Seen at the Sydney Underground Film Festival
Of all the great modern artists, none of them has delighted me as much as Marcel Duchamp. Like most people, I heard about his work The Fountain and asked the very simple question “What kind of insane person puts a urinal in an art gallery?”. The more I learned about him and about why he decided to do that, I enjoyed him a lot more. After all, who wouldn’t enjoy an artist who basically started an entire art movement out of pure spite? Because that’s what The Fountain is, Marcel was upset about a previous work of his being rejected from an exhibition that claimed to have no judges and so when another artist collective held another exhibition with the exact same rules, Duchamp took a urinal and signed it and that was his artwork. That spiteful piece of art ended up creating an entire movement in the art world and changed the definition of what could be art in a way that’s still making an impact to this very day. I already liked Duchamp just for that… and then I saw his documentary.
Marcel Duchamp: Art Of The Impossible tells the long, complicated story of Duchamp’s career, from his early days as a painter in the cubist movement to his first readymade and beyond. Along the way, it explores the impact his work had on not only other artists but the art world in general. We spend a lot of time just being reminded that Duchamp basically created a movement that would allow ideas to be art. Everything from contemporary art to the memes we share online all owes a little something to Duchamp and this film is more than happy to spell that out for us in glorious detail, while also letting people not only understand the genius of Duchamp but the relatability of his work. By the end, you will easily see him as much more than the guy who turned a urinal upside down and put it on a podium in an art gallery.
I feel like this might be the definitive Duchamp documentary, I do not see how we’re ever going to get anything better about the man. From beginning to end, the movie treats his work with the respect it deserves but is also unafraid to laugh and point at some of the weirder works that Duchamp made. It’s a little hard not to laugh at some of Duchamp’s work, indeed that was the point of some of it. It’s fascinating going through his catalogue, through the ready-mades and the boxes with notes and everything else and seeing just what went into them. It’s amusing hearing about how he spent years working on his piece titled The Large Glass and when it broke during the shipping, he just went “OK, the crack is part of the work now” and ran with it. Those cracks are still there, by the way, if you see the work in the Philidelphia Museum of Art it’s cracked because of a total accident and Duchamp just went “Oh well” and carried on.
It’s glorious getting to hear about all the things he inspired, how his use of replicas helped spread his work around or how his work inspired the works of other great artists that followed. Seeing a bunch of great artists and critics talking openly about his work helps make it even easier to appreciate just how insanely talented the man was. Sure, it might sound simple to just place a urinal on a podium… but you didn’t do it, did you? The film explores the deeper ideas of the work, that anything can be art and that anyone can make art if they have the idea. Every art student who has ever had to put together a piece of artwork owes the world to Duchamp for making that idea mainstream. It’s nice to have a very easy to follow movie that explores someone as fascinating as Duchamp, even though the ending did kind of feel like it was sputtering to a finish line and just repeatedly stopping and starting right at the end.
If you’ve ever been even a little curious about the man who made the most baffling piece of art you’ve seen, Marcel Duchamp: Art Of The Impossible is an absolute must-watch. Informative, funny, interesting and clever, it guides you through the life and work of a complex artist in a way that’s simple enough for just about anyone to follow. Filled with enough good humour and warmth to make the more complicated stuff about modern art go down easily, it’s an easy recommendation from me.