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Modernist and Post Modernist comparative essay (Dali & Duchamp)

Marcel Duchamp – Nude Descending Staircase 1912

Marcel Duchamp, born 1887 and died in 1968, was a modernist artist. His painting, Nude Descending Staircase No. 2 was painted in 1912 using oil on canvas with a dimension of 58 x 35 inches in size. It was first exhibited at the New York Armory Show in 1913, where it aroused great controversy, and is now kept at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the Louise and Walter Arsenberg collection. Duchamp was influenced by the increasing trend of artists’ discovery of new innovations with regard to style and technique at the time. It has a very futuristic approach to style while also appearing influenced by the African tribal artifacts popular at the time. Not only is the style futuristic but also it has a direct association to cubism, which was a flourishing technique during this modernistic period in art culture at the begginning of the 20th century.

It is said that Duchamp painted Nude Descending Staircase based on a poem that describes the beauty of a woman ending eventually as a ‘bag of bones’, which was written by Jules Laforgue. Whether this statement is accurate or not, the painting is identified as symbolizing the artistic movement by taking traditional subject matter and altering it into a modern and original way. It is an explanation of Duchamp’s need to break away from tradition, thus causing great controversy throughout the world. Julia Pastore of the GLBTQ encyclopedia says in relation to this personality trait, ‘Above all, his life and art reflect a desire to turn things upside down and to break down all linguistic, sexual and social restraints.’ Not only has Nude Descending Staircase had a major affect on art culture at the time of release, but it, and the rest of Duchamp’s works have set an historical standard for the rest of time, Encyclopedia Encarta (2004) explains this painting as ‘influential to the development of Surrealism, Dada and Pop Art.’

When first glancing at Nude Descending Staircase, it is unnoticeable as to the form of the subject matter. It is actually a series of informal geometric shapes merged together to form the human figure. Lines, shape and tone are crucial to the depiction of movement, which the genderless figure seems to be doing in the direction of the bottom right-hand corner towards the viewer. The painting is, ‘Depicting continuous action with a series of overlapping figures,’ according to the Columbia Encyclopedia. These ‘overlapping figures’ or shapes, in collaboration with the presence of line variation, set a rhythm for the painting. There is a strong sense of repetition within the composition although it is indefinable. Line has been used without specific structure. The lines painted are mostly dark, although some are light, and are all bold with a sketchy feel. Some are straight, some curved, some dotted or sharp or blurry. The lines either depict movement, outline the shapes or add extra effect. We see lines used in the background, creating depth by adding what seems to be a staircase.

Colour used in the painting is applied what appears to be thinly as though water-based. It is mainly monochromatic but with the general shade applied on the subject matter being different to that of the background. This creates depth and a sense of light as the darkness of the background indicates that the figure is foreward and light appears to be shining on the figure from the right. The figure takes up most of the space in the whole painting with little background at all. Upon closer observation we see a chain around the figure’s waist. This stands out as it is the palest shade of line and is the most definite of dotted lines.

Salvador Dali – The Spectre of Sex Appeal 1934

The Spectre of Sex Appeal by Salvador Dali is an interpretation of Dali’s feelings on what makes a person ‘sexy’. It was painted with oil paints on wooden panel and is 18 x 14 cm in dimension. It is held with most of Dali’s other works at the Dali Museum-Theatre, Figueres, (Girona). Dali lived from 1904 until 1989, when he died of a heart attack. During his lifetime he produced over 1,500 artworks, not including his illustrations and stage backdrops. At the time this was painted, Dali had met his future wife, Gala. She had become his girlfriend and most importantly, his muse. Her influence helped Dali to create his own personal style for which he is famous. This painting, The Spectre of Sex Appeal, one of the first of these stylized paintings and is important in the continuation of his career as an artist. Dali lived in Paris at the time of production and had joined a group of surrealist painters and sculptors who encouraged each others’ work and developed surrealism together, which at the time was a new style of art. Dali’s paintings reflect his inner thoughts and his subconscious. His paintings were a reflection of, ‘the world of the unconscious that is recalled during our dreams,’ says Ignacio Gomez de Liano.

The date in which this was painted, in 1934, coincides with WW2 and during this time there were many issues on the exploitation of women by the soldiers in battle and the role of women in society during this time. It was during 1934 that Dali made the famous quote, ‘The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.’ He painted The Spectre of Sex Appeal to ask the question that has intrigued people for years, of what it is that gives a person sex appeal. The painting symbolizes the materialism of an appealing person that they are made up of many different factors. The boy staring at the figure shows peoples reaction to such a phenomena; they are intrigued by it and cannot help but look. It is relevant very much to the social issues of today about self-image and the importance of one’s appearance, making the work seem as though it is a moral lesson to the way we look at things.

The figure leaning back, in the foreground, is an arrangement of separate and unrelated objects into one form, The Spectre of Sex Appeal. The legs and arms of this figure appear to be made up of rotting skin, bones and what looks like sea coral. The torso is a pillow for the hips, tipping sacks to make the breasts, and a blanket to create unity and form the stomach and waist. The figure is being held up with crotches to make it in line with her head, which follows on above this and is actually a flat, head-shaped part of the background rocks. The background, middle ground and foreground of rocks flow together from a small point in the background, curving around to the right to fill up more than half the painting, closing off and framing the piece. The figure being placed to the left and leaning diagonally towards the top right hand corner, breaks up this rhythm of rock formations and gives the work balance, while the position of the boy adds a triangular effect in composition, with the top of this triangle being the head of the figure. There is symmetry between the blank space in the direct foreground leading to the subject matter and the sky above the landscape, framing these sections of the paintings. There appears to be a light source coming from the mid-right of the painting. This is golden light and it appears to me that it could be sunset. It is much lighter in the front, highlighting the foreground and the background gradually harmoniously becoming darker in pigment, indicating depth.

Altogether, the colours are fairly monotonously earthy tones and shades, however the shading has been done in such a way that the pigments contrast with each other, creating a sense of linear separation of the shading colours, although in some places the colour has been applied in a very gradually shaded manner. Using a thin, round brush, line has been used in collaboration with contrasting colour to give texture to the objects and materials, such as the different coloured dots over the surface of the rocks and the water, and the flowing lines to indicate ruffled fabric over the blanket under the figure, the breast sacks and the blanket torso. The shapes are all natural objects but have been placed in an abstract manner. The whole painting blends with itself when looking at it from a distance except for some contrasting objects such as the left leg of the larger than life figure against the deeper blue water, and the boy’s navy clothing against the sand. The figure is painted in such a position that it looks like it may collapse. It is definitely not a stable looking composition of objects, with limbs loosely hanging and the small of the back arched due to the necessary support of the larger crutch and flimsy shoulders.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The human figure has been treated with alteration and has been painted with chronophotography in Nude Descending Staircase, by Marcel Duchamp. As with Dali’s The Spectre of Sex Appeal, it is the representation of common artistic subject matter in a previously unexplored method of execution. The figure is not treated with disrespect however it is simply observed and portrayed in a different way to how it is realistically viewed. Dali’s painting, being painted almost 20 years later, was probably somewhat influenced by Duchamp’s exploration of the human figure. While Duchamp interpreted the human figure and the concept of beauty in a cubic way to express the aspects that make up a person, Dali used literal objects. Both of these paintings show a figure in the process of moving downwards, however Dali’s is more to do with collapsing downwards rather than actually purposefully moving. Both are abstract paintings but in different ways. Duchamp has executed abstraction using indefinable shapes to express the formation of the figure; while Dali has created objects placed in one form, expressing the question of what is it that is beautiful.




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