects that had been employed in pre-modern art re-emerged in his work. The simple fact is that these are aspects that were common to both Western and Eastern art in the past.
In this sense, it could be said that the real connection is in the way that pre-modern art all over the world shares a kind of universality. Conversely, it could also be said that modern art reflects only localised, Western themes.
And it is thanks to Duchamp that we can now see this.
＊This exhibition has now ended.
A graduate in Fine Arts from Tokyo Zōkei University, Makoto Murata worked in the editorial department at the magazine, Pia, before setting out as a freelance art writer. He lectures part-time at Tokyo Zōkei University and is the principal of the BankART School (post-graduate school of art) in Yokohama. He has authored a number of books on art in Japanese.
Judy Evans is a high school teacher of English and Japanese, and a Japanese-English translator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Art History and has studied production horticulture and landscape design. Judy has a keen interest in the internet environment and has administered websites for a number of organisations. She lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and is a frequent visitor to Japan.